A belated birthday present for Allie (a.k.a Technosage)
The characters and situations portrayed here are not mine, they belong to the CW. This is a fan authored work and no profit is being made. Please do not link to this story without appropriate warnings. Please do not archive this story without my permission.
(Dead Man's Curve) is no place to
Dean grumbled about New York and winter, but he still pulled the car into a lot to get out and look at Lake Eerie, staring at the dark waters, the distant shore pocked with lights from Buffalo's waterfront.
"Used to be a steel mill there," he said quietly, pressing his shoulder into Sam's. "Bethlehem. Used to pour the slag right into the water."
The steel mill was long gone but Sam could see it if he looked, the white hot slag pouring like lava, the hum and hiss of it as it hit the water. He was kind of glad he hadn't filed a tax return in what felt like forever. No telling how much it had cost to clean that up. The lake was better but like a lot of mortal wounds, it might never be entirely healed.
From the lake they made their way into town, back along the residential streets, skirting the edge of the park that ran along Eighteen Mile Creek, swing sets and jungle gyms empty and looking cold under a graying sky.
Sam knew there were people around, cars moving on the roads, but the streets looked empty -- not abandoned, just empty; a pause between movements, between action. It was disconcerting to see it so out of synch with the moment, but he was getting -- if not used to it -- then at least better able to use the pauses.
He didn't say anything to Dean about it, didn't look at him, but he was aware when his brother glanced at him, cutting his eyes over without moving his head. Dean didn't like it -- was afraid some day Sam might slip in between those moments and be gone forever. Sam didn't have any way to reassure him except to tell him it wouldn't happen. Everything puts roots down and Sam's were all firmly rooted in Dean one way or another.
The house was abandoned now, family gone, the tatters of police tape still fluttering from the square porch columns. Two stories of sightless windows, the porch front dark but giving the impression of a frowning mouth where the outer supports had collapsed under age or weight. The scorch marks curved upward around the upstairs windows, uneven eyebrows giving the impression the house itself was terrified. The little faux balcony was broken and torn in the center, a broken nose, trailing wood and shingles like pale blood.
The fire hadn't started in the nursery and there were no infants, but they hadn't known that before they had hit town, were able to talk to some neighbors. Family of six, the youngest son already a toddler.
It wasn't starting up again and Sam had spent a long time sitting in the curb beside the Impala when they realized it. Dean hadn't said anything, just stood behind him, knees pressed to Sam's back, eyes flitting over the houses across the street, up and down the block.
There was still something in the house that needed to be dealt with, and they had an idea. There had been a death, ten years prior, and yes a mother, but not by fire. She'd fallen while carrying armloads of laundry up the steep interior stairs. The father had moved his children immediately -- it had been his daughter that found her mother, on the lower landing, head twisted, blood soaking the carpet where she'd hit her head.
Sam wondered if the girl would ever be able to shed herself of the image.
The eldest daughter of the family who had just fled was maybe twelve, had told her friends she'd heard voices, whispers and crying.
It didn't explain the fire and maybe nothing ever would. The house was old. The fire department had ruled out faulty electrical wiring but noted that there was rot and worn insulation. Could have been embers or heat leaching from the chimney -- it had started on that side of the house.
They had to wait until dark to sneak in. There was a "For Sale" sign on the lawn. The damage upstairs wasn't obvious from the street but when they walked around , the bones of the house had been exposed, blackened, gaps in the framing, the under-eaves closets exposed like raw wounds. It let the cold in.
There would be snow in a few weeks and the damage would get worse. Sam sat on those narrow interior stairs while Dean paced through the kitchen and living room, the flickering lights of his EMF meter giving a faint paint of red and green to his face.
Sometimes Sam could tell -- it had been getting easier to feel those remnants, the lingering traces. Once they'd been drawn to him and to Dean because of shared grief. The grief was still there but not so intense. Sam thought maybe the ghosts came because of the stillness.
Dean's fingers touched the side of his head, lightly, just a practiced caress that brought Sam back. Dean's chin lifted and his small meter was almost totally red. Sam twisted around and followed him up the stairs.
They were wary of the weakness in the floors, aware of the drafts whistling through the open side of the house. Four bedrooms upstairs, one bath, closets tucked under the eaves, running the length of the house instead of taking up usable space inside.
The EMF squealed and stuttered before dying when Dean pointed it at the fire gutted bedroom. Small and square, right next to what would have been the master bedroom.
Sam saw her then, wispy and insubstantial, not a threat but eerie just the same. A mother calling for her children, looking for them. Dean clutched the front of Sam's shirt, anchoring him, listening to Sam whisper the names of children who were long gone. Not dead but gone.
It wasn't a salt and burn job; it would work, but it wasn't necessary. Not this time. Dean hated it when it wasn't but they'd fought over it enough and never reached agreement. Sam would do what he was going to do -- hard place and immovable object -- and Dean wouldn't let him do it alone, so Sam supposed he won by default, but he took no satisfaction in the winning.
Dean didn't like Sam talking to ghosts. He liked even less that Sam could.
"You treat them like they are people."
"They were once."
"They aren't anymore. Plus, they fry your brain."
"They don't. It's just hard to talk to them."
They didn't really fry Sam's brain but he wouldn't deny there was certain amount of pain and fatigue in it. Like shouting into the wind.
And still, when he sat down cross-legged in the hall, Dean settled behind him, arms wrapped around him, shotgun and rock salt within easy reach.
It took time and both of them were shivering when Sam was done, both from cold and strain, but the ghost was gone, assured that her babies were safe, her children were not lost. Sam watched her walk down the hall and down the stairs. It would be the last time she set her ghostly feet upon them.
He leaned back, just a little, resting his head on Dean's shoulder. Dean's arm tightened around his chest and pressed his face to Sam's back. He said his nose was cold.
He didn't let Sam stay long, though, nudging him up, guiding him down the hall, the stairs, like Sam was five. Sam was grateful for the support. There was a hum at the edge of his hearing, a fog at the intersection of thought and action. His legs felt like he was closer to ninety-five than five. The house seemed shadowed and distant, but Dean was sharp-clear and present to all his senses, almost overwhelming. If Dean had been water, Sam would have been drowning in him.
Sam glanced back at the house before they pulled away and it no longer looked as terrified, just resigned and old.
He understood the feeling sometimes.
They didn't linger in New York, getting out before the sun rose the next morning but not before Sam picked up a chill. It was only slight, but he was carrying a slight fever and his joints ached like there was rain coming. Dean loaded him up with orange juice and vitamin C, and kept the heater running even when he had to strip down to a t-shirt. The juice helped and being warm helped more but the chill lingered, even though Sam wasn't coughing or sniffling.
They took a job in Philly that landed them a little bit of a windfall -- inheritor of an estate who was sure at least some of the goods, if not the house, was cursed or haunted or both. Neither of them could really see or sense anything wrong, but the guy was convinced and so they went through the motions, although Sam played for real, because holy water and sage and chalk were cheap and he knew the incantations by heart. Dean did the bindings and dumped the charged knots into a box, painted with symbols and lined with silver dust and the guy went with them to bury the whole thing in sanctified ground.
It took them three days, but the guy seemed satisfied and grateful and while Sam wasn't sure it was any more than smoke and mirrors, Dean pointed out that wasn't like the guy was scraping by on welfare checks. It was more cash than they'd seen in awhile -- or possibly ever. Dean tucked the bulk of it in hidey-holes all over the car and split the rest with Sam.
The were half way across the state of Virginia when Sam's minor cold turned into something nastier. He still didn't feel sick, just tired and achy, but he walked half a block to get them some dinner while Dean was filling up the car and he couldn't catch his breath.
He thought he called out for Dean, but his brother was too far away. Between the desperate gasps for breath and some disembodied voice asking him if he was all right, he watched shadows turn into shades. There was a steady stream of them detaching themselves from buildings and trees, an endless march of the dead, leaving him cold and shivering in their wake. He felt a tug and an urge to go with them, even though he didn't know where they were headed.
There was an equally urgent and stronger tug to remain, and he got caught between the two, felt torn in half when a sharp cough exploded out of him and an equally sharp pain bloomed between his shoulder blades. He coughed up phlegm and sucked in air. The shades faded to nothing, and Dean's hands were warm on his face and against his chest.
His brother's eyes were wide and scared and Sam tried to tell him that he wasn't going to go with the dead, that he just was going to walk a little ways.
It didn't help. Sam quit trying to explain and just nodded and said "Yes, I'll stay," when that's what Dean demanded of him because it was easier than fighting.
They should have been just passing through Virginia but Sam ended up in the emergency room of Roanoke's public hospital, sucking on a tube of humidified air and drugs, and watching Dean grill the doctor like a pissed off homicide detective.
Sam's fever spiked again in the middle of the night and he almost freaked both he and Dean out because the dead were walking again and Sam could see all of them. These were more than shades, but they didn't seem to be threatening. Dean finally called a nurse and Sam got something that calmed him down and knocked him out. When he woke, Dean was asleep in the chair next to him. Sam reached out to grip his shoulder. Dean woke up with a jerk and stared. "How's your vision?"
Sam took a breath and let his hand cup Dean's neck, rubbing his thumb over the pale skin of his cheek. "You're the closest thing to dead I'm seeing."
Dean slapped his hand away and got up, announcing his attention to get coffee and not bring Sam any. But his lips brushed over Sam's forehead anyway and when he brought back the one cup of coffee it had cream and sugar in it.
Dean took his coffee black.
Even with the cash they couldn't stay long in the hospital and Sam didn’t want to. The chill had turned to walking pneumonia, and there wasn't a whole lot they could do for Sam except give him drugs to break up the fluid in his chest, and more drugs to make him cough it up and clear. They strongly suggested rest and more rest.
Sam figured he could do that in the car or in a motel. His fever broke but the visions persisted and if Dean recognized Sam's desire to leave as a need to get away from the dead that lingered in the halls of the hospital, he didn't say so.
The cold settled in and there was snow on the ground before they leave Virginia. The night before they left was the first night either of them actually got a decent night's sleep because Sam's coughing had kept them up and worn him out. Dean never said anything, but Sam was pretty sure Dean didn't sleep much while Sam caught rest in catnaps and dozes. Every time Sam got up to take a shower, he came back to find Dean fast asleep in the rumpled space Sam left. Dean's sleep never lasted long, no matter how quiet Sam tried to be because he could only muffle his coughing so much.
Dean took them further south, below the snow belt, thinking the gulf coast, maybe the panahandle. He took them along the Blue Ridge, grinning from ear to ear at the way the Impala handled on the hills and curves. Sam laughed hard enough to start coughing again, tears streaming from his eyes from laughter and refused to let Dean slow down. They stopped at a hill top diner for coffee and fried chicken and biscuits and it was the first food Sam had been able to taste in awhile.
They got food to go although there was no shortage of good fried chicken and biscuits in the south. Dean nudged them a little west on a half overheard conversation in the diner and it was dusk when they found themselves on the edge of the Nantahala forest.
Witchlights and will-o-the-wisps are mostly due to gases and rotting vegetation, breaking free when it gets hot and the air under the surface of clay and heavy mud starts to rise. You can find them anywhere but there are more reports in the south than anywhere else, more often seen near swamps and wetlands.
The banks of the Nantahala aren't swampy and the water is frigidly cold, low at the moment because the bulk of it is dam controlled. Spring through fall there would be people on this river in kayaks and canoes, rafts and inner-tubes.
The point of interest was an overlook on the road above the outdoor center: a couple of accidents, including a park ranger who should have known better. There's road construction a mile or so back from the curve -- a gradual wind rather than a hairpin -- signs of fallen rock, orange cones, and yellow tape still anchored to the guard rail. Hanging Dog Creek wasn't far and Dean might openly deride the lingering effects influencing the area of a war a century gone by, but even he admitted that the last battle of the Civil War, no matter how small, probably left an imprint. It didn't stop him from humming "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" on the way to the site.
The gorge wasn't particularly deep but it was a sharp drop and the three people that have died had done so from injuries sustained from the fall, jagged cuts and piercings from scabby twisted pines and knotted, lightning-splintered oaks.
Sam leaned against the car as Dean paced back and forth along the edge of the overlook, fingers tapping out a rhythm on the aluminum railing. When he finally got a rope out, he wouldn't let Sam climb down with him. They'd started running again in the mornings or evenings but Sam still didn't have his wind back, and as frustrating as it was, he knew Dean was right.
It was only just going on dusk, but the shadows got deep fast and Sam coughed a little just from making sure Dean kept talking to him; voice echoing up and the bob of Dean's flashlight imitating the very things they were hunting for.
Sam followed the light until he realized the light his eyes were tracking wasn't Dean's flashlight. It rose slow, like a balloon, steady and dim, hovered right of the edge of the drop off. It was joined by another about three feet over and parallel. More joined it, stretching out like a runway and vaguely Sam knew Dean was calling him.
The lights stretched and blurred, opening a smooth path, a road and a bridge, and Sam leaned over to press his hand to the path, felt it solid and warm under his finger tips. The shadows stretched around him and settled, the paths of feet leaving imprints and kicking up sparkles of illuminated dust. There was a scent in the air like spring and fresh rain, warmth on his face and the taste of summer berries on his tongue.
It unrolled like a carpet in front of the walkers, and Sam could feel them brush past him, putting their feet on the light. Star-lit road or white path, he had a hundred myths and legends jumbled in his brain to define it, identify it. His shoulders felt heavy and his chest ached, and he knew stepping on the path would lift those burdens from him. He couldn't see the end of the road, only the way it wound and dipped through trees and mountains.
The legends say it is never Wwinter on the road, the paths never lead to cold; it's always summer. The road only travels one way and it never ends.
Weightless bodies brushed against him and went through him. The only thing he had to do was take a step forward, and join the line of walkers. It was temptation, it was peace. It would be so easy to step into the line of walkers.
But they all walked alone and Sam knew that's not the way it should be.
There's no doubt that Dean's been calling his name. Sam never heard it but he knows it just the same, can tell it from the way Dean says it again as he finally tops the drop-off, panting and cursing. Sam was gripping the guard rail so hard it had cut into his palms, hands slick and starting to sting.
He could still see the road, shimmering and welcome, but it was fading, the end furthest from him dropping into mist and moonlight. He can't stop watching it fade, even when Dean dropped to his knees beside him and pried his hands loose. Sam's shivering in the cold and Dean is shaking too, but Sam's pretty sure it has nothing to do with the chill in the air.
"Did you see it?" Sam asked when they were knee to knee and Dean wrapping his bandanna around the slice across Sam's palm.
"I saw the lights." Dean's voice was gruff, rough. "I saw you on the edge. What the hell were you doing?"
"It was the road," Sam said. "That's why they stepped over. There's a road there…"
Dean gripped Sam's wrists hard. Sam wasn't sure why but he didn't try to pull free, while Dean twisted and glared yellow line in the center of the road. "Witchlights and a road? A fucking fairy road?"
Sam thought maybe it had more to do with the Cherokee than the Fae in this part of the country, but they could be the same thing.
Sam lifted his eyes to find Dean watching him, worry and anger and something else chasing across his face. He eased his grip on Sam's wrists. "How do we stop it from showing up again?"
Dean knows the answer as well as Sam does, but he wants Sam to focus. "Cold iron…but the road will only move."
Dean nodded and stared down the highway. "You saw it. The road."
Sam nodded and put his hands against the dirt, pushing himself up. Dean came up with him, gripping his jacket.
Sam didn't answer. The road is gone for now. There's no other ghosts walking this stretch of the parkway. "Yeah. I saw it. Paths of the dead."
"You're not dead." Dean gripped his jacket a little tighter, shook him.
Sam smiled and hooked his unbandaged hand around the back of Dean's neck, feeling warm skin and sweat, and a barely noticed tremor and a racing pulse. "Neither are you."
They have to drive all the way into Murphy to find a place to sleep. The bed and breakfasts are closed for the season, but there's always a light on at Motel 6. Dean does a better job of cleaning Sam's hand then takes the first shower. Sam settles for a quick wash in the sink and tries not to remember the pale road in the dim glow of the sixty watt bulb in the bathroom.
He leaves the light off in the main room and falls into bed, trusting Dean to pick his way through the shadows. When Dean finally lies down, he stretches out on his back, not touching Sam. "Did you want to go?" he asks quietly and Sam almost, almost regrets that Dean knows so much.
"No." It isn't a lie. The road called to him, still does in a way, but Sam doesn't regret not stepping on it. He doesn't know why he sees the dead, sees the past and sometimes the future. He twists around, tucks himself closer to Dean, invades his space and his distance and covers Dean's fears with mouth and body and now.
Dean's hands knead his shoulders and he makes a cradle with his legs. All the promises he offers and Sam offers in return are wordless.
The paths of Dean's body are well known; the flex of muscle and the slide of bone under skin. Sam knows the paths sweat takes when it travels along Dean's flesh, knows the tracks Dean's hands follow on his skin are familiar and worn.
There is salt and bitterness under Sam's tongue, the harsh scent of cheap soap and too-chlorinated water. Dean's skin isn't flawless or perfect, and his hands can be as rough as they can be gentle. He leaves bruises on Sam's skin and soothes them with fingertips and mouth. He pushes into Sam's body and presses him down into the bed like this alone can keep Sam with him.
He may be right.
Dean is warm and sticky and heavy along Sam's back and his breath is hot and fast against his throat. Warm and spent and achey, Sam doesn't notice the winter and doesn't yearn for summer. He doesn't always like the road they're on, but it's the road he chose.
He's not sure Dean always believes that.
They hammer six railroad spikes into the stone and dirt and shale under the drop off. They can't keep the road from being, but they can keep the road from being here. It's the best they can do for now, but they'll keep an eye on the news, look out for reports of other lights and other deaths.
They are loading up their tools into the trunk when a light snow starts to fall, drifting down over the mountains, catching on tree branches and jutting rock.
Sam pulls up the collar on his jacket and stares over the deep cut of the valley, seeing glimpses of the highway where it curves and cuts through the mountains. Far away he sees the glint of sunlight on a car roof, heading south.
They follow it.
* Lyrics from "Dead Man's Curve" By Jan & Dean (with notes)