Dean’s lying down. His head is on Sam’s lap. Sam puts a hand on Dean’s cheek. It’s hot.
Dean’s lips are parted. He’s breathing hard, through his mouth, like he’s been running.
“Uncle Bobby!” The car screeches, stops.
Dean’s shaking. Dean’s twitching and shaking, hard, and his eyes are still closed. Something’s coming out of his mouth, like he’s throwing up. It’s colorless.
Jim leaps, grabs Dean and turns him, so he’s on his side. Vomit runs down Sam’s legs, and he doesn’t care. There’s a wet spot on Dean’s pants, growing bigger.
“Bobby, go!” Jim’s hand on Dean’s forehead. “Hold on, hold on,” he whispers, over and over. He looks up at Sam, strokes his big hand through Sam’s hair, then faces the front again. “Faster,” he says.
Sam wishes he didn’t. Wishes he’d sit back here and hold him and make Dean better. But he doesn’t, and Dean’s still shaking, and there’s only one person here – Sam.
So he does what he has to do. He holds Dean close. Hugs him. Wishes him better. He has to be brave. That’s what you do.
Uncle Bobby says, “C’mon, fuck, c’mon.”
Pastor Jim says, “Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum…”
Sam says, “It’s okay, Dean, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
The truck is stuck. It’s a traffic jam. Sam doesn’t know the time.
Bobby presses the horn, hard.
Dean’s not shaking anymore. Jim gave him some water, a little while ago, poured it slowly into his mouth, even though he wasn’t awake.
Uncle Bobby and Pastor Jim are yelling at each other now.
Sam starts to cry. He can’t help it. He does it quietly though, so no one can hear, and rubs the tears off Dean’s cheek when they fall there.
They take Dean away at the hospital. There’s a lot of shouting, lots of words Sam doesn’t know.
Jim takes papers to fill and sign.
Sam sits on Uncle Bobby’s lap. Bobby holds him close, rests his chin on the top of Sam’s head and says, “He’ll be fine, wait and see. He’ll be okay.”
Jim takes Sam to the bathroom to clean up. Sam washes his legs and hands. Uses the toilet. Washes his hands again.
He stares at himself in the mirror, drying up with brown paper.
Dean’s right, he thinks. He does look like a kid. Like a baby. A dumb one.
There are pictures on the walls.
Turtles and giraffes and trees that look like flowers. Monkeys hanging from branches and hippos smiling big.
Pastor Jim asks him if he knows their names, and Sam tells him every one.
A doctor walks over to their circle of seats while Sam’s flipping through a magazine. Pastor Jim read the title for him. It says Highlights for Children.
The doctor huddles with Uncle Bobby and Pastor Jim. They talk in hushed voices, wrinkles on their foreheads.
A lady comes over to Sam, kneels down next to him.
“Hi there,” she says, and smiles. She has red hair. She doesn’t seem to care that he’s in his PJs and doesn’t have shoes and didn’t brush his teeth.
“Hi,” says Sam.
“I’m Amelia. What’s your name?”
“Well, Sam,” she says, and brings a muffin out from behind her back. “Have you had any breakfast?”
Sam shakes his head. Looks from the muffin to Amelia and then back. She gives it a little shake, so Sam takes it. It’s a big muffin, bigger than Sam’s ever seen. There are chocolate chips on top. Sam loves chocolate chips.
“I love chocolate chips,” he says to Amelia and she laughs.
“Oh, me too.”
Sam takes a bite of the muffin. It melts in his mouth. He chews, swallows, and then says, “My brother’s here.”
“Yeah? Is he sick?”
Amelia leans closer, says, “Want to know a secret?”
Sam nods again.
“I bet your brother is going to be just fine. In fact, when he’s all better, you know what you’re gonna do?”
Sam shakes his head.
“You’re gonna bring him to meet me and I’m going to give him a muffin, just like yours. Does your brother like chocolate chips?”
“Yeah,” says Sam.
“Great!” She points over her shoulder. “See that desk? There’s a dolphin painted next to it?”
Sam sees it.
“Well, that’s where you’ll find me. Whenever your brother gets better.”
“I’ll bring him.”
Amelia grins. It’s nice. Warm. Sam smiles back.
He takes another bite of the muffin. Swings his legs back and forth, feels silky chocolate on his tongue.
He looks messed up. Like someone in a cartoon who got electrocuted. His hair’s standing up. His eyes are big and red. He’s running.
“Daddy!” Sam calls, waving. He stands up on his seat so Dad can see.
When Dad sees him, he grabs him and squeezes him until Sam can’t breathe.
The grown-ups talk forever. A doctor comes out to talk to Daddy too. His long white coat swishes around his legs.
Talk, talk, talk.
Sam asks if he can see Dean, but everyone says no.
They go home without Dean, that night.
Sam asks why and Dad says Dean has to stay for longer to get better.
Sam watches the hospital disappear from view from the backseat. Dean’s in there. Sam’s not.
THUMP-THUMP goes his heart.
The snow melts.
Jim and Bobby go home, and then come back with bags and clothes and things.
Sam hears them talking. They tell Dad they don’t have anywhere they’d rather be.
Someone cleans up the vomit behind the couch.
It snows again, melts again too.
Dean doesn’t come home.
Dad’s on the phone a lot.
He talks about stuff Sam doesn’t understand.
Says, “Encephalitis,” and “Freak thing – traveled up to his brain” and “doctor said he had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this”.
There’s one word he keeps using. And Bobby and Pastor Jim too.
Daddy says, “Sam, I need to talk to you.”
It’s his Very Serious Voice. It means, you have to call him sir. He hasn’t shaved in a long time. There’s scruff. He really looks like a sir.
“Okay, sir,” says Sam.
“The doctors have been talking,” Dad says. He tugs Sam off the couch, pulls him forward until he’s standing between Dad’s legs. “They’re not – they’re not sure, okay? But they think, maybe—” Dad licks his lips. “—that Dean won’t get better.”
“What?” says Sam. Remembers. Adds, “Sir.”
“Sammy,” breathes Dad, and his eyes are wet.
The world goes tiny, suddenly.
“What happens if he doesn’t get better?” Sam asks quietly. Tiny voice.
“He doesn’t come back home,” says Dad. Tiny voice. Tiny face. Tiny man.
Rivers down Daddy’s face. “Yeah. Like Mom.”
“Can’t you – can’t you make it better?”
“No, Sammy, I can’t.”
“Why?” Sam asks. His voice wobbles. Teeters. Falls. He’s crying like a baby. Dean would make fun of him. He doesn’t want Dean to go away. Dean’s the best brother Sam’s ever had. Why would he forget?
Dad’s face breaks, like a glass. He pulls Sam close. “They’re not sure, okay? They’re not sure yet. But I need you to be ready, in case. I—”
They’re both crying like babies, then. Dean would kill himself laughing.
Why can’t Dean just stay with Sam? Sam would be a good enough brother for both of them. Why does he have to go? Doesn’t he want to stay? Is that what Stan meant? Does forgetting mean he doesn’t want to be Sam’s brother anymore?
“Where will he go?” Sam asks.
Dad thinks about that. Then says, “To Mom. She’ll take care of him.”
Sam climbs into his daddy’s lap then, climbs like a monkey and holds on. Dad kisses his hair and Sam kisses Dad’s beard, feels the roughness under his lips. He tries to say, I’ll take care of you, in case Dad’s worried, because Sam will.
Dad rocks him back and forth, says, “Shh, shh,” but neither of them stop crying.
“This is my fault,” says Dad. His words slip together.
“John,” says Jim. “It’s not. No one could have known.”
Dad shakes his head. Covers his face with his hands. “It is. Fuck. I shouldn’t have left. I knew he was sick.”
“You didn’t think it was this bad. You thought it was a cold. It was a cold, first.”
Dad shakes his head more.
Jim’s eyes narrow. “What happened to Dean – it wasn’t on you to stop it. But whatever happens now is. You’re here now. You need to pull yourself together John, you understand me? You need to—”
Dad lifts the mostly-empty bottle to his mouth and Jim snatches it, right from his lips.
“—give me that, and stop.”
Dad looks up at Jim. His eyes are red, like blood.
“Look at yourself, John,” says Jim. “What’re you doing? Sam’s sitting two feet away watching this. Watching his father become this.”
Dad looks at Sam. Sam looks back. Twists his hands in his lap.
“Listen up. You are going to get off your ass, and take a shower. Then you’re going to make dinner, and eat with Sam. Then you’re going to get Sam to bed. Tomorrow morning? Shower. Go to the hospital. When you come back? You’re going to dig out every bottle of Jim Beam and Jack you’ve got sitting around in here – I don’t give a damn what it is, if it’s got alcohol in it, it’s gone. You’re gonna gather them all up and throw them out. You understand me?”
Dad’s still looking at Sam. But he nods.
“Good. So what’re you going to do now?”
“Get off my ass,” Dad says slowly. The words are stuck together, a little. “Take a shower.”
“Exactly. Get off your ass. Go,” says Jim firmly.
Dad does. Sam looks at Jim.
“You said ass, Pastor Jim,” he says.
“Yes, well,” says Jim. “Sometimes your dad needs a firm hand. Lord forgive me.”
He winks. Sam laughs.
They have dinner.
Dad watches Sam eat.
Sam lets him.
It’s dark when Sam wakes up.
There’s a chair near his bed. Someone’s sitting there.
“Is Dean gone?” Sam asks, quietly.
“No,” says Dad. “No, he’s not.”
Dad spends a lot of time at the hospital. Uncle Bobby and Pastor Jim are staying at their house.
Bobby’s sitting at the dining table, reading a big book.
“How long has Dean been in the hospital?” Sam asks.
Bobby looks up. “Three weeks, now. Give or take a day.”
Sam nods. Picks up an apple from the basket on the table and bites into it.
“What’s coma mean?” Sam asks.
Bobby pushes his book away. “Well,” he says. “It means that Dean’s sleeping. A very deep sleep. ‘Cause his body’s very tired.”
“Oh,” says Sam. Then, “Will he wake up?”
The front door bursts open. Sam jumps in his seat. Bobby turns. Pastor Jim comes running out of his room, in socks and sweat pants and a ratty yellow shirt.
It’s Dad at the door. He’s shining, bright. Smiling like the best thing in the world just happened.
“Dean’s awake,” he announces. “He’s awake.” He lets out a breath, collapses on the couch.
Pastor Jim looks at the ceiling, lips moving fast. Bobby turns to Sam and smiles.
“Looks like he just did, tiger. Looks like he just did.”
Sam goes to the hospital with Dad, but they don’t let him see Dean still.
Sam asks why. Why, why, why? Why can’t I? Dad tells him he just can’t and the doctors said so and Dean might catch a bad bug from Sam, but still Sam asks why. He wants to see Dean. He’s been waiting. He wants to make sure Dean’s not disappearing.
He keeps asking, hopping around at Dad’s feet, and finally Dad says, sharply, “Sam, Jesus. That’s enough.” His eyes are hard. Sam sits down right away.
Dad says, “Sit here and behave yourself, okay? I don’t want you making a scene.” There are hard lines in his face. Angry lines.
“I know you want to see Dean, but that’s just not possible right now.”
He goes to the front desk after that, and Sam sits and waits.
A nurse comes up to talk to him after a while. Dad’s talking to the doctor. The nurse keeps calling him “sweetie”. Sam looks around for Amelia, but she’s not behind her desk.
He asks Sweetie-Nurse, “Do you know where Amelia is?”
The nurse laughs, like he said something funny. Pinches his cheek. “I’m not sure, sweetie, but I can give it check.”
“Yes, please. Give it a check,” says Sam, and gets another laugh.
The nurse walks away, sort of swinging, not just walking, and Dad comes to sit down, with a puff.
“What’re you pouting about Sammy?” Dad says, pulling Sam close. It means he’s not mad anymore.
“Nothing,” says Sam. He puts his head down on Dad’s lap, because he can. Because Dad’s not mad.
Sweetie-Nurse comes back. She says Amelia is with Dean right now, and that she can tell her that Sam was looking for her when she comes back. Sam says no thank you. He didn’t know Amelia was Dean’s nurse.
“That’s a good thing,” he informs Dad.
Dad smiles down at him. “I’m sure it is Sam,” he says, Serious Voice.
Sam wishes Sweetie-Nurse had been near to hear that.
The grown-ups are all in the living room, talking.
That’s all they do. Talk. Never shut up.
Sam gets mad. Wishes Dean was here. Wishes Dean didn’t have to get sick. Wishes Dean would get better.
He’s so angry, he does something bad. He pulls open their closet. Yanks down the clothes hanging there – mostly Dean’s. There are shirts and jeans and a jacket. Not a lot of them. But enough.
He herds them all together, one big pile of Dean-clothes. Burrows under them, inside the closet. Pokes an arm out from under the mound and tugs the door closed. It clicks, quietly.
There’s a little gap; Sam can see the light coming from under the door. It’s daytime, and all the lamps are all off in the room, curtains thrown wide. The light is blue, cold. Icy.
He keeps his eyes on it, smells clean clothes and Dean all around him. Pulls things closer. Pulls his knees up to his chest.
“You weirdo,” Dean would say, except Dean’s not here to say it. So it doesn’t matter.
Remember when Dean took Sam’s arm and twisted it? Twisted it red and burning?
That’s how Sam feels now, on the inside. Red and burning.
It hurts more.
Dad says since Sam hasn’t started preschool again, and Jim has nothing better to do than invoke the Lord, he should teach Sam something.
“Keep you on your toes,” Dad says. He tickles Sam’s toes. They curl up, trying to get inside Sam’s foot.
There’s a lot of laughing. Bobby and Dad at Jim, mostly. And at things that aren’t even funny, like Miss Birdie next door. It’s really loud laughing. The room smells of smoke. Three hands, one big cigar.
First it was just Dad, then Bobby and finally, Pastor Jim too.
“Loosen up a bit, Jimbo,” said Dad and Pastor Jim squinted at him. At Bobby next.
“Thought I told you to dump the alcohol.”
“You did,” says Dad. “I did. Doesn’t mean I didn’t buy more.”
Dad and Bobby laughed at that. Laughed hard, like it was really funny, funniest thing in the world. Sam was sitting at the dining table, in the kitchen.
He’s still sitting there now, but Dad’s come over to put the cigar out and tickle Sam’s feet.
“Whaddya say, Jim?” Dad calls, and Jim sighs. A little extra smoke slips out through his lips.
Sam thinks it’s gross.
It’s a good day today. The doctor said Dean’s getting better.
Pastor Jim sits Sam down. Tries to teach him the days of the week.
He draws out a table. Makes Sam repeat after him.
Sam doesn’t tell him he already learned the days of the week ages ago.
It hits like a truck. Or like lightening. A steamroller. Sam saw one of those, once, when they lived in Iowa still.
“I thought he was getting better,” Sam says.
“He was,” says Dad. He looks tried again. He runs his hands through his hair. There’s not a lot of it but he doesn’t it anyway. “He is. There are just – complications.”
“Problems. Dean didn’t get a little sick, Sam. He got a lot sick. We knew – they told us that there would probably be problems. We just weren’t sure what they were then.”
“Now we’re sure.”
Dad nods. “Yes.”
“It’s okay, though, right? It doesn’t matter. Babies don’t talk either and everyone likes them still. My friend Rachel had a baby sister in preschool. Her mom used to bring her sometimes. She was fun.”
Dad breathes in. Breathes out. “You’re – you’re right Sam. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.”
But he sounds like he’s making it up. He sounds like he’s telling a story.
Dean’s in his dreams.
“I miss you,” Sam says.
Dean doesn’t say anything. He’s playing with a car. He rolls it back and forth.
“You should come back. Dean?”
Dean doesn’t look up. Keeps rolling. Makes a sound, like a car engine, with his mouth.
“Why don’t you say anything?” asks Sam.
Brrm-brrm, says Dean. He doesn’t look up. Not even when Sam walks forward and hits him, hard. Not even when Sam yells. “Talk to me! Talk to me!”
He wakes up then. His lips are still moving, like he was really yelling. It’s dark all around. Thick dark. He’s scared for a moment, then feels Dad next to him on the mattress. Hears his snores. He forgot; today is Sunday. That means Dad sleeps with Sam and Uncle Bobby stays with Dean in the hospital.
“Dad?” Sam whispers.
He worms his way closer to Dad. Whispers again, “Dad?”
“DAD?” Still whispering.
He pokes him after a minute, and Dad jerks up, grabs Sam’s arm. It hurts.
“Wha—?” he says. Blinks. Looks down. “Sammy.” He lets go of Sam’s arm.
“Hmm,” Dad says, flopping back down on his back, throwing an arm over his eyes.
“If Dean can’t talk… how will he tell us things?”
Dad uncovers his eyes, then. They shine at Sam in the dark. “There are ways to talk without speaking,” Dad whispers back to him. “And there’s always writing. Dean can write and we can read it. He can still do that.”
“Oh,” says Sam.
“We’re lucky, kiddo,” Dad says. He turns on his side, so he’s facing Sam. “Dean could be a lot worse off. But he’s not. The only difference is that he can’t talk. Not that he doesn’t know how to talk – he does. But the part of his brain that helps him make sounds?” Sam nods. “That doesn’t work anymore. But he’s still our Dean, and we’re all very lucky. The doctors said it—”
There’s a pause, and Sam waits, but Dad doesn’t keep talking.
“Okay,” says Sam. “That’s good.”
“Yep,” says Dad, wobbly-voiced, and he takes Sam’s hand under the blanket, and Sam feels like he does when he and Dean share a secret. Like there’s something special and warm inside him that no one else knows about.
Today’s Christmas. It’s cold, but there’s no snow. There’s hasn’t been for a long, long time.
They’re going to the hospital and Sam will finally get to see Dean.
The air smells like smoke, but good smoke. It makes Sam hungry.
“Who barbeques on Christmas, for Chrissake?” Dad grumbles, leading Sam to the Impala by his hand.
“Your neighbors, apparently,” Jim says blandly.
“John!” comes a high-pitched voice. Sam looks over his shoulder as Dad says, “Shit,” and tugs Sam down the walkway faster. There’s a lady hurrying across her yard, into theirs. She’s wearing a big red coat. It looks warm.
“John,” Uncle Bobby says from behind them. He sounds like he’s laughing. “Someone’s callin’ for ya.”
Dad stops then, so fast that Sam almost trips. He sticks a finger in Uncle Bobby’s grinning face and mutters under his breath, “You’re on, Singer,” before turning around.
“Miss Birdie!” he calls, jovially. Bounces on his heels. Sam tries to tug his hand out of Dad’s grasp. It’s kind of hurting.
“Johnny!” says the woman – Miss Birdie, and really, she doesn’t look anything like a birdy. Sam doesn’t know why anyone would have such a dumb name. She looks like a mad scientist, maybe. Lots of gray hair. It’s all over the place. Sam tries to see if he can find any animals in it, like the clouds sometimes make.
There are lots of “Merry Christmases” after that. Sam says it too, but no one hears him.
“How are you today, John?” Miss Birdie asks. She comes to put a hand on Dad’s arm, smiles up at him.
“Good, good,” says Dad. “Just going to see my son at the hospital.”
“I’ve been praying for the poor dear, I do hope he’s doing better.”
“Much better, ma’am, thank you.”
Miss Birdie laughs then. Giggles, actually. Like girls do. Says, “Oh, don’t you ‘ma’am’ me, now. Makes me feel old.”
Sam tugs harder at Dad’s arm. “Dad, Dean’s waiting.” Dad looks down at him.
“I remember,” he says. Looks up at Mad Scientist Lady. “This is my younger son – Sam. Sam this pretty lady is Miss Birdie.”
“Oh, now,” says Miss Birdie, swats at Dad with her arm. Reaches down to pinch Sam’s cheek, but not really hard like some people do. Just fingers brushing over his skin. “What a beautiful boy.”
Dad hums. “Takes after his mother,” he says quietly. Miss Birdie’s smile gets softer then.
“Well,” she says, backing up a little. “I won’t keep you. But as soon as your other son is home, I insist you come over for dinner.”
“Thank you,” says Dad. “We will.”
He turns around, finally. Uncle Bobby and Pastor Jim are standing next to the car, grinning like cats.
“Haha,” says Dad.
“Haha,” says Sam, even though nothing’s funny. Grown-ups are dumb. Sam never noticed before, because he used to spend all his time with Dean, but since Dean’s been sick, he’s noticing it more and more. They laugh at nothing and sit around and talk about things that make no sense.
The car door creaks, squeaks, says hello. Sam pats her just before he gets in because Dean’s not here to do it. Pastor Jim slides into the backseat next to Sam.
Pulls on one of his gloves, and lets Sam try the other one on when Sam asks.
There’s music playing in the hospital.
Dad tells Sam to go sit down while he talks to the receptionist, but Sam says no. Bobby tries to pull him away too; there are new toys sitting on the table, brand new. Sam says no, still. He’s going to stand right here with Dad, and he’s going to see Dean today, no matter what.
Bobby throws his hands up. “Well, he’s your son, John” he mutters, before going to take a seat next to Pastor Jim.
Sam looks up at Dad. “I thought you said I took after Mom.”
Dad smiles, a little smile. Beard twitching, mostly. “Best parts of your mom, worst parts of me. Like mixing vinegar and baking soda.”
“What’s that mean?” Sam asks, but Dad’s beard just twitches a little more and he doesn’t answer.
He’s happy, today. Sam can tell. He knows things like these.
A nurse – not Amelia – hands him a cookie with red and green M&Ms and he munches it while waiting with Dad.
Dean looks different.
Thin, like a skeleton. White, like all the color spilled out of him. His eyes are big in his face and his cheeks are - pointy. There are humming machines and wires, and the wires are connected to Dean. There’s something going into his nose. It’s like he’s half-robot, half-ghost.
Dean sees him; his lips move. The shape says Sammy, but no sound comes out. Sam presses back into Dad’s legs and it looks like more color spills out of Dean; Sam didn’t realize there was any left. Dean’s eyes flicker over Sam’s head to Dad, and then back to Sam again, lips pressing together hard.
Sam creeps closer. Still looks mostly like Dean, even with the wires. He puts a hand on Dean’s arm. It’s warm. Pats Dean’s tummy. Reaches up to feel his face.
Dean lets him, eyebrows going up a little, but not pushing him away.
“Is he okay?” Sam asks Dad, turning around. He folds his arms over his chest, means business.
“He’s fine,” Dad tells Sam.
Sam looks at Dean again. Asks, “Can I get on the bed?”
Dean’s face gets bright and happy then. He nods – holds out his arms. Never done that before.
Sam jumps onto the bed and holds onto his brother. His warm brother with the brother-smell. Dean’s arms come around Sam, tug him closer, (never done before either), and Sam mashes his nose into Dean’s chest, breathes hard.
Skin tightens, throat closes. Eyes pinch.
He starts crying. Just bursts into tears. Like a water balloon popping. He can’t help it. Dean’s still here, feels real and whole, not like he’s disappearing or forgetting or turning into a robot or anything. Just Dean. Only Dean.
Dean doesn’t laugh at him, doesn’t even try.
The doctor’s talking to Dad.
“Dean’s type of aphasia is very mild,” he’s saying. “Very rare too – I’m a specialist and I’ve never seen a case like this. He’s lucky, because basically, the virus that caused the encephalitis only damaged the portion of his brain that deals with speech output. We’ve done some tests and he can still read well and seems to understand others perfectly. His writing has been affected a little, because speech output has a bit to do with vocabulary access, but with work, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“So, he’ll never speak?” asks Dad. He keeps his eyes on the doctor, not looking at Dean or at Sam. Like he can’t. Sam stares at him, tries to make him look, but nothing.
The doctor’s got eyes the color of the sky on a cloudy day – they’re so light Sam feels like he can see right through them to the back of his head.
“I don’t want to give you any false hope,” he says, “but it’s possible that, with therapy and time, he’ll be able to form some words. But his speech output will never be like it was before. Speaking’s going to require a great deal of effort on his part – sometimes he’ll be able to mouth the words, but not make any sounds – like you said he tried to say his brother’s name. Lots of things he won’t even be able to mouth.”
Sam looks at Dean then, and Dean gives him a small smile. It’s a different smile, somehow. Dean crosses his eyes then. Sam sticks out his tongue, gets a pinch on the arm back.
The doctor says, “You can think of it as a block in his mind – he has a large collection of words in one place in his head, but because of the brain damage, that area’s been walled off. Dean can’t reach it like we can, involuntarily – he’d have to dig, and that would require something like a channel – and there isn’t one yet. That’s the part that’ll need work. It’s not that his vocal cords are damaged or that his lips can’t move – but that the message just never gets to the end point. Never makes it out of his brain. A part of him says, I want to say Daddy – message travels to his brain, to the speech centers, hits the wall in his mind. It can’t go on and it can’t make a U-turn so it just disintegrates, right there.”
Dad nods some more. He’s got a stack of pamphlets in his hands, is shuffling them around like cards. Machines beep near Dean’s bed.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“His vocabulary may improve over time, but it won’t ever be up to standard,” the doctor continues. “But like I said, Dean’s a very lucky young man.” He smiles at Dean then. “You were telling me about looking into SEE and ASL, which is wonderful – and like I said, Dean can read and write well enough to express himself. He’s a strong-willed boy – I don’t see this dragging him down in life at all.”
Dean has a TV in his room. He shifts around until there’s room for Sam to sit next to him on the bed, pressed up close. He hands Sam the remote. There are a whole lot of buttons on it, more than there are on the remote at home, and Dean says that some buttons are for the bed, and some for the TV and one to call the nurse. He presses a blue one and the bed folds a little, so there’s a backrest.
Oh. He doesn’t actually say it, like talk, but he points to the bed and to the remote, and it’s not hard to understand or anything.
It would be okay if Dean never talked again. Nothing would be different. Sam tells Dean so, and Dean wrinkles his nose, shrugs.
A little later, Pastor Jim comes to visit. He makes Sam tell Dean the days of the week that he learned. Dean gives Sam a look – the weirdo look – because Dean knows Sam knows the days of the week. But Sam lists them off anyway, because it makes Pastor Jim happy, and anyway, it’s not like Dean can tell on Sam.
…that could be a good thing.
Amelia brings Dean lunch, on a tray.
She smiles at Sam when she walks in. “Hey there, Sam. Long time no see kiddo.”
“I looked for you,” Sam reports. “But you were with Dean.”
“Well, what can I say? I’ve got a crush,” Amelia says, grinning at Dean. Dean turns pink.
“That’s good. Dean’s cool. He’ll be good for you.” Dean swats Sam. “What?”
“Oh, I bet he will,” Amelia laughs. The lunch tray is like a small table. Amelia sets it on top of the sheets. Dean’s legs fit right underneath.
Dean’s got sandwiches and Jell-O and a glass of juice. There’s a little plastic box of fruit and another with cookies – red cookies. The paper under the dishes is red and green and the plates and things are all white. Sam examines everything, then nods. Catches Dean looking at him. “It’s safe,” he assures and settles back down against the pillow as Dean rolls his eyes and moves stuff around, brings the Jell-O to the front.
“Hey, Amelia, you have to give Dean a muffin,” Sam says. “Remember, you said? When he got better you’d give him one. Like mine?”
“Whoa, crazy memory man! Don’t you need a license for that thing?” Amelia exclaims. She walks over to the end of Dean’s bed, pulls a big clipboard out of its holder. “Lucky for you, I have those exact muffins on my desk right now. And as soon as I’m done making sure Dean’s all okie-dokie—” she’s looking at the machines, and writing on a clipboard “—I’ll bring one back for desert. How about that?”
“Sounds good,” Sam says approvingly. He turns to Dean. “Amelia gave me a muffin, the day you came here.”
Dean nods, then moves his head back and forth like a seesaw. He slurps on a spoon of green Jell-O.
“He doesn’t really remember,” Sam translates.
“That’s okay,” says Amelia. “I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning. It totally happens.”
“You don’t remember what you had for breakfast!” Sam shrieks. “What if you – had worms!”
“Well, if I did, I’m sure they were delicious,” Amelia replies, making her eyes go big and smacking her lips.
Sam screeches, “Ew!” and Dean splutters around his Jell-O.
Sam has a fight with Dad. Because Dad’s being a jerk.
“But I don’t want to go home!” says Sam.
“I’m sorry Sam, but we’re not having this discussion,” Dad says, frowning down at him.
“Why? We should have this discussion! I wanna stay.”
“And you’re not allowed. Those are the rules.”
‘You stay! And so does Uncle Bobby! And Pastor Jim!”
“I know, but me and Bobby and Jim are adults. There are different rules.”
Sam stamps his foot.
Oh. He’s got to pee.
He’s not going to tell Dad that, though, because then they’ll just leave faster.
“I want to stay with Dean.”
“He’s my brother!” says Sam. His fingers curl into fists.
Dad thinks that’s funny. “That’s not an argument, tiger.”
Sam flies at Dean, still on the bed. “Dean! Tell Dad to let me stay.” He jumps up and down, grabs Dean’s hand. Doesn’t want to ever let it go.
Dean looks at Sam. Looks at Dad. Pulls his hand from Sam’s and nudges him towards Dad.
Sam stands there for a minute. Can’t believe what just happened. He looks up at Dad.
Dad holds out his hand. “We’ll come back tomorrow Sammy.”
Sam gazes at the big hand, but doesn’t take it. Growls, “FINE,” and walks right past Dad and out the door.
He runs back in five seconds later because he forgot to tell Dean bye.
“Good day, right Sam?” Dad asks in the car. He’s sitting in the back. Bobby’s driving.
Sam stares out the window.
“Saaaaaammy,” Dad sing-songs and elbows Sam gently.
“I’m not talking to you,” Sam says firmly. He keeps looking out the window. Slides further down the seat.
Pastor Jim laughs.
“It’s not funny!”
Pastor Jim goes home a few days after Christmas.
“I think I’ve made my congregation wait long enough, don’t you?” he asks Sam, standing in front of the mirror in the room he and Uncle Bobby were sharing. He adjusts his collar. Sam swings his legs from his spot on the edge of the bed. The tree outside the window is naked. No leaves, no birds, just branches like claws.
“I guess,” says Sam, even though he really wants to say no. He looks at the tree again. He could climb it, maybe.
Jim pats his suit down and looks around for his bag, before turning to Sam. He kneels down, until they’re at eye level.
“You’ve got a big job coming up Sam.”
Pastor Jim nods seriously, brows rising. “Oh yeah. Dean’s going to be coming home soon and you’re going have to help him best as you can. Think you can do that?”
“Of course,” says Sam. He’s good at helping Dean. He does it all the time.
Jim looks over his shoulder at the door, then faces Sam again. ‘Now, don’t tell your daddy I said this to you, but you have an even bigger job than helping Dean.”
“Sometimes… well, sometimes your daddy… prioritizes wrong.”
“He can… get a little too wrapped up in things? Thinks certain things are more important than others – goes crazy looking for solutions and chases them down like a mad man too, but the little things sort of slip his mind…” He trails off, narrows his eyes at Sam. “You’re not getting any of this are you?” Sighs, then. Says, “Okay. Well. I just want you to keep an eye on Dean, really. If he seems… sad or something just… tell your dad okay?”
“Okay,” says Sam.
Pastor Jim smiles. “Good.”
He pulls Sam in for a hug and then stands up again. Grabs his bag.
“Well, I should be off,” he announces cheerfully, walking into the living room. Dad and Uncle Bobby stand up from the couch. There are books and papers all around them. They clap Jim on the shoulder. Jim gives Dad a long, long, loooong hug.
And then – he’s off.
When the door closes behind him, the house is bigger and quieter and a little colder.
Miss Birdie is outside, hanging clothes in her backyard. Sam’s with her, holding a basket full of clothespins. They’re wooden, and look like little dolls without their faces. Sam could get a marker and draw some on. Maybe if there are some left over after all the clothes are up, he’ll ask.
Dad’s gone to the hospital. Last night Sam broke a lamp running around his room, even after Dad told him to stop. This is his punishment. Sam doesn’t think it’s a really bad punishment, because Miss Birdie likes to feed him cookies and stuff, but the not-seeing-Dean part isn’t so good.
Miss Birdie’s huffing and puffing a little. “Clothes just take forever to dry in the winter,” she says, reaching up to throw a big white sheet over the line. It’s almost taller than her. It’s a lot taller than Sam. Not taller than Dad, probably.
“My daughter – her name’s Emily – she was supposed to come over this Christmas but decided to go over to her boyfriend’s instead. Took her daughter there too. Doesn’t sound very appropriate to me but what can you say really? It is her life now, I suppose. Anyway, Emily says I should just get a drier. I have a washing machine, but it doesn’t do the drying too.”
“You could go to the Laundromat,” Sam says, holding the bucket higher so Miss Birdie can get a pin. They always use the Laundromat. Usually Dad will sit and read a magazine and Sam and Dean will watch the clothes spin. Once, Dean gave Sam a ride in the carts with the long poles. And once, Sam fell asleep on the big table where people fold clothes. That was when he was littler.
“Yes, well,” says Miss Birdie. She smoothes out the last sheet with her hands and clips it in place. Stands back to admire her handiwork. “I do love the look of clothes on a line. Swaying and…” She waves her hands a little, lets out a puff of air. “It just looks very pretty. Reminds me of when I was a girl.”
“That musta been a long time ago,” Sam says. He puts the basket down. Sets his hands on his hips, like Miss Birdie.
“Well,” she says, with a tinkling little laugh. “I suppose. Doesn’t feel all that long.”
“Where are your parents now?” Sam asks.
“Oh, they passed away quite a few years ago.” She hums a little. Sam wants to ask what ‘passed away’ means, but her eyes are far away. Further than the sky. She lets her hands fall off her hips, then, and smiles down at Sam.
“How about we go inside? Have some brownies while we wait for your dad to come home?”
It sounds like a great idea to Sam.
Miss Birdie is nice. A little like Amelia. But a lot more wrinkly.
She doesn’t have an old-lady smell, though, like one person Sam knew. He doesn’t remember her name anymore, but Miss Birdie, she smells good. Like flowers, maybe.
Sam thinks if he had could have a new mom, she’d be something like Miss Birdie and Amelia and Dean, all put together. Plus, she’d sing, and she’d make Dad stay home more, and she wouldn’t yell when Sam broke a lamp because she’d know. He was only running around because Dad and Uncle Bobby were pressing their noses into big fat books that smelled like dust and cleaning guns and telling Sam to stay in his room, please, because there were knives out. Being best-best friends all by themselves.
And she’d never, ever, forget how to be a mom.
Dad says, “Dean’s coming home.”
They clean the house the day before – the whole house. Uncle Bobby and Dad change bed sheets and do dishes. Dad pulls a vacuum out of the closet, like maids have in motels sometimes, and uses it all over. It takes forever and mostly it looks like Dad’s trying to stop it eating him. It screams too; Sam hates the noise, covers his ears and sits in the bathroom until it’s over.
Then he gets to take a rag and rub it on everything – the tables, the chairs, the TV.
The TV stings him when reaches for it. Sam pulls his hand away. The screen whispers at him.
He doesn’t try to clean the TV again.
Dean is bones. Bones and skin and big green eyes.
He’s got bags and bags of medicines to take. All these little orange bottles, with his name written on them. Some of them are to make sure Dean doesn’t get sick again, and some are to make sure he doesn’t start shaking – have a seizure. That’s what it was, back in the car, Sam’s learns, when they were taking him to the hospital. A seizure. Some are just to help him heal, and some are normal things like vitamins so that he can stop being skinny.
Over breakfast, the first breakfast with Dean back, Dad mumbles something about school. He’s hiding behind a newspaper. Dean’s staring into his cereal, stirring it around and around with his spoon. Some of his medicines leave a gross taste in his mouth and it makes everything taste bad.
Sam can hear cars on the road outside. Just a couple. One or two.
Oh. Another one. It’s squeaking a little.
He scoops some more cereal into his spoon. Thinks about the cereal families he’s just separated. They’ll never see each other again if he doesn’t finish the whole bowl. He takes another big spoonful, crunches it up. Maybe they’ll never see each other again, anyway. If they don’t look hard enough. If they just sit in Sam’s stomach like rocks.
Everyone’s quiet. Really quiet. Uncle Bobby went home this morning. Even bigger house now. Sam doesn’t like it better though.
“We should go to the park,” Sam says. Dean looks up. Dad doesn’t.
“Is there a park here, Dad?”
It takes Dad a minute. Slow thinking. “Maybe. We’d have to check.” Paper rustles. Page turns.
Dean looks back down at his bowl. Sam kicks him a little under the table – not hard.
Dean doesn’t kick back.
Dean’s standing on the stepstool in the bathroom, looking in the mirror.
His toothbrush scrubs up and down. Down and up. Left to right. Sam crouches by the door and watches – he’s a ninja. A stealth ninja. Practically invisible.
Dean spits and rinses. Spits again. Checks his tongue and then wrinkles his nose at the boy in the mirror. Toothbrush goes back on the shelf
Dean’s lips move, making words but not making sounds. Sam creeps closer. Dean’s lips stop moving but he keeps staring at himself. His hands curl into fists. Eyebrows pull together.
Sam’s not sure what he’s trying to do, but it looks like hard work.
Dad’s on the phone.
“What? No he is not deaf or hard of hearing, how many times do I – yes, I understand that, but how can he not be considered a client? He can’t speak. Yeah, it’s a mental disability but not in the way you’re thinking. I don’t – that doesn’t make any sense. My son can no longer speak and you’re saying you can’t provide any assistance because he’s not deaf too? What? We – we don’t qualify, well that’s great. Fuck you very much. He’s a child who needs help learning how to adapt. And you’re not – fuck the rules! He needs an alternative means of goddamn communication what the hell do you suggest we do? Yeah, yeah, you know what? Just—”
He slams the phone back onto the cradle. Runs a hand over his beard. Through his hair. Says, quietly, “Fuck.”
He leans back into the couch and his eyes meet Sam’s. Flick over Sam’s head. Sam looks over his shoulder, sees Dean standing nearby. He’s shuffling from one foot to the other. Backs up a little when he sees Dad looking at him. They’re both in the door of their room.
“You boys doing anything special?” Dad asks.
“No, sir,” says Sam. Dean shakes his head.
“Then get your shoes and jackets. We’re going to the library.”
The library is hushed.
“Everyone’s like you here,” Sam whispers to Dean, hanging on his arm.
Sam’s winter boots don’t really fit anymore; he put them on anyway. He can feel his toes in them, like he usually can’t. They feel big. Huge. He’s got giant’s feet today.
Dean tugs his arm away from Sam, shoves his hands into his pockets.
Dad leads the way to the bookshelves. Dean follows. Sam marches – hup, two, three, four! – right behind.
There are pictures of hands in all the books Dad brings back to the table. Hands with one finger sticking out, hands with two. Hands with no fingers sticking out. Curving arrows all over the place. There are letters under some pictures and words under others.
Dad’s talking quietly to Dean and reading a book at the same time. “I think we should stick to Signed Exact English. ASL would be whole new language for you. SEE is just… English with signs, mostly. A representation.” He flips a glossy page. “All you have to do is learn which signs mean what and not how to put them together; I think it’d be easier. At least to start with, we could always try ASL later when I can actually find someone willing to help you.” He looks up at Dean. “What do you think kiddo?”
Dean writes something on the pad of clean white pages next to him, slow and careful. They bought that before they came here. He slides it towards Dad and whatever he’s written makes Dad smile and reach over to ruffle Dean’s hair.
Dad’s filling out a form for a library card.
They’ve got a big stack of books to take home.
“Gonna have to work hard, Dean-o,” Dad says back in the car. It’s raining. “And you Sammy.”
Sam slumps. Dean kicks him, scowling.
“Sam,” says Dad, looking at him in the rearview mirror.
Sam sits up straight.
“This is just something we have to do. Together. You won’t be able to understand Dean if you don’t learn too, so I don’t want any arguments.”
“Okay,” says Sam. He does want to understand Dean.
The windshield wipers swoosh and squeak.