Florida at Christmas time. Mostly sucked, Christmas. Deck the halls with bunches of money. Traffic. Suicide rates. Good time to head to southern climes to avoid the cold. Insane weird place, Florida, but California was too far away, and they took their gigs where they found them. A hospital in Clearwater, suburb of Tampa, with reports of mysterious goings on several years running right around the holiday season.
Flat roads through a flat landscape, motels designed with the discerning long-haul trucker in mind. Winchester territory. Much staring out of windows and silence. Dean wondered if Sam was thinking about Jess. Sam wondered if Dean was thinking about Dad. They both wondered at the marvelous incongruity of a peeling plywood Santa Clause in seventy-five degree November and Christmas lights on a stunty palm tree. Christmas classics playing on the radio: Sandler singing about famous Jewish people, and the one about meeting the guy in the A&P cause ‘you forgot cranberries, too.’ An evil earworm, that one.
The local news reports had made a fizz about the ‘Christmas Ghost.’ Gleeful reporters barely concealed their mockery as they interviewed former patients giving grandiloquent descriptions. The staff was uniformly silent and hostile. A search through the want ads found a contractor looking for electricians for a security camera project over the holidays at the very hospital they were investigating. Rarely did good luck fall into their laps, and even funnier, they were qualified. No artifice required. Pay wasn’t bad, either. Dean called it an early Christmas present. Sam said they never got what they wanted for Christmas, ever, so shut up.
They installed cameras, ran cable, checked alarms, asked questions either subtlety (Sam) or tactlessly (Dean). Use the EMF meters more or less openly, given their cover story was perfect. Nice place, ordinary place. But the Clearwater General Hospital felt strange. Strangely strange.
In the motel with the pink flamingoes wearing red Santa caps, Dean said, “Something about it is weird. It’s not like creepy weird... But it’s weird.”
Sam said, “Yeah, it’s weird. It’s like, how often are we in a hospital without worrying...?”
He trailed off, and Dean looked up, and they both realized that was exactly it. To be in a hospital without stomach-wrenching dread gnawing at your gut. Without being on high alert. Without having to steal or defraud. They laughed, but there were ghosts.
Dean searched the laundry bag for a shirt. “EMF is all over the place. The nurses know something is up. Fourth floor is jumpy. They aren’t talking, though.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“Yeah, it may take some special attention from Santa’s elf to get some of them to unwrap their presents.”
Two-and-a-half-weeks into December there had been no ghostly manifestations, but enough suspicion to keep them around. They were running cable over the fourth floor nurses station, and Dean made small talk as the staff moved about their business. He was casually babbling about the stories on the news, until Celeste, the quiet one, abruptly stood and left the area for no reason Dean could see. Sam, head in the ceiling, frowned down at him. But a lead is a lead.
“Sorry, what did I say?” Dean tried to apologize to the two remaining nurses who were looking uncomfortable. Keith, tall and TV handsome, handed off a clipboard to Margery, old and impermeable, and with a significant look moved in the direction Celeste had gone.
“Those stories are upsetting, and not good for the hospital,” said Margery. “It upsets the patients. It upsets Celeste.”
Dean put on his most contrite face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. Can I...”
“Not to worry. Let’s just get on with our work, shall we?” It’s all uphill with Margery. Dean buttoned up, and glanced at Sam, who looked cautious. Best to bide their time.
Later, in the cafeteria, they strategized.
Dean asked, “So what do we know about Celeste?” Sam had his laptop open, back to the wall. Just because they had a legal job didn’t mean they didn’t resort to illegal means, such as searching patient records and staff personnel files, to get the job done.
“Celeste Garcia, RN, 37, hired three years ago. Excellent rating.” Sam shrugged.
“When did the reports start up?”
“They only made the news a few years ago. Hm...”
“What?” Dean munched potato chips, casually keeping up a continuous scan the nearby tables. The ambient noise of the place gave them a degree of privacy.
“There is a similar report from before that, but in a Tampa hospital.”
“And where did our Ms Garcia work before here?”
Sam tapped keys. “Not on file.”
“Weird. So there’s subject numero uno. What about that Keith guy?”
Sam scrolled. “Keith Walters, RN, been on staff five years.” Sam shrugged again.
“Somebody knows something.”
“Yeah. The kids in Peds are scared of something. Hard to get a night visit in, though.”
They could work late hours, hospitals being twenty-four hour facilities, but there were limits. And in the wee hours, they were more conspicuous to the vigilant staff.
Dean murmured, “And that old lady on four. She went on and on about a visitor that no one else saw. She said he kept changing channels on her TV and wanted to sing carols.”
“I’ll try to get back up to her.” Sam had a way with ladies of a certain age. No singing, though.
“And I’ll go make friends with Celeste...” Dean had a way with all ladies.
The next day they worked their way around the floor till they came to the hallway where Celeste was stocking a supply rack. Dean’s turn on the ladder, plugging cable to a video camera to the ceiling, Sam down below testing the connection on a small monitor.
Dean climbed down, gave a look to Sam. He headed over to the supply cabinet where Celeste was working while Sam made a show of fussing with equipment. Dean didn’t make it to Celeste. Before he got five steps down the corridor, Keith, coming from nowhere, intercepted him with a hand on his arm.
“Please don’t.” He was Dean’s age, Dean’s height, and his scrubs showed off his build nicely. Dean gave the hand on his arm a look, but carefully. Dean didn’t like it when someone got the jump on him. But Keith had the home field advantage, so best to be sociable.
Dean tried the surprised and slightly hurt expression. “I really wanted to apolo...”
Keith frowned. “You know, spare me.”
Uh, oh. Keith had kept his voice low, so Dean did the same. “Am I stepping on your turf? Dude, it isn’t like that.”
“I know it isn’t. And you know that isn’t my turf.” Keith released Dean’s arm, but stayed in his personal space.
Dean, being an equal-opportunity charmer of nurses, went for the 100-watt smile. “Can’t a guy make friends on the job?”
“Are you two reporters or investigators?” Keith, impassive, kept his tone was serious, but not yet unfriendly.
“Why would you think that?” Plan B. Dean let the smile drop. Dean recognized protective behavior (and then some), so no sense being insulting.
“Because you’re asking questions. Because you’re turning on the charm and snooping. And because some of your electronic gadgets aren’t standard for video installation.”
Oops. Dean studied the man. “Look, we’re not reporters...”
“Can you let Celeste alone? Please. Can we make a deal?”
Dean nodded carefully. “Um, well, it depends...” Dean stepped back a step.
Keith twitched an eyebrow. “Dude.”
Dean winced. “What do you, uh...”
Keith was studying Dean’s face, gauging his trustworthiness. “I’m off shift at seven. You and the bro want to meet me at the Soup Plantation?” He gestured down the hall toward Sam.
Dean wished Sam could be having this conversation, so yes.
“You’ve got a date. I mean...” Dean smiled sheepishly. “A deal. You’ve got a deal.” Perhaps this was salvageable, if he could keep from chewing his foot off.
Keith rolled his eyes. “You’re safe. I like ‘em tall.” He winked at Dean, and shot a look down the corridor at Sam, coiling wire, and not looking towards Dean and Keith but watching them carefully. Dean decided Sam was not having any conversations with anyone, ever. Keith went back to the nurse’s station, and Dean returned to Sam. Climbing back up the ladder, he flipped the switch on the camera.
“So what was that about?” Sam asked.
“We’re kinda busted. Try the picture.”
“No picture. Busted how?”
“Seems our boy Keith knows an EMF meter when he sees one. Wants to meet me later though, I think he knows something. Wants me to leave Celeste alone. I think he’s protecting her.”
Sam snorted. “I told you that cheap-ass thing was a dead give-away. Anyone with any electronics know-how will know it’s a basement job.”
Damn it. Dean grimaced at Sam’s casually derisive remark. He took pride in his handiwork. He turned his head away, and adjusted a cable.
“There, that’s good signal. Well, what?”
Dean started down the ladder. “Nothing. I’m meeting him at seven.”
“You or both of us?”
Sam gave him an impatient look. He’d been observing.
“Okay, okay, he was looking at you funny,” Dean grumbled.
“Dude yourself. What’s the problem?”
Dean grabbed the toolbox. “When did you get comfortable with... Oh, yeah, school in San Francisco.”
“Shut up. Let’s get this corridor finished. I’ll tag along so you don’t make a jerk of yourself.”
Keith sat across from the Winchesters, coffee and pager on the table. He had on a Hawaiian shirt and jeans now, and they noted a small silver chain with a pentacle pendant that had been hidden beneath his scrubs. The boys exchanged a quick look, and Keith regarded them warily.
Dean let Sam take point, but he fidgeted.
“So. You know what an EMF meter is?” Sam opened, offhandedly.
“Yeah, but it won’t be that useful.”
“Too much activity to pinpoint anything.”
“Why so much activity? Is there something there? The site, maybe”
“Was it built on an old Indian burial ground, you mean? No, it’s a hospital.”
“Does it have a reputation...?”
Keith snorted. “Yeah, a great one. And more death happens there every day than anywhere else. And pain, and suffering. All the elements to create that kind of energy.”
Sam smiled. “Yeah, that’s true.”
“Never spent time in one?”
The Winchesters looked away from each other.
Sam said “Yeah, some. And most of our time in hospitals we’ve been... Well, it wasn’t for hauntings.”
A shadow passed over Sam’s face. Dean spun his fork. Keith watched Sam’s smile and thought of a cloud passing over the sun. Sam met his appraising look without flinching.
“So if you’re not ghost hunters, and not reporters, what?”
“We just know what to look for and what to do about it,” explained Sam. “I’m guessing you know something about what I’m talking about. More than the average Joe...”
Keith nodded. “I know what you’re talking about. So do a lot of people. Celeste doesn’t like to talk about it, but she’s not frightened. She doesn’t think she’s in danger. We do not want the reporters after her, it would make her life hell.” The threat was not veiled, but Sam didn’t take offense.
“What does she say about it?”
Keith stirred his coffee slowly. “I asked her about it last year. She told me it was nothing to worry about, and that I should leave it alone.”
“Leave it alone?”
“She meant leave the subject alone, but yeah, both.” Keith leaned back in the seat, twirling his pendant absently. Light danced off silver.
“Have you seen it yourself?”
Keith sighed. Sam made sure to keep the concerned, trustworthy face in view, though not so much to overdo it. Keith was clearly a good reader of character, and wouldn’t appreciate being played. Dean just tried to be invisible.
“Yeah, last year. It shows up at Christmas. A guy walking the halls. Doesn’t seem to be malicious. Scares the patients who see it. Not everyone can.”
“But you can. Know why?” Sam was using the soft voice. Dean loved the soft voice. He’d bet on the soft voice against any iceberg in the North Atlantic.
Keith shrugged. “Who knows how it all works?”
“And you’re okay with all this?”
Keith let his pentacle stop twirling, and let the symbol hang there a moment. The significance was unambiguous.
Dean asked, “Can you describe the spirit?”
“Just a figure. A man. Looks lost. It appears for three nights, I think. Before Christmas Eve. I’d say leave it alone, but it screws the electronics all over the place.”
Sam looked over at Dean, then back to Keith. “You know what we need to do?”
Keith looked sad. “I think so. It may be...” He stopped abruptly, looking beyond the boys.
Dean and Sam turned to look, and Celeste stopped at their table. Keith looked guilty as hell, and Celeste shoved him farther into the booth.
“Mind if I join you?” she said, and it wasn’t a question.
Winning Celeste over took some effort. Dean’s smile and Sam’s sincerity versus the exceptional defenses of nurses. But she eventually concluded that they weren’t publicity seekers, or crackpots, and that she could speak to them about her experiences. Keith’s opinion seemed to weigh in their favor.
“Don’t go making up your mind too fast about these two, Celeste.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. Sam looked hurt. Celeste looked to Keith for explanation.
“You’ve should see them at work. It’s a master class in the art of persuasiveness and non-violent arm-twisting.” He smiled across the table. “But I think they’re okay.”
“We could use them on the Peds ward. You sure it’s not just cause he’s your type?” She spoke to Keith while looking at Sam.
“Are you questioning my objectivity? You know I don’t do straight boys.”
Sam grinned. Dean scowled.
Keith reached over and almost patted Dean’s hand. “The morning guilt is way too ‘One Tree Hill’.”
Sam intervened. “Look, Miss Garcia, we’re sorry about prying. We just want to help. Help you. With the spirit. We can... We can send it on its way.”
“Really? How?” Celeste sounded dubious.
“First we identify it, then find the remains.”
Celeste’s demeanor was grave.
“George Williford,” said Celeste somberly. “He died in a car accident, seven years ago. On Christmas Eve. He was 27.” She spoke as if it were yesterday.
“Did you know him? Has it... he spoken to you?”
“No,” said Celeste. “But I recognize him.”
“He’s following you, isn’t he?”
Celeste nodded. “I thought maybe he would stay at Tampa General, where... Where he died. He appears every year at Christmas. He doesn’t do any harm. He... What do you intend to do?”
Dean cleared his throat. “Cremation will end the haunting.”
Celeste blanched, and Keith shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“The body was cremated,” Celeste said.
Sam blinked. Dean sat up straight.
“Already cremated? But that should... That doesn’t make sense. How can you be sure?” Dean asked. As much as Dean loved the soft voice, his own patience was its worst enemy.
“I’m positive. Why doesn’t it make sense...?”
Sam spoke carefully, after a moment’s preparation. “Once nothing is left of the body, the spirit loses its anchor to this world, and can move on. Were you working at Tampa General that night?”
Celeste said, “George Williford was an organ donor.”
That revelation landed like a rock in the bean dip. Dean groaned.
“Well, that’s just ducky. Can’t burn the body when there’s pieces of him roaming around in healthy people.”
Sam’s elbow shot out, catching Dean hard in the side. Dean grunted, surprised. Celeste smiled a bleak smile.
“I wasn’t working at Tampa General, I was a surgical patient. Congenital heart defect.”
Sam’s eyes widened. Dean squirmed. Keith was looking hard at the napkin dispenser.
“I have his heart.”
“Ah, jeez.” Dean cleared his throat. After a moment with grim silence, he twisted to look for the waitress. “Does this place serve beer?”
They traveled to the Williford residence, an unpretentious house in the suburbs of Clearwater. Dean sang along to radio playing the song about a reindeer running over a grandmother. Sam had always though it in bad taste, which guaranteed an increase in volume. But Dean had it out of his system by the time they arrived. A petit woman with a polite smile answered the bell.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. We’re...”
“Sam and Dean. You sure fit your descriptions.”
The boys exchanged a look, disconcerted.
“Celeste Garcia called me. Come on in. Should I have waited for you to tell me something interesting about who you are and what you wanted? She said it would be worth it.”
They hung their heads in shame as they entered. “Can we talk to you about your son?”
“I’ve got coffee on. Let’s sit down.”
They sat around a patio table, and she spoke somberly but without difficulty about her son, and the accident that took his life. He had been on his way to the family home, since sold, on Christmas Eve. She spoke about how it was difficult for her this time of year, with her family spread out across the country, and with it being the anniversary of her son’s accident and death. She related tales of their early, happier years, before the loss of her husband to lung cancer, the loss of George. Tree trimming, presents, turkey dinner, the family tradition of ‘A Christmas Carol’.
“Alistair Sim or George C. Scott?” asked Dean.
“Alistair Sim. Though I actually preferred Mr. Scott, myself. And that Patrick Stewart did a fine job. Does your family celebrate Christmas?”
“Oh. Well, it was George’s favorite time of year. Hokum and all. So what questions did you have?”
Dean leaned back in his chair. Sam took the lead.
“What did Celeste tell you?” he asked. The soft voice was getting quite a work out this holiday season.
“That she had seen his spirit. Every year since his death. And that this year she expects it to happen again.”
Dean’s eyebrows went up. “You seem okay with that...”
Mrs. Williford shot him a look. “No, can’t say as I am. But there’s not much I can do about it. He hasn’t chosen to... to appear to any of his family. Not that we’ve discussed such things. But I expect I would have heard if it had happened.”
Sam’s expression was soulful. “Your family all got together every year?”
”Every year. George and his sister, Alice, and my sister Blanche would come down from Inverness with her husband Ron, and my niece and nephew, that’s just up the 44, Inverness, by the lake... Her boy Theodore, he and George were born exactly one month apart... They could recite the whole thing. They’d tell stories about what the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would show every one of the family. They were so creative... Theodore is just about as tall as you, Sam, and that’s saying something. After George’s accident, well, I sold the house and moved here, and we just never got back in the habit. Alice got married the year after George died, and her husband, Albert, well, his family is all in Boston, so they go up there, they named their first child George, you know. It’s cute now, but I hope she likes having a boys name when she’s older. Theodore moved to Los Angeles, and there doesn’t seem much point for Blanche and Ron to drive all the way down here or for me to go up there... I go over the Saint Anthony’s, the nursing home, and help out with the folks there. We even watch ‘A Christmas Carol,’ it’s just like old times.
Sam nodded, empathy glowing like a hearth fire. Dean tried to sip his coffee in a sympathetic manner.
“Celeste and I meet there, actually. Saint Anthony’s. I understand it’s not the usual thing for the families to meet with the people who... You know... But we got to talking, a miracle, really, when we realized... What a coincidence. But it was a happy one. It meant so much to us, to know that George was living on and horrible as his death was, he was doing something good even to this day. She’s a wonderful girl. She sends me a beautiful card every year on George’s birthday. I keep thinking we should try to get together again but every year seems to come and go without it happening.”
Sam looked pensive, considering.
Dean glanced at Sam, and asked Mrs. Williford if he could visit the bathroom. She directed him down the hall, and took Sam on to the patio to show Sam her orchids.
She left the boys to themselves on the patio while she took a telephone call. When done, she came out and they looked at each other, and looked at her. They’d been discussing what they had learned; Sam’s forehead was furrowed.
“Is there anything else I can tell you, boys?”
Sam looked at Dean, who shrugged.
“Mrs. Williford, this may sound crazy,” Sam said hesitantly, “but can we suggest something...?”
It was simple, painless idea, one that doesn’t naturally occur to the Winchesters. Dean kept saying ‘bah humbug,’ but Sam would happily remind him that it had been Dean’s own idea. Four days before Christmas, the Williford family gathered once again, including Blanche and Ron, and Alice and her husband, with baby George, and including, for the first time, Celeste, accompanied by Keith. When she learned that the Winchester boys were going to spend Christmas in a motel, Mrs. Williford sent Theodore, who had flown out specially, to knock on their motel room door and offer a non-negotiable invitation to attend.
They had actually been planning to spend the evening in the Impala parked across the street to monitor the house. Dean would have preferred sitting bored in the Impala all night to having to fake their way through an evening of picturesque suburban holiday fun. He kept humming ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ from ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Sam tried to convince him there was no need to fake anything, and that wasn’t a Christmas carol. Dean switched back to the run-over grandma.
And so they went, and turkey was eaten, and all the fixings, and popcorn popped, and movies watched. In the darkened room, surrounded by family, they watched the corny old films, and laughed, and Sam talked to the family and Dean played with the baby and looked embarrassed when Sam kept smiling at him playing with the baby. For the Winchesters, it was like being in a play about a family at Christmas. Dean felt like an impostor. Theodore, who was, as advertised, every bit as tall as Sam, proposed a toast, and cried. Celeste tried not to, as it wasn’t her family and she didn’t belong to these people, but they were all too welcoming and kind, so she did.
“To George, and all the ghosts of Christmases past. I’ll remember you forever.” Everyone murmured assent.
Sam and Dean tried to slip away. Even Sam found the emotion of the evening overwhelming, and once they stepped outside and looked back at the house, blinking Christmas lights wrapped around a plastic snowman on the porch, they felt the even more disconnected from what Sam had once called ‘normal.’
“Norman Rockwell paintings aren’t for us, Sammy.” Dean intoned.
“Isn’t that why we do what we do? To make this possible?” Sam looked along the street, and chafed his arms. The weather had finally turned, and it was cool enough to need jackets. “Can’t you want this? Even a little?”
Dean snorted. “At least the food is good. But it’s all a greeting card. Even without knowing what’s out there to tear it up without warning... Pick three other houses,” he said. “One’s got a cheating spouse, next door is an abused kid, next one a girl who put her husband through college and he’s going to leave her for a trophy...”
“Dude! Just shut up! Can’t you have one night of...?”
Theodore appeared at the front door, looking for them. His looked ordered them to stay put as he ambled over.
“Nice sneak. Aunt Barb’s not letting you get away without leftovers. And pie. There’s pumpkin pie.”
The Winchesters blinked. More sacred ritual, about which they knew only through television.
“Coats. We were getting our coats.”
Theodore stood there while coats were retrieved from the car. No escape. “If it means anything, I think this worked. We owe you more than we can ever repay.”
Dean was querulous. “Did you see something?” He was heading back to the Impala for his EMF meter.
“Naw, Keith explained it to me. I owe you for that, too.”
Theo’s otherwise pleasant, bland face slowly evolved a wolfish, salacious grin that was every bit as wicked as Dean’s on a good day. Sam laughed out loud, and Dean shook his head.
“I guess we’ll find out tomorrow night. If this was what George needed.”
They returned to the house for their share of leftovers. And pumpkin pie. With Cool Whip.
The next day they returned to the hospital to keep an eye on Celeste, and anyway no sense passing up good money. They worked late into the night, past normal.
“I would have seen him last night, I’m sure. I didn’t. The family all says ‘they all felt him.’ Oh, and Keith took the day off.” Celeste smiled, puffy eyed, but at ease.
Dean kept his head stuck in a duct, muttering. It sounded like “not one nurse under Dean’s tree...”
The evening shift saw most of the staff head home, but with Celeste to cover for them, the boys could keep working. Dean was scouting the halls with the EMF meter; Sam was cutting cable in a utility room.
The static on his testing monitor refused to clear, and it was getting frustrating. The drop in temperature should have alerted him, even though it was chilly outside now. He kicked himself for being sloppy. Too much good food, maybe.
The utility room was small and off in a corner of the building, not near the patient’s rooms. He doubted Celeste was nearby, he knew Dean wasn’t. He felt George rather than saw him. Though the atmosphere was chilled, it wasn’t threatening. The static on the monitor moved in unnatural sea-like waves
“George?” He spoke tentatively. A shotgun with rock salt was the normal drill. But he’d dealt with a benign spirit before. More than once. Once in particular.
The monitor sputtered. He reached to switch it off, but something stayed his hand. He pulled the stool he’d been sitting on closer. The screen was flickering; snow and static, but there were images faintly visible. Sam could recognize them. Long coats and tall hats, beards and muttonchops. The little boy with the crutch.
“Your family all got together with you again, George. We all watched ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Celeste was there. It meant a lot to her. It meant a lot to all of us. Was that enough? Will that allow you your freedom?”
The images sputtered. He could make out a slight figure, a candle burning, in a white robe.
“Yes, George, the Ghost of Christmas Past. Theodore made a toast.”
After a moment, and more erratic and flickering of the images, another figure appeared. A jolly and bearded figure, in a voluminous robe.
“The Ghost of Christmas Present? What is it, George?”
The snowy static vanished, replaced by a clear, bright video picture. Sam blinked at the harsh, vivid light. Dean climbing a ladder, shaking his head. The view was jiggling, as Dean’s face zoomed into close up. He was adjusting the camera. There was no sound, but Sam thought he recognized the moment, as the shot aimed down, and Sam saw himself at the foot of the ladder, looking at the testing monitor at his feet. Then Dean’s face again, as he made an adjustment. Must have been that afternoon a couple of days ago when... And then pain shot across Dean’s face. Sam sat forward.
“George, what is it? Did Dean get hurt? What are you showing me?” Sam had been right there, Dean hadn’t hurt himself.
A flicker, and the sequence repeated. Dean climbing the ladder, shaking his head. Dean’s face zoomed into close up. This must have been just after Keith had caught Dean on his way to Celeste. He could see Dean’s lips moving, Sam tried to make out the words. ‘We’re busted...’ or something. What had they been talking about? It could be important. Again the slash of pain across Dean’s face. It wasn’t physical pain. Starting with annoyance, his expression grew to show true injury. Sam tried to reconstruct the moment.
“Oh, God. I said...”
A third repetition. “That’s it, isn’t it, George? I said his EMF... Oh, man...”
Sam leaned back. The scene played again.
“Okay, I get it. Don’t show me again. I hurt him. I didn’t know he took it like that. We’re always kidding each other, saying things like... I’ll...”
The indictment repeated.
“Do I need to...? Oh, damn, damn.”
Sam forced himself to put aside his remorse for the moment. There was a mission in progress.
“Are there two more spirits, George? You’re showing me something about today, the present, something I can appreciate. I can correct this. Your family was the past, and... ”
The snow returned to the screen and with it the roaring laugh of the bearded and garlanded Francis De Wolff, as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“That’s a great present, George. Thank you. I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know...”
And the screen went dark.
“George? Is there one more? Before you can move on? The Ghost of Christmas Future?”
Silence. Whistling from down the hall. Sam stepped to the door, and looked at Dean approaching.
“Nothing on four. Looks like we got... What’s up with you? Dean regarded Sam quizzically, Sam’s strange expression being evident. “You look funny. Have you been watching Audrey Hepburn movies in here while I’ve been working?”
Sam blinked and tried to laugh, and turned away.
Then came Christmas Eve, no work, and they stayed at the motel. They had an invitation from Mrs. Williford, but declined. Sam didn’t like seeing Dean feeling awkward in a situation where he didn’t feel he could fit in, Dean felt guilty watching Sam in that same situation where he fit in so easily.
They watched television, and ate pizza and drank beer. Christmas commercials were vomitable. It was quiet for a long while.
Dean grunted absently, and then went on alert. That tone of voice meant trouble. “Hang on, gotta pee.”
“Take your time.”
The timbre of Sam’s voice was a red flag. Damn. That meant it was serious and stalling wouldn’t help. Dean took as long as he could washing his hands, feeling chicken.
“No gifts, Sammy. We said no gifts, we can’t aff...”
“That’s not it. And I got you a new belt.”
“Aw, we said...”
“Cause I found the gloves you bought.”
Damn. So hard to hide things in a car...
“You know why it was so important to me to go to college?”
Dean stared. High fly, way into left field...
“It was the one thing I thought I could be good at.”
“You were always smart, Sammy...”
“You were smarter. And faster. And stronger.”
“Huh? Where is this coming from? Dude, you’re the ubergeek...”
Sam shook his head.
“No, I was only trying to find something I could excel at. One thing. You weren’t in to studying that much, I was. Reading, yeah, but tests... But you were always smarter. Problem solving, figuring things out...”
“What is bringing this on? Sure when we were kids I was...”
“You were a better shot. A faster learner. At everything. I had to work at everything so much harder than you. Dad made me feel...”
“Dad.” That wound would be tender for the foreseeable future.
“Yeah, Dad. But the book smarts, that was so I could be something you weren’t. I thought I could do college and be the master of something. Not even because I had the ability, but because you weren’t interested in it.
“Sammy, I’m the big brother, the big brother is always going to...” He tried to laugh it off gently, but Sam was not to be diverted.
“You pretend to be dumb sometimes, but it’s a total joke and sometimes I forget it’s a joke.”
“Sammy, every person has...”
“I was never a person. Not to Dad. Not to you.”
This flummoxed Dean utterly. He hated being flummoxed.
“That’s what you said when you left...”
“I left to get away from Dad. I’d never grow up, never be anything but a thing for him to make ‘Dean’s Responsibility’ unless I made a break. Something for you to resent.”
“Huh? Sam, I swear, I never...”
“Let me finish. I'm not finished. Yes, you did. I was a burden and you resented me. You were right to; I was a pain in the ass. Still am. I finally realized what I was doing to you, then, and it helped me decide where to go. I had to be something on my own, and college could do it. My own person, not a duty.”
Sam held up a hand to silence Dean’s continued protests. Dean forced himself to hold his peace. He tried to count beer bottles without looking away from Sam.
Sam took a deep breath. He wasn’t that drunk.
“I’ll say this and then we’ll go back to Lara Croft and it’s commercials now anyway. I don’t mean now. Now we’re a team and we’re together because we want to be, not because we have to be. I’m better at some things and you’re better at some things. But I am not smarter than you and I don’t think I’m better than you and if I ever say anything to hurt you I expect you to tell me. I know we joke and that’s okay but when it really hurts it’s not okay and I’m sorry for everything I’ve said that hurt and I didn’t know. I’m sorry and I didn’t know.” Maybe he was that drunk.
“Dude. Would you please, for the love of Angelina, tell me what the hell are you...?”
“And your EMF meter is great.”
Dean stared. He sat. He opened his mouth. He closed it again. Angelina rescued him. He groped for another bottle. Yay, beer.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Sam turned in right at the end of the movie, saying something about needing his strength for dreamtime. Either he was worried about his visions returning, or he was planning a visit to Porn Land starring Angelina, which was a really good idea. Either way the beer sent him to his pillow quickly. Dean stayed up a for a while, letting his head clear. Mostly thinking ‘the fuck?’
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come didn’t come to Sam that night, though, but to Dean.
The dream must only have lasted an instant, the speed of thought. His eyes snapped open. The gasping squeal of a semi’s brakes from the highway must have awakened him. Neon crept through the blinds, making dim lines on the ceiling. Dean spent a few moments controlling his breathing, trying to sort dream memory from reality. He ventured a movement of his head to the right, to see the bedside clock. 3:30 a.m. He’d turned in at two, at the end of ‘The Vikings.’ Kirk Douglas. Yay, Kirk Douglas. He had fallen asleep to his favorite and only lullaby, the familiar sound of Sam sawing away in the next bed.
Dean rarely remembered his dreams. They always involved being naked in public, or being chased with his legs trapped in thick mud. Psyche 101 ‘fear of inadequacy’ material. If asked, he said his dreams were about unhinged and violent sex, which mostly shut people up. But he could remember every vivid, rich, complex, horrible detail of this dream. Nightmare. Motherfuckin’ Mother of All Nightmares.
Just a single moment of time, a snapshot instant. A few words spoken, nothing else actually happened. But he could recall with HDTV clarity every detail of the year preceding that moment.
He remembered the place and time: Shortly before Christmas. Tacoma, Washington. The dingy one bedroom Sam had rented near the hospital.
He remembered the way it had happened: He’d been cocky. Fatally so, or as good as. Worse. He had done this to himself. He’d done this to Sam. That was unpardonable, that he’d done it to Sam.
He remembered Miss Monette singing in the kitchen earlier that afternoon, and talking to Dean in the bed across the small apartment, as always. Never waiting for an answer, of course. She’d put her soaps on while she did dishes and cleaned up. Sam had been at work. Dean had learned to like the soaps. Not that he had a choice, but not having a choice saved him the embarrassment of admitting he was now quite the addict, after so many months. Except the one that started with the hourglass, and ‘like sand through the hourglass.’ Cut too close.
He remembered the first time he’d heard Miss Monette’s voice. It was like oven-fresh raisin bread. She’d been talking to him for several weeks already, but he hadn’t been entirely conscious, so it was new and familiar at the same time. “Honey, that baby brother of yours is a little bit of God’s sunshine. He said he couldn’t pay for our visits, me and those nice boys from downstairs, and we should just stop coming by. Lord forgive me, what a thing to say. If he tries to give me money one more time, I am going to slap him right across his face even if I have to stand on a chair to do it. Now I hope you’re enjoying the television, Dean, because unless it’s the Archangel Gabriel blowin’ his horn on the Day of Judgment, I am not going to miss my shows.” She sang Baptist hymns and did sewing through the afternoons.
He remembered Stan, nurse practitioner, and William, home care worker, first from the hospital, then here. They lived downstairs, and had helped Sam get the place with no references. He hated them for the humiliation of being taken care of and loved them for trying to take care of Sam, too.
He remembered William’s hands. Strong, confident hands, and a ditzy, flaming voice, talking a mile a minute. “Hey there, Deano, did you get a good night’s sleep? What time does Sam get home? Ruth from the bakery is just going to happen to come by... I know he’s been a pill, but we’ll find the right girl for him. Stan says you’ve been breathing without oxygen, that is such incredible, wonderful, positive news! Our whole church is praying for you, and for beautiful, beautiful Sam. We are so getting him together with Ruth. Or Alicia! Does he like blondes? She’s kind of quiet though. But built like the Queen Mary. Stan says it’s leg muscles today, shall we get some exercise?” The mornings went quickly. William’s hands were kind and strong and sure, working the body, moving the joints. The first thing Dean would do with his hands is strangle Will for being a rattletrap chatterbox, and kiss him for sneaking food into the cupboard.
He remembered Stan’s voice, steady low like his father's had been: “Did Will give you a proper workout or did he just babble like an idiot? I’ll slap him around tonight. But in a good way. It may be annoying at times, but stimulation is the best thing for you, both physical and mental. Your vitals are strong and you’re breathing unassisted. That’s good. I know Sam’s not getting out much cause it’s hard for him to trust anyone else with you, but he’s got to take care of himself, too. I know you’re worried about him. But we’ll do everything we can, if he’ll let us, that’s a solemn promise.” Every other night was a check-up, and with it some hope, and more despair.
He remembered nights when Sam fell asleep at his computer desk, trying to get just a few more files processed. He remembered days when Sam sat staring out the window at the city, his hand on Dean’s shoulder, for longer and longer periods. Dean ached for that hand, ironic after all those years of distain of ‘PDA,’ but the empty silence was terrifying. At first it had been comforting and companionable, those quiet moments, like old times in the Impala, Dean at the wheel, Sam staring at the highway, nodding to the radio, his long arm stretched across the seat back, his thumb just about touching the neck of Dean’s jacket. But after a while the companionship was absent, and Sam was just staring, blank and empty.
He could remember exactly how it started: Sam had said they should wait for Doc Silas and his team to take on the ‘brain eaters,’ because they sounded nasty as fuck and might need expert handling. But no, you had to just see what was up, do a bit of recon before those others got there. And you got your brain eaten, didn’t you, smart guy? There was the abandoned house on the fire road where people had gone missing, and then there was a man. Your instincts screamed, but it was too late to do anything, you had let it get too close. ‘It,’ not ‘him.’ It played with you a while first, letting you feel its hands, letting you see its true face, the one with the tentacles, as they coiled softly around your head. It thought you a splendid catch. Last laugh went to you, though, as consciousness faded, at its surprise and then shock when Sam turned out to be immune to its mental whammy and the bullets blew that monstrous head into jelly.
Nothing but a hospital bed after that. Comatose for a month. Then ‘continuing vegetative state’ and ‘rare case’ and ‘no realistic hope.’ Dean was trying very hard to scream as they spoke to a silent and withdrawn Sam right over Dean’s own non-comatose body. But Dean couldn’t breathe unassisted yet. That wouldn’t come for another month. Not that they had any idea of what had really damaged his nervous system. And anyway Sam refused to accept their doomsaying.
He remembered Marc, the EMT, just out of the military, who had worked on establishing whether Dean’s mind was still in his head somewhere. He remembered Marc talking quietly to Sam. “Sometimes they can move just their eyes. You can communicate with blinking or eye movements. If we can establish that, and if the coma didn’t leave any permanent damage, that’s a big if, we can work out a system. But it’s impossible to tell. MRI isn’t worth much to indicate what’s going on, only that there is brain activity. If it’s coma, not much to be done but pray. If it’s ‘Locked-In Syndrome,’ then, well, maybe something can happen.”
He warned Sam that the customary medical position is to be dismissive and outright scornful of reports of eye signals, even tears, writing them off to involuntary twitches. “Don’t get false hopes, Sam. But don’t lose hope, either.”
He remembered Sam leaping at every shadow of hope. It was painful to hear. “We learned Morse.”
Marc had said, “Not seeing anything yet. Let’s give it time.”
He remembered Marc speaking in his deep voice, deep like Dad’s had been, as he checked temperature and blood pressure. “You want me to duct tape William’s mouth for you? Noisy little git, isn’t he? Real pal, though. He’s trying to get Sam to go out with that Rachel or Raquel chick. She’s got a bod that’ll make a train take a dirt road. I know you’re worrying about Sam, but they’re taking good care of him. Like two mother hens with one chick. Lets see how those eyes are doing.”
Fate worse than death. Involuntary muscles functioned, motor reflexes, but nothing else. He remembered Sam reading to him from all the medical texts. Recovery was rare to never, but to Sam (and of course to Dean) that meant ‘let’s get on with it.’
Sam couldn’t afford the hospital, or a round-the-clock nurse. Sam’s response to the suggestion of a permanent facility was so forbidding it had never been repeated, at least in Dean’s hearing. Sam had taken Dean back to the apartment, and at least one of the four came every day when Sam absolutely had to go out. Heart monitor, oxygen, all the conveniences of a hospital, without the hospital. He knew Sam ate peanut butter most nights. The smell was unmistakable and Dean’s senses were in fine working order. Sam went out seldom. A dingy mindless river of hours and days and weeks and then months flowed past. Dean fought for his sanity and feared for Sam’s.
They all spoke to Dean as if he could hear them, and he prayed they’d continue to do so. He prayed for the ability to make at least any signal that he was still present. He prayed William would suddenly lose his morals and do something despicable to Dean’s body, because his skin was sensitive to the slightest touch and his favorite, neglected body part responded quite normally and William was professionally adept at ignoring it. He remembered William telling Marc, quietly, and Marc promising Dean, quietly, that once they achieved any kind of communication things could happen. The army taught you to handle anything when it came to taking care of your fallen brothers. Marc included Dean in that category. Dean had always lumped the military in with ‘authority’ and thus detestable, but he took it all back.
When Dean finally managed to get his eyes to stay open for a while, he decided to work on crying. The eyes gave Sam hope, and Dean cursed himself for that. At least he could see the television now, when they aimed his head at it.
Their usual financial schemes only worked with the gypsy life style they’d lived, and a permanent address meant Sam had taken a permanent job. He processed insurance claims for the hospital where Dean had been for the last several months. The staff loved him, of course. A good portion of that job was ‘work-from-home,’ so he could stay with Dean during most days.
He remembered Sam being on the phone and Internet constantly at first, looking for medical aid, faith healers (again), psychics, anything. No one else ever visited. No one from their old life had passed through, or had contacted Sam if they had. He’d heard Sam talking to Bobby Singer, and to Ellen Harvelle, but those calls dwindled to never. Then there were no more specialists, no more leads and no more ideas.
He remembered how Sam would slip into the hallway to cry, not knowing Dean’s hearing was better than ever. Or in the shower, which gave the illusion of privacy. At first it was just for a few minutes, till he could get himself under control. Had to be strong for Dean like Dean had always been for him. One night Sam had realized he hadn’t bought groceries for weeks, and yet there was still food in the cupboards, and he had lost it completely. William and Stan had come up, unapologetic, and refused to leave when Sam tried to throw them out and Dean yelled at them, in his head, not to listen to proud, stubborn Sam, and wept for joy, in his head, when they just shut Sam up by wrapping their arms around him and not letting go for a very long time even after the sobbing had quieted.
He remembered that in the spring, Sam’s voice had been hopeful and determined, and through the summer how it had changed to resolute with a tremor, and when the leaves fell and the birds left Sam’s voice was muted and uncertain. After Thanksgiving it was only resigned and drained. Rituals were maintained by rote. The duct tape that kept the worst of the wind from swirling through the crack in the window also kept salt lines from being blown away. No defending salt against the rain, though. Not that it mattered; apparently their old life had forgotten them. Sam was blaming himself for not finding a way to wake his brother out of his coma, of course, and Dean wished he would just stop trying and if he died Sam could live, but he couldn’t move and he could blink but couldn’t control it and he couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried, wish himself dead.
It was midnight. He could feel the bed sheets, which Sam always made sure were better than the usual scratchy motel stuff, and the lump in the mattress permanently imbedded under his right thigh. He could smell the mildew from the closet, and musty comforter and the last of the mac-and-cheese. The water pipes groaned, and the window clattered sharply when the bleak wind slapped at it. Sam got up from his cot and put his blankets on top of Dean’s comforter and crawled in beside him, because the heat wasn’t working and it was dangerous to leave the oven going all night. He remembered Sam apologetically whispering ‘Sorry, Dean, I know you don’t like... But it’s so cold... Well, Merry Christmas, Dean.’
His voice sounded so hollow and so barren and Dean was trying desperately to move just his hand or a finger or to just say Sam’s name please God just a breath and nothing would work then the noise from the road outside the motel woke him up.
Dean sat up. He swung his legs out, between the two beds. He must have been hollering, jolting Sam awake; he was reaching for the bedside lamp. Dean grabbed his wrist.
“It’s okay, okay. Just a dream. Sorry, man.”
“What was it? You don’t have nightmares.” Sam was muzzy, still mostly asleep.
Dean sucked air heavily. The precise instant was perfectly and faithfully engraved in his mind. He swung his head down, then flung it back to let his chest expand. It felt glorious. It had just been a nightmare. Just a dream. He tried to adjust his brain to the different realities.
“Too much pizza and Vikings.”
“Dude, you were yelling.”
“Back to sleep, Sammy. Just a dream and indigestion.”
He could feel Sam look intently at him in the dark, not moving. Dean realized his left hand was gripping the bedclothes like Wile E. Coyote hanging on to a tiny little root on the side of a cliff; his right was locked painfully around Sam’s wrist. There was a small amount of trembling involved, which was mortifying.
“Sorry. Damn. Sorry.” He unclenched his hands, and pulled himself to his feet. He walked unsteadily around Sam’s bed into the bathroom. His balance was way off, like he hadn’t walked for... Just a dream. Sam was up on one elbow, watching Dean as he navigated in the partial light. Dean left the bathroom light off, and splashed water on his face. He wanted to just move around for a while. Move. Stretch. He wanted to run a marathon, hang glide, jet ski, line dance yee hah, ride a roller coaster about fifty times and do stunts for Jet Li. He leaned on the sink, staring at his shadowed reflection in the mirror and tried to lose the shakes.
“Go to sleep, Sammy!” Son of a bitch, Sam’s worrying would wake more people up than that damned idling truck out there. He couldn’t look at him. A good stretch or two. Shake it off.
Sam dutifully put his head back on his pillow. Dean was dried his face, and tossed the towel, and climbed into bed. He couldn’t stop shivering.
“It was just a dream, Sammy. I’m a big boy. Jeez.” He yanked the covers up, and shoved his face into the pillow. Was this what Sam had to go through with his unwelcome visions? Please, God, no.
Sam kept his breathing very steady, and tried to keep still. “Okay. Night, Dean.” The truck that had awakened Dean was still dieseling outside.
“God damn it”
Dean swore loudly into the dark. Sam was glad Dean couldn’t see him smiling.
“I’m in your bed.”
Sam couldn’t tell if Dean was angry, or drunk, or what. Maybe he was still asleep. Sleepwalking. This bed was closer to the bathroom... He closed his eyes, really wanting to asleep himself.
Sam’s voice was faint. “S’okay... It’s cold...”
A profound silence followed.
After a moment, Dean said, “Yeah... Merry Christmas, Sammy.”
Dean stayed where he was, and Sam’s surprise almost woke him all the way up, not quite. Fallout could be dealt with in the morning.
“Merry Christmas...” he murmured, and was out.
And fallout there was, because in the bright light of day Sam asked questions and Dean didn’t want to give answers, and there was a bit of sulking while Dean cleaned guns and Sam checked email. Then the Island of Misfit Toys got them laughing, and peace reigned for a while, till they were driving around looking for someplace open on Christmas Day that would serve pancakes, because it was bloody Florida not Catholic Spain for Christ’s sake (so to speak) and Dean asked about ‘durable power of attorney’ and ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ ‘cause Sam should know about lawyer stuff like that and Sam threw a five-alarm tantrum. Standing in the parking lot of the Tarpon Springs International House of Pancakes, drawn up to his full imperious height, arms clamped high across his chest, lower lip poking out, he looked twelve and Dean didn’t even put up enough of a fight to merit The Eyes.
The story came out over blueberry French Toast and orange juice. And at the end of the telling, having sat wet-eyed and mouth agape, Sam had laughed, which was not at all the reaction Dean was expecting. Sam explained that George Williford had given them the third Christmas gift, the Ghost of Christmas Future.
Dean ‘huh’d?’ and Sam flipped open the laptop and read aloud from one of their recent emails. The subject was ‘Seattle,’ and Professor Silas was calling for assistance, and could they get there in a few days? This was the point where Dean could have said ‘sure,’ and hauled ass across the length of the U.S., and rushed in to get himself macked by some tentacle-headed monstrosity. If you believed that kind of stuff about prophetic dreams. Sam’s withering glare shamed him. Of all the people to say that too...
Sam said he’d email Professor Silas and tell him they were spending Christmas in Key West, and hey, they really could, Theo and Keith had invited them and oh, and Professor? Be really, really careful in a house on a fire road.
Dean said no way were they going to bail, they just had to be careful, and hey, they had a total warning and knew exactly where the thing was hiding and how close you could get and be out of range of its whammy...
And for the next quarter-hour the waitress was thinking it was a shame that such nice young fellows would be yelling at each other top of their lungs on Christmas Day, and when she next came by their table demanded to know if it was all coal in the stockings or had Santa had skipped their house entirely cause damn, boys, and the one said something about wanting a little brother, not a little sister and the other said something about wanting a brother that didn’t hog all the blankets, and the other one came right back about how maybe Keith shares the blankets and the other said maybe Theo doesn’t share Keith and they both said they never got what they wanted anyway, ever, and they were grinning and laughing like fools and started singing "Christmas with the Devil," and she said ‘Merry whatever, boys,’ and poured the coffee.