He could see that she was worried about him but not in the way she used to worry, with wide-eyes and a soft hand smoothing back his sweaty hair after a nightmare and sleep-husky voice asking him if maybe he wanted to talk about it this time, carefully concealed frown and carefully steady way she'd call his name when he'd check out of a conversation and turn his head, thinking that he'd heard the growl of an...No, here and now she was pushing her worries down with the same brisk efficiency with which she was grabbing the radio and the knife under the pillow and the hex bags from the corners of the room, stuffing them in the already bulging backpacks.
"Was it another vision?" she asked him, watching him out of the corner of her eye, sunlight glinting on the shiny ridges of her scarred cheek.
"What...? No, I don't think so."
"So nothing's changed then?" She shouldered one of the packs, and she'd always been stronger than she looked but he was definitely seeing new biceps now, new curves to her golden freckled shoulders rippling under the rippling black ink.
"Nothing," he said, thinking that she could be real, this could be another universe, another Jess. Or he was trapped in his own head and this was an illusion, unlikely as the details might seem. He was already weary from having to entertain both possibilities at once.
He grabbed a backpack and two duffle bags and he followed her out of the room and out of a small bare-bones hunting cabin into sunlight that had him squinting even when he looked at the ground, breathing in a rich summery woodsy smell laced with just an acrid itch of smoke, and he saw that the trees were valley oaks and the moss was thick and springy and the drive leading away from the cabin was more dirt than gravel, cutting through scrubland green hills and oak and aspen groves.
She had a truck, a dusty blue Ford pickup and she got behind the wheel with a quick sideways peek at him. They drove with the windows down, the silence swallowed by the rush of air funneling through the cab. A little while and they were curving around a hill and descending through an achingly quiet vineyard, dusty grey grapes withered on the vine, and she said, "You wanna pick the music?" and he startled and looked down and saw the iPod plugged into the dashboard.
He shook his head and she slowed and took one hand off the wheel and let the truck swerve onto the right shoulder while she put on a playlist of songs he hadn't heard in years or could barely recognize from snatches heard in stranger's houses or over public speakers. Music Dean would hate, in other words, because it was pretentious emo girly indie shit that had come out later than when Sam was in elementary school. She didn't talk again after that.
He peered over his shoulder when the truck hit a rough patch of road and he heard a loud rattle behind him. There were three rows of gasoline containers in the back tied down with bungee cords, at least a hundred gallons of it rocking with the truck. There were huge sacks of rock salt, too, and smaller containers of what he thought might be holy water or diesel. Or both.
He snuck quick peeks at her when he thought she wasn't looking, following the burn scars trailing along her cheek and more faintly over her jaw, one thin pinkish line that only ended at her throat. A silver chain around her neck, dangling below her clavicles, tucked under her tanktop. She was still heartbreakingly beautiful and she was now at least half a stranger to him and he had no idea what she was thinking, if she was even thinking at all, if she was even really there. Once he started looking it got harder and harder to stop.
When she finally let on that she noticed him looking at her, she spent a moment watching him study her, then she diverted her eyes, flickering to the distance in front of the truck, nothing but more miles of green hills and aspen and oaks and the occasional farm with fallow fields and hardly any livestock, but one time they did have to slow to a crawl so a bull heifer could cross the road. The farms started coming closer together, a few shabby lanes of houses, a gas station, a strip mall, still no signs of life, all accompanied by the choked dusty silence of a neglected cemetery. He watched Jess' jaw get tighter and tighter and then they came across a band of cars at a crossroads, their headlights smashed, their hoods crumpled from a hard impact, the smoke cleared and the blood dried on the pavement. No use picking through the wreckage for survivors. Those who could get out had gotten out; no one had come running to the scene of emergency. He got the picture.
They stopped outside a small hamlet in what he now recognized as Northern California. The welcome sign was burned down to the wooden stumps that used to hold it up, the grass around it charred and smokey. Jess drove right through the stop signs, not even bothering to look for oncoming traffic.
His heart leaped at that, strangely enough, taking in the clear sign of what kind of world this was. It probably wasn't a fantasy designed to ensnare him, or it wouldn't be post-catastrophe, couldn't be a nightmare designed to torment, or Jess would not be breathing next to him.
Probably. He couldn't really rate this reality until he knew where Dean could be found in it.
There weren't many bodies on the roads, just a handful out near the highway, half-decomposed, torn and bloody, bullet holes or stab wounds and one man severed in two at the waist by what device he couldn't guess. He counted seven of them as Jess guided the truck around them, careful not to hit the sun-bloated corpses, rolling over the dry pools of blood and leaving rust red tire tracks.
Jess picked a respectable two-story house near the edge of town, past a burned down elementary school and a supermarket with a Subaru sticking out of the front windows; when they passed it, Sam could see other cars inside the supermarket, the rear door of a minivan open in what he thought might have once been the bulk foods section, squirrels and crows picking over the last of the nuts and grains that had cascaded over the linoleum.
The doors and windows of the house were still in good shape, which was why she picked it, he supposed. There weren't many houses that could withstand a hoard of demons or people who were infected with the Croatoan virus or had lost their souls or suffered from whatever plagued this world, but a sturdy door and thick-paned glass would at least give them a minute or two to prepare in case they did end up with visitors.
Jess turned on the tap in the kitchen. The water that ran out was clear, but Jess pulled one of the pots out of the cupboards and filled it up before setting it on the stove to boil. She poked around and found some boxes of crackers and gingerbread cookies hidden behind cookbooks stacked above the microwave, probably stale as shit, but she stuffed a handful of crackers into her mouth anyway. Well, she had always taken expiration dates as more of a suggestion, anyway.
He watched Jess while he unpacked a bag on the table. Smith & Wesson. Colt. Bible. Salt. Hex bags. An angel's blade. A few paperbacks--The Yiddish Policeman's Union topping the stack.
"There's some food," Jess said, shoving a cookie into her mouth as she tossed her own pack down on the dusty couch in the living room. She grabbed four hex bags and tossed him a thing of chalk, and he drew all the wards he could think of on the windows for all classes of threat that he could imagine out there and he waited for her to call him out on not knowing what the hell he was doing, on being an obvious impostor, and he was half dreading it and half ready to get it over with, but she didn't.
Maybe just because he collapsed in the grip of a vision before she got the chance.
It wasn't as violent as it could have been, comparatively. It was as if there was a bank in his mind that overflowed, that was all. There wasn't enough room for all the knowledge he suddenly possessed, so some things had to drown in it, his sense of his immediate physical surroundings for one, and with them, his sense of balance. The awareness that he was on his knees in a stranger's abandoned house in a strange new world hung over him like a delicate fog as he passed through the door behind his eyes into another world within that world. It was made of light and the stark absence of light. Light everywhere, pouring onto every surface and bringing all into harsh contrast. It burned at his eyes, a world of only black lines and dazzling, incomprehensible light.
And there was the noise. Rushing, like a waterfall--thunderous. Its momentum raged and gathered, and he chased after an understanding of what he was hearing. He sensed the sounds within that horrible rushing--laughter and clashing cymbals and carousel music tinkling like shards of glass, a deck of cards being strummed and shuffled by almost inhumanly deft fingers, spiderous pale fingers, beringed in silver and opals, dealing the cards, the first card, a woman encirlced by a green wreath, a staff in each hand, watched by four heads, beasts or the true faces of the angels, the final card of the Major Arcana, the World.
A jar with a piece of someone's body, a liver or a spleen, falling on a shabby Persian carpet and soaking it in the pickling solution.
Dark eyes with pentagrams tattooed under them glaring at him from over a pool of red blood spilled on sandy red earth.
Calliope music whistling and a red velvet curtain flamboyantly drawn back and smoke and mirrors in the literal sense, a sharp flash like electric light on the edge of a razor.
A cold and hollow voice saying, "Not what I expected for such a price." The familiar feeling of the point of a knife tickling at the pulse of his throat.
When he came to, there were hands on his shoulders and he was gasping Dean's name, a desperate hope, even though as he opened his eyes he wasn't really expecting to see his brother's face. Jess' small right hand had dropped to just over his breastbone, and then was lifting away. She was pale and her jaw was tight again and there was something pained in her eyes that was deeper than worry for him. She pressed a plastic bottle into his hand. He drank the water, gulped it down his painfully dry and hoarse throat. He didn't remember screaming but it suddenly felt like he had been.
"You were out for twelve minutes," she said, voice shaking. "Shit. It was worse than that time the Druid brought it on..."
"Twelve minutes?" he rasped. He didn't think he'd ever had a vision that had knocked him out that long, before. The house could have been stormed and they both could've been killed twice over in twelve minutes.
"Was it the carnival again?" she asked.
He thought a second about the implications of 'again.'"Yeah," he said.
"No new signs? No faces?"
"None." He didn't know what to tell her, what would give him away, if he dared risk giving himself away. He grabbed the edge of the counter, pulled himself to his feet with a familiar crackling pain in his knee caps and a wrenching ache in his back. She straightened up too, far more fluidly.
Her eyes flickered, skeptical, unless he was imagining that.
"You said your brother's name," she said, very softly, and then bit at her inner lip while her brow creased, pained, like she was wishing she could take the words back.
"Why shouldn't I?" he asked, his heart beating hard and his mouth drying back up.
"Sammy, I'm not the one who staked him out as no-man's land," she said. He had a feeling then that he didn't want to know whatever more she could tell him on the subject of Dean's absence. "You know, when he--"
There was a roaring of blood in his ears. An explosive sound of shattering glass. He spun around, going for his gun with not a clue where to aim, spun around again, and got a look at Jess' stricken face, her wide appalled eyes fixed on him and only him, and it was then he realized whose fault it was that every pane in the kitchen's glass cabinets had shattered.
"Guess that hasn't changed," she said, far steadier than he'd have expected her to sound.
"I'm sorry," he said, small and shaky, panic and shame crawling like beetles over his skin.
She shook her head and turned away from him, saying, "Just try and get some rest."
Later, he slept on the couch, one of the duffle bags tucked under his head. The couch was lumpy, hard, and squeaked if he moved more than an inch, but he passed out quickly, listening to Jess' breathing across the dark living room, solid feet of mandatory physical space between them now, but she was still watching over him.
He dreamed. He didn't remember these dreams upon waking, just the shiny edges of them, little bits and pieces of the background--a sunny grin on the face of a long lost friend, a sunset Jess had started painting on their last trip to the desert and had never finished, the open arms of Joshua trees--all the important things lost to the dark recesses of this foreign brain he was squatting in.
When he woke up, Jess was already packed, sitting across the room near the fireplace, watching him as he sat up, knuckling at his eyes and scrubbing his hands over his face and his shockingly bare scalp. He let his arms rest on his knees, stretched his back to work out the kinks. His mind was disoriented but only in the way it was when he first hit the road again and woke in a motel after staying in the bunker too long, getting too accustomed to the same walls and doors and placement of weapons.
"Say a prayer we don't make any new friends today," Jess said with forced lightness, standing up from the chair while wrapping a hand around her hair and pulling it back into a ponytail. "No offense, babe, but you're still not looking like you could punch in a weight-class much above my grandma."
Inside the cab of the truck, he rested his burning forehead against the cool glass of the window. Outside, the flattening farmland beside the car speeding by in a blur, he could see the movement of bodies in the distance.