They drove south under clear blue skies and through more of the same golden and green and summery yet still desolate farm country, and by around noon they were in another town, a town papered with tattered missing posters and trash rotting on the curbs since whenever the garbage trucks had stopped picking up, and a lot of the stores had broken windows and a lot of the houses had their windows boarded up and some had barbed-wire barricades cutting across their lawns, but there were still living breathing people driving on the streets or scurrying in and out of stores and while they looked skittish and ragged and smelled sour and sweaty, like probably water wasn't freely available for proper showers and laundering, they hadn't all given over to looting and fire and madness, not that could be immediately perceived anyway.
These people had formed a militia, and that militia pulled them over onto the highway shoulder between the welcome sign and the first gas station with its neon lights on, driving a Jeep Cherokee and packing semi-automatics and holy water and a big wooden cross.
They were spritzed with holy water bottles and chanted at in garbage Latin that Sam itched to correct and given an unhygienic dental and eye examination, but otherwise went unmolested. Sam's eyes never strayed from Jess while this was happening but she was only a fraction more tightly wound than she had been since he'd awoken here, her hand twitching into a fist only once, when the first man stepped within two feet of her.
Afterwards, they had a late lunch in a diner. The smell of sizzling cuts of ham and gooey melted cheese and hot coffee drifting out of the kitchen, background clinking cutlery and lazy conversation and the waitress taking the orders of the people at the next booth, and as long as he ignored the radio chatter beneath that, somebody talking about another natural disaster that nature had nothing to do with, it could feel like he had drifted inside a magic bubble, another world within a world, and if the early afternoon sunlight filtered in just right and blurred Jess' face and hair just enough, this could almost be another beautiful dream of when they were young and had their whole lives ahead of them.
On the radio, the newscaster said, "Ninety-eight hundred presumed dead as Houston continues to burn." The brightside was, there was still a newscaster to tell them the number of dead. The brightside was, Jess wasn't one of them. He wished he could savor that, just for a moment. But he couldn't.
He had to return to Dean. If he had been transported to a parallel universe, as seemed increasingly the only explanation that fit, that left Dean behind in the old one, alone. Alone with Jack, and he couldn't stand to imagine the possible consequences of Dean being alone with Jack, not at length, not right now when he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
He hoped Jody would check in on them soon.
The fried ham was slightly charred and tasted ashy on his tongue. He burned his tongue on his coffee, trying to get the taste out of his mouth.
"You can't tell me a single other thing about that carnival?" Jess asked him. "Or the desert. Y'know any background detail could help, even the tiniest thing has done it enough times..."
"I'm trying," he said. "But the more I try and remember, the more it slips away. Could you--maybe you could jog my memory. Just talk about it. What I told you after the first vision."
"I drew it for you," she said, "don't you remember?" She made the question soft and fervent, like she was really afraid he might not remember. She reached into the pack she'd put under the table and she drew out a sketchbook and her eyes swerved, scoping the room again, and then she flipped the notebook open and laid it on the table in front of him.
The first thing he noticed was that she'd gotten better at the quick sketch when she'd used to be so frustrated with timed drawing sessions, back when they'd been in a live drawing class together. Patience had been one of her weaknesses as an artist. If she didn't like how a project was going and it stubbornly refused her first attempts to correct it, she had a tendency to ditch it.
He was looking at the drawing and she leaned across the table and used her fork to steal a bite of his coleslaw. He didn't remember her even liking coleslaw.
She chewed it slowly, swallowed. He narrowed his eyes at her and she grinned, broad and sunny and causing a painful kick in his gut
On the page he saw Joshua trees and cacti, a finely shaded stretch of scrubland for a backdrop. A curtained booth and several striped tents, an organ grinder's monkey, and a row of cages, which if drawn in anything like proportion to the trees and tents were large enough to hold grown men, but what was within them was sketched in sinuous bands of shadow, except for the bright white lights of their staring eyes. Another tarot card was the thing drawn in the most painstaking detail, the focal point. Beneath a star-spangled canopy, a tall figure in armor riding in a chariot pulled by two crouching sphinxes, one black and one white. The Chariot, seventh in the Major Arcana. A decision to make, a challenge to overcome, a balance to maintain.
He strummed the pages of her sketchbook with his thumb, just a flashing peek to see that the preceding pages were covered in more graphite shadings and bold charcoal lines, and he wasn't sure he wanted her to watch him viewing for the first time what else she had drawn, illustrations of whatever other visions he had had, and so he put that aside for later.
"I saw another card," he said. "from the Major Arcana. The World. I saw a man with tattoos under his eyes. I saw a puddle of blood on desert sand."
He had this creeping sensation that was right next door to déjà vu, one universe over, because in another life he'd had the chance to tell her about his dreams that weren't just dreams and he hadn't taken it and now she was dead.
The newscaster on the radio was saying something about the last of the refugees from the Houston fires being turned away at the Mississippi barricades.
"Symbolism everywhere and still not a fucking highway sign," Jess said, sighing, turning her head out the window and resting her chin on her knuckles, her elbow on the table. He studied her profile, from this angle showing only minuscule differences from how he remembered her. New bright brown freckles on her cheekbone and fine laugh lines at the corner of her eye. Her t-shirt covered her arms to the elbow, he couldn't see her tattoos.
Beneath the table, Jess' boot brushed against his. Guilt squirmed in his stomach at this stolen intimacy but he didn't pull away.
They went to the grocery store, the nearest one that was still open, and it was a small local market and the shelves were about as well stocked as could be expected from a world besieged by apocalyptic forces. They bought bulk bags of nuts and dried fruits and canned beans and vegetables and a big canister of protein powder. The only cashiers were an elderly pair, probably the store's owners, who smiled dimplingly and said, "God bless your hearts," while bagging their groceries.
They found a motel that still had a few red neon letters blinking on the vacancy sign, and Jess insisted they check in even though the price of doing so was bartering away one of their canisters of diesel. The clerk raked his eyes over Jess like he was looking for just one tell of weakness to try and barter getting his meaty red hands on her even with Sam looming right over her shoulder, but Jess' hand hovered obviously by her gun and he didn't try it.
"You need to take the time to get your strength back," Jess said when he said that they could've tried to find another house to squat in or else just slept in the truck. "Otherwise it could be like New Orleans all over again."
"I'm fine," he said, and physically it was mostly true. He had an ache behind his eyes and between his shoulder blades, but that was nothing, really. Didn't bother him nearly as much as the strange lightness of his scalp now that it was short a few inches of hair. She snorted, loud and mocking, flipping her still long and lovely hair off her shoulder, and grabbed his hand to pull him into the room. Familiar slim long fingers curled strong and tight around his, unfamiliar calluses on her palms. Another stolen moment of careless intimacy because she had no way of knowing that he wasn't really himself, that he was a stranger to her, a stranger who had slipped inside this skin and inside her life because of some trick of dubious magic, and such tricks always came at a cost, and this was all a tenuous illusion that could collapse at any moment and all another dangerous secret he was keeping from her just because he couldn't stand having her look at him like he feared she would when she learned the truth.
He knew then that he ought to tell her. Instead, he let her tow him along and he tried to do what she expected him to do a little while longer.
The motel room had a coffee pot. He made some and he made himself choke it down even though it made the cup he'd had in the diner seem full-bodied and fresh, and Jess made him recount his vision again with as much fine detail as he could possibly muster while she sketched the imagery in her book.
He'd always loved watching her draw. It brought him back to the moment he'd first met her, in that contemporary art course Brady had made him enroll in. It was the look of absolute absorbed concentration pulling the beautiful lines of her face taut. It was her teeth pinching at her bottom lip. It was the shape of her thigh as she bent one leg up to prop the sketchbook against her knee. It was the way a thick lock of her hair drifted into her eye and she flicked her head irritably and he itched to smooth it back behind her ear but he didn't.
Afterwards, she handed her sketchbook over to Sam and she turned on the TV and flicked past the news broadcasting on nearly every station to some stupid game show with c-list celebrity contestants doing humiliating stunts for some charity. So some parts of this world were still rolling along well enough to air this, while in other parts rotting corpses were being left to the crows on the streets and thousands of refugees were being turned away and condemned at state-wide barricades.
Stranger by far, he was staying in a motel room with dingy blue checkered wallpaper, a bunny-eared TV, blisteringly bitter coffee and Jess. Last time he'd thought he'd shared a motel room with her, it had been Lucifer wearing her skin. Last time he'd felt the ground shift like this under his feet, he'd been watching his mom get herself set up in a room in the bunker like she'd been there to stay. Which she hadn't been.
He made himself look at the sketchbook.
"Yeah, this is it," he said, and couldn't help but add, "You're amazing." It was true, the images on the page almost as vivid as they'd been in his head. But she'd once drawn the faces of her friends and painted bright morning landscapes and flowers, zinnias and rose cacti her favorites, and now when he flipped the pages of her sketchbook all he could see were his nightmares.
"Flattery won't feed the starving artist," she said, and he looked up and saw she was counting the thin fold of cash left in her blue denim wallet. "Long as we're in a place that still half runs on dough,'' she said, "we should hit a bar and try and hustle."
The words sounded so odd coming out of her mouth he just stared for a minute.
"I don't know," he said. "Seems like a dangerous town, lot of desperate people..."
She raised both brows. "You kidding me? Local militia didn't even charge admission. These people are marshmallows and we could make s'mores out of them. God knows when we'll next have getting this good."
They drove around for half an hour before they found a dive on the edge of the inhabited part of town that was still open, and Jess told him sternly not to hover too much and on no account to give into chivalric impulses before they even crossed the threshold.
Jess was exactly the kind of leggy and curvy and wide-eyed California blonde who only had to giggle and hiccup over a dirty Shirley to get sized up as a ditz, a bimbo, an easy mark, easy prey by a gang of guys who were hungry to buy her a shot or two or three and to tell her they'd go easy on her at the pool table if she'd go easier on them later. Sam just had to be the muscle, the backup when one of them wasn't letting her walk away with her thick wad of winnings, a red meaty hand grabbing her upper right arm, but she twisted and jabbed the heel of her left hand into his throat before Sam could shoulder through the bodies that had pressed between them.
A stunned silent second later Sam saw his first demon in this universe, when a man's eyes flashed crossroad's red across the bar. Jess must've spotted him first because she was pushing Sam down, out of the way, even before he could see the gun. The bullet smashed into the wall behind him, sent a shower of particleboard down over the booth, and he blinked grit from his eyes.
The second shot shattered the leg of a bar stool right in front of his nose, tipped it over, and then Sam was moving without thinking, grabbing Jess by the arms and hauling her in front of him, pushing her towards the door. The bar was clearing out, people scrambling for the door after the first shot was fired, and even had it not been so fucking dark without that one overhead light he didn't know how he was supposed to sort out the rest, make sure he wasn't shooting anything demonic. He didn't have Ruby's knife anyway, didn't think they had anything until he saw the flash of a long silver blade in Jess' hand, an angel's blade.
They were about six feet of clear pavement from the truck when the demon's hiss sliced the air and a sensation like a burning desert wind blew right into Sam's body and then harmlessly passed through him even while Jess was yanked off her feet and tumbled through the air to slam against the truck's door hard enough that a metallic percussive clang rang in Sam's ears. He was frozen long enough to see her get her hands and knees under her, to see that she was still moving, and then he spun to meet the demon, lean and wiry and with, he now saw, a black arrow tattooed under his red right eye.
"You fuckers fuckin' got out of fuckin' New Orleans? Are you fuckin' kiddin' me?"
The demon seemed genuinely astonished and was just a little too slow to raise the gun again, sluggish enough that Sam could grab his wrist and duck behind his arm, and then scuffle at close quarters for a desperate minute in which the demon's skull thwacked into his nose and blood dripped into his mouth, and the demon was smaller and quicker and stronger and he didn't have much hope of holding on for long, didn't have a weapon that could finish this, and he didn't want to try to bring the demon closer to Jess even to get her blade.
Luckily, Jess had no such compunctions. The bright streak of her hair in the corner of his vision as she shouted his name was all the warning he had of what she was about to do, and he got the demon's gun hand pinned and let go of the other arm to get in a hard and hopefully disorienting blow to his head so the demon wasn't looking when Jess sank the blade into his heart. Sam stared into her face, holding the demon through his death throws, saw her snarling bared teeth and her unrecognizably cold blue eyes and the blood dripping from a scrape at her temple and the burn scars on her cheek flashing shiny as new pennies, and he felt the sparks of angelic magic burning away the last lingering life in the demon, colder and cleaner than the magic in the demon knife, and the two together sent a thrill through him that was an exquisite fusion of pleasure and pain.
"Why're you looking at me like that?" Jess said, sharp and just slightly wary, after he let the body drop. "Like you think I'm gonna go black eyed next?"
He shook his head, missing the way his hair should have fallen into his eyes, said, "It's not you. I'm. I just. There's something I gotta talk to you about."
"Yeah, I've been getting that feeling for days, so you'd better nut up and spill already," she said, but her face softened until the only thing pulling at her lips was a worried frown. Her fight-tousled hair shining under the yellow moon and arc lights, long strands whipped across her brow, a gold coronet, a halo. She blinked as a drop of blood trickled into her eye, rubbed it away with her thumb. "But we can take a raincheck till we get the hell out of Dodge. C'mon, Sammy."
They fled the scene.