"They pretty uptight?" he'd asked, heart juddering a little as it always did whenever anyone around him, friend or acquaintance, talked about their family. Ready to dodge and hedge when the rules of conversational reciprocity batted the subject back at him.
She said they were New England Catholics with old New England money and they liked to think of themselves as like, way more chill than their parent's generation, but the truth was, they were just as image-obsessed, straight backs and brows stretching back to the Mayflower. They might've used 'summer' as a verb. Her dad was a Yale man. He still wasn't totally over her choosing Stanford and telling him she preferred living on the west coast and probably wouldn't be moving back after graduation. She said she wanted to be sure about the butterfly tattoo because she would probably only ever get the one. She didn't actually want her mom to have a stroke.
Jess now had a Celtic sigil curling in glossy blue-black ink around her left shoulder, a world tree encircled in Beith-luis-nin letters. The ink looked fresh. He couldn't see it right now as she was still wearing yesterday's same long-sleeved t-shirt, but he was tracing it in his mind's eye and wondering what protection it offered.
It was midmorning, the sun already hot and high and tinted orange, driving through rolling hills of oaks and foothill pines and big boulders covered in sun-crisped moss, big pluming ferns and bright dots of purple and yellow clover and deer weed, blanketed in a patchwork quilt of fiery sunlight and cool green shade, pools of shadow burrowed deep between tree roots. Jess was driving, her foot heavy on the accelerator since sometime late last night, and Sam was telling her the abridged story of how he'd come to be in her universe. It was very strange to be telling her this side of the truth, spilling (some of) the things he didn't want to ever talk about, finally, after all the years of wondering what would've happened if he had. If she still would have been killed. Living out hypotheticals that always looped back to the same conclusion: he never should've been in her life in the first place.
She scarcely looked his way through his leap-about, rambling, stop-and-start story, only making a few interjections now and again to tersely ask him to clarify a point.
"Do you believe me?" he asked her, finally, after a long silent stretch.
"I think it's possible," she said, tense but level, "that what you're saying could be true. I also think you could be a really nasty impostor who's been toying with me. Or an illusion cooked up by some psychic or druid like the one in New Orleans. Or an angel or a god--it wouldn't be for the first time."
This shook and stumped him. He was caught up for a moment in imagining what it would be like to be an illusion, his only reason for being holding someone else's mind hostage. What if he were only a figment but became conscious of his non-reality? He didn't really think it was possible but the thought disturbed him all the same.
"But I don't believe most of those would be trying to feed me such an incoherent, convoluted, completely ridiculous backstory."
He felt a tightening twinge of what he belatedly recognized as amusement under his breastbone and he risked a glance at her. Her face was unreadable but some of the tension had gone out of her shoulders and her jaw. "You can test me however you want,'' he said. "I'll do whatever you tell me."
"Later," she said. "I guess I'm safe for now. If you were just gonna kill me you would've done it already."
"Really?" he said, confused and concerned that she would be so reckless. It wasn't like her: she was brave, she was adventurous, she'd gone cliff diving in Acapulco on freshman spring break, she'd been planning to hike the Cascadian after graduation, but she was a planner. She calculated the odds and she prepared for all contingencies in both her academic and personal life; she wouldn't gamble her future.
"If you're just something that took Sam's place--if you took him away, if you hurt him...you know what I can do to you."
He didn't know. He didn't know this woman sitting next to him and talking with cold certainty about her own capacity for violence. He didn't know how to begin to reconcile her with the girl he remembered, or if he should even try or if that road was too dangerous to begin to go down. He was holding on to the shards of enough illusive hopes as it was.
He was seeing his mom in his mind's eye now, sad eyes and tired lines around her mouth, nothing like he'd seen in the photos or in those few moments he'd had with her snatched out of linear time, nothing even like her ghost--a more profound wounded weariness. He had blithely told her that just having her back was enough, her mere physical presence somewhere in the world filling up some of the empty spaces he'd always felt inside himself. She'd smiled and hugged him and pulled away and never stopped pulling away. He hadn't wanted to see it then. He hadn't wanted to look too close. The consequences of that, the distance that had yawned and yawned between them--he was sure it was his fault, somehow.
"I'm sorry that I'm not your Sam," he said. "I wish I knew where he is, if he's still in here like I'm possessing him or if he swapped into my body--my real body--back in my universe."
"So you still have Dean, back in your universe?"
"Yeah." He hadn't said anything that would make her doubt it. Him and his brother, that had been the backbone of his tale.
Her jaw tightened and she swallowed, almost as if she were fighting back tears. He turned away from her, looked out the window. There was a fork in the road and a long unkempt gravelly side road marked by a dead end street sign and big plywood board advertising a lumber mill which he could see sprawling across a stretch of scrubland, sudden desolate reminder of human industry gone to waste, the rows of windows in the factory too begrimed to flash in the blazing sun, desolate stacks of rusty redwood timbers and a lot full of abandoned cars, its backdrop the distant silhouette of a mountain that might've been Diablo, putting them already in the East Bay area, somewhere in the Berkeley-Oakland hills. That hint of geography just made him feel more lost, somehow.
"You said a demon killed me. You meant Azazel, right?"
"Yeah, but he--but he had Brady possessed and he sent him to do it, he must've come back to campus that night, I guess, when Dean and I--when I was gone..."
"Brady killed me? So no deal, right?"
"Then you never made a deal with Azazel? Or did he find some other Mephistolean fine-print way to welch on it?''
"No, I never made a deal."
"Then my family, they're all still alive?"
"As far as I know, yeah. Why? Did they get mixed up in this, somehow? Did Azazel go after them because of me?"
"Hey, I'm not the inter-dimensional body snatcher in the hot seat, here," she said. He flinched slightly at 'body snatcher.' "So last you left off, Satan's still breathing in your universe, right?"
"The one from my universe, yeah, he is. He's gone right now, to another parallel...but I know he won't stay gone. But he's dead here, then? Michael's winning?"
"Michael's dead too. Seven years gone.''
"They both are? But then what...?"
"Shh," she said and she held up the back of her hand in the trans-universal shut-the-hell-up signal, staring down the highway, tense tick of her jaw as she swallowed. There was another body, slumped inside a ring of blood, blood that had soaked into the pavement and turned to dark rust red stains. Jess eased off the accelerator at last, slowing the truck to a crawl. The blood stains looked at least an hour old but the body was stirring, a man--no, a teenage boy, scrawny and sickly white and bruised and with a head of sandy blond hair--shakily lifting his arm in a pathetic stab at a wave. Sam's heart clenched, reminded of Jack. The boy's right leg was bent at the right angle for a badly fractured femur, too much blood puddled beneath it and splattered up his white t-shirt; there shouldn't be that much blood unless the breaking bone had ruptured the femoral artery, but then he should have bled to death long before any blood could dry. Jess stomped on the breaks, head held stiff but eyes sliding furtively back and forth, peering at the densely wooded hills that bracketed the road for as far as could be seen ahead and behind them, the lumberyard's lane having vanished.
"Fuck," she said softly. "This is an ambush."
"How can you tell?" He knew, of course, and yet he had to ask, wanting to know how much experience she'd had in this kind of situation. How many people she'd tried to help before she'd learned to tell when it was pointless or the cost too high.
"That much blood loss and he's not dead, for one thing. Amateurs. Always overdoing it. But since we're in militia territory, we have to assume they're ready for us to put up a fight. And we've got all these fucking hills so they can come down on us from any direction. Alright. This is what we're gonna do."
"They have to think we're falling for it," she said, "So they're not expecting a fight." It wasn't much of a plan. It was hard to call it a plan at all. Reckless, he thought again, heart in his throat. But he couldn't argue with her, couldn't push on this tenuous truce between them. She had no reason to trust him. He had no history with her to presume upon.
She started driving again, a slow steady roll towards the supposedly wounded boy or vampire or ghoul or ghoulpire or whatever he was, until she was within barely a yard of him, and then she started to open the driver's side door. The boy sat up and Sam thought he saw a grin start to stretch his mouth. Jess floored the accelerator. The Ford barreled over him, his body making a sickening crunch under the tires, a big bump from the back rattling the jugs of fuel, grumble of engine and sticky skid of hot rubber on hot pavement.
"And here's the company we were expecting."
In the side-view mirror, Sam saw the rest of the ambush come roaring around the hill that now blocked his view of the lumberyard's side street, five riders on dirt bikes in shiny red leather jackets, bikes shiny and chrome, flashing like comets in the fiery sun.
Jess took her eyes of the road, twisted backwards in her seat and reached into the well behind the seats, coming up with a dart gun, which she handed to Sam. She rolled his window down. He leaned out the window, squinted against the sun's glare, made the shot with a dart which he could only assume was laced with dead-man's blood or some other monster toxin as the stricken biker slid bonelessly off the side of his bike, rolling one way while it skidded out in the opposite direction, like two halves of the same body ripped apart.
"Oh shit," Jess gasped, and Sam whipped his head back around to see two more dirt bikes shoot out between two hills, fanning out to either side of the road, flanking them as they accelerated.
Crack of a gunshot and ringing metal as the bullet ricocheted and Sam had to turn back in his seat, take aim at their tail again. One of the bikers had a handgun and the dexterity to shoot with one hand and steer his bike with the other. His bullets were dinging off the fenders and hubcaps, targeting their tires. Sam tried to line up a shot at him, but he was side-winding in and out of Sam's blind spot. Even if a bullet pierced a tire, it wouldn't deflate right away and the damage would only slow them down. They must be really determined to get live prey if he wasn't shooting at the truck's cab.
The entire body of the truck jolted and rattled like it had been struck by lightning, a minor explosion crackling in Sam's ears and his breath half knocked out by the whiplash, acrid air stinging his lungs when he tried to suck it back in, and a bullet hadn't done that. The truck skidded to a halt and whipped the breath from his lungs again, hot pins-and-needles pain in the back of his neck. The bullets had been a distraction. One of the other bikers must have thrown a small bomb, likely a Molotov, under the truck and he was smelling burning rubber and gasoline and the truck had a full tank and several additional jugs of fuel and it was going to be a huge fucking vesuvian fireball when it ignited and it was a miracle they hadn't been obliterated yet. He met Jess' eyes for one precious second. Her eyes were adrenaline bright and if there was fear in them he couldn't recognize it.
Jess kicked her door open and leaped out. Sam followed her out the same door, watching the men who had leaped off their dirt bikes and were prowling towards them while fanning out into a half-circle formation to box them in against the truck. The truck, which Sam didn't dare glance back at but he could smell the plumes of gasoline fumes and dirty smoke rising.
The bikers still looked human, acid green tattoos of pentagrams under their eyes and interlocking hands circling their necks. Sam was raising the dart gun again, aiming at one who was strolling towards him with the relaxed gate of a predator who has already fatally lamed his prey, a slight smile playing around his thin mouth, lighting up his lean and hungry face. Sam felt his aim hopelessly thrown off in the second he pulled the trigger and in the next he felt his arm refuse to respond to his brain's attempt to direct its movements and in the second after that he registered the familiar pain of a knife sinking in between joint and muscle and ligaments and the warm sticky flow of blood spreading out from his shoulder and under his armpit. One of the men had thrown a knife, the movement faster than his eye could track it. He dropped the dart gun. He reached instinctively to slide his fingers around the blade burrowed in his right shoulder instead of reaching for another gun or a knife. His knees tried to buckle and he wasted brainpower on trying to will them not to. He was useless. He couldn't help Jess.
Jess had a machete in her hands, she had ducked under the grasping hands of one of the men and sliced his thigh open with it, twirled upright again and with a backstroke taken his head off. Side roundhouse kick to the gut of another, doubled him over, hacked his head off from above, executioner-style. Four to go, he thought, but he wasn't sure, he thought he saw more bodies stirring out of the corner of his eye. The biker with the gun had glacial blue eyes and a widening grin and a necklace of thorns tattooed around his neck and a Colt 45 that he was aiming at Jess. Get in front of her, Sam thought to himself and took an unsteady step several seconds too slow towards the bullet's trajectory, crying her name.
A numb blank helpless second in which his body might as well be in someone else's possession again, for all the control he was exercising over it, and he was certain he had failed her again. And then--
Sam felt an unreal heat swell inside him, and the man--no, his eyes were white suddenly, a bright burning white heat like the sun, he was something else--was burning, flames licking his skin and the smell of roasting meat rolling off him in a big wave that overflowed and swamped Sam's senses, a low roar in his ears, smoke and heat stinging his eyes, making them water, making them squeeze shut. Screaming rising over the crackle and pop and roar of fire, one long howl of horror. He'd done this. This should bring back sense-memories of the cage but it didn't, maybe because, oh right, he was the one doing it, he had the power here. But he wanted it to stop and he couldn't make it stop. There was something--oh no, there was someone else inside him and he couldn't stop them from waking up and they couldn't stop him from slipping out of consciousness, which he was rapidly doing. Leaving Jess alone and she still had more enemies to fight, too many to take on alone no matter how good she was, how deadly, how different from the girl he knew. He had blood streaming out of his nose and into his panting mouth, his or someone else's. That someone wanted him to get the fuck out and let him claw his way back to the surface and that someone probably had the right of way here but Sam still fought back out of cornered-animal instinct. He could not bear to be held down again, helpless. He didn't have a choice. They were both going down.