|The Other Little Girl
Author: Guede Mazaka
It was a clear, calm night. The sunset had been spectacular thanks to the dense smog that surrounded nearby Chicago and often trailed southeast as thick white sausages of clouds. All in all, Marisa thought, it had been a good day.
She hadn’t been here very long. Most of her life had been spent with her mother and her mother’s family on the East Coast, and she’d always planned it to go on that way. But one thing after another had intervened, and she’d been barely scraping by in a closet apartment when she’d found out that her father was not dead as she’d always been told. He was alive but not well, and he was willing to house her if she took care of him for the last few years of his life.
Marisa had come down, head so high and neck so stiff she’d gone to sleep every night the first week with an ice-pack as her pillow. But nursing Mr. Lovett hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d expected, and it was beginning to look like she might even be able to start her music again, pick up some part-time work at the universities in the area as a pianist. She still wished she was back in the city, but she supposed the Midwest suburbs weren’t the end of the world.
“Marisa?” quavered Mr. Lovett.
She still couldn’t name him ‘Dad,’ even in her mind. He was a decrepit old hump in a chair that spent most of his time in the library, poring over an old Bible, and occasionally he asked for help up the stairs or for more salt on his dinner. He was all right, but he just didn’t strike any chords in her. “Yes?” she said, turning away from the front door.
Just then, something creaked sharply; Marisa turned back barely in time to yank her hand away from the doorframe. A second later, the wind had slammed the screen door into the frame, and she was left staring at it in a mix of relief and surprise.
“Lock up, girl. Lock up and get away from there.” More creaking signaled Mr. Lovett’s entrance, wheeling himself into the foyer. He was trembling—he always trembled, so that sometimes she had to hand-feed him his pills, but this was more than usual. “Close the door. The night wind’s bad for you.”
“It’s all right. It’s not cold tonight, and anyway I have on a—” Marisa began. Then she frowned and looked over her shoulder again. She could’ve sworn she’d heard a thump outside, as if a kid had kicked a ball against the side of the house. “What was that? Is that redheaded boy out pranking?”
She made as if to go out, but before she’d gone more than an inch, she was dragged back at the elbow. Marisa twisted about, then jerked free of Mr. Lovett and fell back against the stair banister, shocked. She could still feel his bony fingers slicing into her arm as if they were made of knives: who would have thought such an old man could still exert that much force?
“Close the door, girl!” he snapped, rolling himself forward. He didn’t look to see where he was going and he would have run over her foot if she hadn’t yanked it out of the way at the last moment. “Close it when I tell you to, or—”
He recoiled. He almost overturned his wheelchair, and at first Marisa thought he might be having a heart attack because he’d gone so white and was gasping so hard. She grabbed the left back handle of the chair and pulled it steady, and she would’ve checked on its occupant as well if Mr. Lovett hadn’t abruptly taken off. She’d never seen him go so fast. The tires practically left skid marks on the wooden floor, and the handle banged so hard into a corner that she could see the shiny fresh chip in the oak runner that ran around the wall.
“Jesus.” Marisa got herself on both feet and stared after him for a couple seconds. Had she ever spoken too soon about it being a good day…maybe he was getting dementia? Great. She definitely wasn’t about to take that on, and God knew where the money for a rest home would come from. “Jesus Christ.”
She slewed herself around and had one hand on the wide-open door before she realized the porch was now occupied. A little dirty-blonde girl with brown eyes stood on it, her hands pressed against the glass top panel of the screen door. She looked more like one of the posters for a save-the-children organization than a Hallmark cherub: her face was white and pinched, all shaded in disturbing blue shadows, and her hair was filthy, tangled with green and twigs as if she’d been playing in a bush. “Let me in,” she whispered.
“Oh.” Where the hell are Child Protection Services, was what Marisa really wanted to say, but she pulled herself together. She was a born-and-bred New Yorker, for Christ’s sakes. Nothing floored her. “Well, hello. What’s your name?”
“Lyddie.” There was something weird about the way the girl said that, not so much a lisp as a…an odd softness in how she pronounced the harder consonants. She moved one of her hands like she was stroking the wire mesh. “You need to let me in. It won’t be like last time.”
Marisa raised an eyebrow. This girl was what, a really backwards eleven at most? Where were her parents? “Do you…come here often?”
“I live here,” Lyddie said. Her lip curled in a chillingly adult way to show cracked teeth, some with reddish blotches at the gum. Suddenly she struck at the mesh so it rattled loudly; Marisa jumped. “Let. Me. In.”
It was natural for Marisa’s eyes to go to the girl’s hand, and she saw that they were…they were…they didn’t have fingers. The ends had been worn bloody down to the knuckles, and little gleaming pieces of white stuck out that Marisa shied away from, in terms of both staring and thinking about them. Something hard struck Marisa’s hand and she gasped, looked frantically about. Realized she’d backed up right into the staircase.
“Let. Me. In.” Lyddie’s mouth cracked open as if a fist had struck it, and filled the whole doorway with virulent red. She snarled like a rabid dog, and as Marisa threw up her arms and screamed, she barely glimpsed the monster leaping at the screen.
It shook and clattered horrendously, fit to ring in the apocalypse, and Marisa genuinely did believe that that was what was happening. She wanted to run as fast and far as she could from the door, but her knees failed her and she collapsed where she was, screaming and screaming and screaming.
Still screaming—hoarsely now, because she couldn’t stop long enough for breath—Marisa threw up her head. She saw the empty doorway and it seemed to act like a spur: she threw herself at the front door, slammed it and locked it, and ten minutes later she was huddling in her bed with the covers over her head. “It wasn’t real,” she sobbed. “Wasn’t real, wasn’t real…”
* * *
“Maybe she’s not home,” Dean suggested. He refused to wear the sling the clinic doctor had given him, but he might as well have. He kept his left arm bent and close to him as he shuffled around, casting uneasy looks down the hall.
“Then who buzzed us into the building?” It wasn’t really clear to Sam why his brother was suddenly all reluctant and nervy, especially since it’d been Dean that had suggested they stop here and beg for a free night’s lodgings. Especially since Dean had apparently neglected to mention he had gotten a phone number till he’d turned onto the exit ramp and Sam had said it was the next one over. “Come on. It’s past finals, and anyway, we brought food.”
Dean shrugged and glanced at the bulging bag of great smells Sam was holding. He sighed, knocked again at the door, and rubbed at his injured shoulder. “This had better work. I’m a little sick of women going psycho on me.”
“The last one was about ten years short of being a woman,” Sam muttered. He caught himself jerking his head down right after, but still had to fiddle with his cuff a second before checking on Dean. It was always okay to joke lightly—it was a sanity-preservation tactic—but the stuff beneath that pond was still a little too muddy to chance much prodding.
“But—” Dean started.
The door swung open before he could finish. Sybil slouched against one side of the doorway and glowered while wiping squishy pink bits off her fingers with a rag. “At least you called ahead.”
“And we brought dinner.” Sam held out the bag and put on his best polite face. “So there’s two subs, a cup of soup, half a dozen cookies…”
“Jesus. You guys got brains.” After blinking a couple times, Sybil leaned forward to peer at the bag Sam had. Then she turned around and walked inside the apartment, waving at them to follow. “Sort of. Get in here. My neighbor already thinks I’ve got some weirdo cult meeting in here, so I don’t need you standing around flipping switchblades.”
What? What…oh. Sam glimpsed a flash of silver just before an embarrassed-looking Dean shoved his hand into his coat-pocket. They went inside, Dean closing the door with his foot.
Stephen didn’t seem to be around, but there was another guy standing over a pot at Sybil’s stove. He looked up as Sam and Dean squeezed through the kitchenette and began to make for the living room beyond. “Hey,” he said, lifting his hand. “You’re the guys with that whole snake-woman thing, right?”
Dean paused and frowned, brow furrowing. His confusion cleared up after a moment and he snapped his fingers at the other man. “You’re the pig’s-blood guy!”
“Jack. Sam?” Jack guessed.
To which Dean screwed up his face, and Sam kept himself from smacking his brother by putting the food down on the dining table. He wasn’t sure if Sybil’s reaction constituted an acceptance, but the bag bottom was beginning to sag dangerously beneath the weight and he didn’t feel like having food on his feet.
“Ah, Dean, then. So you’re Sam. Man, with what Sybil told me—I’m just glad I got to sleep through most of that one.” Shaking his head, Jack returned his attention to the pot he was stirring. Occasionally he’d lift the long wooden spoon he was using, but instead of tasting the stuff, he eyeballed the liquid with a faintly disgusted look on his face. Sam couldn’t blame him, since rust-orange wasn’t really appetizing. “Oh, hey, take off the shoes. Did you take off the shoes?”
“What?” Dean said.
Sybil came back from wherever she’d gone with damp, clean hands and minus the rag. She flipped her hands around as she death-glared Dean and Sam’s feet. “Take those off, damn it. I like my carpet and I want it clean.”
Jack sent them a sympathy-look, but didn’t move from where he was. Sam sighed and bent over to undo his laces, while Dean just braced himself against a wall with his hand and toed his off. The first one bounced and banged softly against the wall.
Both Sam and Jack winced. Dean started to give Sam a funny look, but then he noticed Sybil’s expression. With exaggerated care, he took off his second boot and set it and the first one neatly along the wall.
“Thank you, Dean,” Sybil snorted. She wandered over to check on whatever Jack was cooking, then pulled herself up onto the counter to rummage around in the cabinets. “So how far away is it and how many nightmares am I going to have?”
“Hi, Sybil. We’ve been okay, aside from getting mauled and nearly killed every other day. The last time, they were crazy Minnesota hill-people. How are you? How’s Stephen?” The smile on Dean’s face looked painful. The sarcasm in his voice was painful, in that he was really stretching it. Honestly, they could’ve just gone to a motel. “You eat dinner already?”
Various spice bottles and bags began to clutter up the counter around Sybil’s knees. She paused once to pull out a dried something and toss it into the pot on the stove. “No, I didn’t, and the food smells like you remember what I ordered last time, so congrats on your amazing observational skills. You volunteer to get mauled, so whining’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? And Stephen’s helping me gut fish in the bathtub, so I hope you don’t need to piss. You can’t smell it out here but you can in there.”
So Dean was blood, but even with that, Sam had to admit she’d completely shot Dean down. Personally, Sam was getting tired of standing, so he pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. “Gutting fish?”
“Well, you’re here, so I’ve got to put something out to distract the neighborhood bogeymen. This had better not be the orchard in Indiana,” Sybil muttered. She poked around at the bottles on the counter, then reached up to get one more. Then she shut the counter and hopped back to the floor.
Jack glanced at her, like he was thinking about helping, but instead he pursed his lips and kept his head down.
“It’s not the orchard in Indiana. It’s right in good old Illinois,” Dean said, flopping into the chair next to Sam.
Sam paused, then twisted around to stare at him. “Wait a minute. I thought we were just here to freeload for the night. You never said anything about bothering her.”
“That’s right. I didn’t say anything.” Dean snapped his fingers in Sam’s face like some vaudeville magician, complete with the big smile. He pivoted to show it to Sybil, who…was digging deep into the bag of food.
Both Dean and Sam grimaced, and Sam knew they were each thinking she’d better have washed her hands first. Because otherwise that was just gross.
“You said you were going to a job, and you said you were nursing a bad arm, and you said the thing’s supposed to be violent-had-I-heard-anything.” Sybil raised her head, swallowing, and searched around till she found a napkin. She tossed one empty sandwich wrapper into the trash and pulled out the second sub, taking it to the stove with her. “That’s kind of a lot of nothing.”
Sam looked at Dean. Dean glanced back, made a little shrug, and pointedly leaned forward. He tapped his fingers a couple times on the table. “I was just wondering. You know, standard background research.”
“Yeah, sure. What happened to the arm? Cannibal hillbillies wanted a taste-test?” Whatever was on the stove suddenly let out a lopsided burp that had Jack flinching back in disgust. As soon as he moved away, Sybil moved in to sniff at it. She grimaced. “Okay, it’s ready. Mind getting Stephen?”
“Sure.” Jack ambled off.
Flicking a finger at his back, Dean tilted back his head to peer thoughtfully at Sybil. “What’s his story?”
“What, I can’t hang out with guys that take supernatural shit for granted?” Sybil snorted. She turned down the heat before coming back to the table. Score another one for her.
Dean didn’t exactly wince. He sort of twitched his acknowledgment of the good shot. “Palatine, Illinois. Little girl-ghost has been freaking out the neighborhood, chasing some of the kids. Some of their mothers are Catholics and have been telling the parish priest about it, and I know a guy that knows a—”
“Whatever. You heard about it,” Sybil dismissively said. After another glower, she pulled over the food bag and took out the soup. Something that almost was a look of pleasure crossed her face when she smelled it. “Palatine, huh? That’s less than an hour from here.”
She didn’t eat messily or anything, but she did eat incredibly fast. In the time it took her to say that, she’d finished about a third of the soup; Dean was starting to stare and Sam had to elbow him.
After shooting Sam a dirty look, Dean resettled himself and warily watched Sybil. “Yep.”
“So I was going to celebrate my first school-free weekend by collapsing in bed with Stephen, but I suppose my psychic abilities have singled me out and so for the greater good of mankind, I should offer to go with you two and check it out,” she drawled. The soup she was spooning into her mouth didn’t muffle her sarcasm at all. “Let’s see, go and tell you two the best way to get beaten up by ghosts or snuggle the boyfriend. This is a really tough one.”
Someone cleared their throat, and Sam looked up to see Stephen standing at the corner with very clean, pinkish hands, as if he’d scrubbed them to within an inch of their lives. Behind him loitered Jack, who was idly checking out the ceiling swirls. Stephen’s face color was heading towards the red end of the spectrum.
“Hi, Stephen. They brought cookies. Want one?” Sybil snagged the bag and held it out to him.
“Dude, we should sprinkle her with holy water sometime,” Dean muttered to Sam. “You know, just to check.”
Stephen coughed again and came over to look into the bag. “And then I’ll doublecheck if you’re really a man by smashing your balls. Sybil’s not evil. Nice to see you again, Dean. Sam.”
Sam startled out of his contemplation of what size pot would be best for stuffing into Dean’s mouth and nodded back. “Stephen. So…um, how’s the fraternity?”
“Had to disband. They got this terrible termite infestation in Mike’s room and couldn’t manage to find another house.” The other man pulled out the chocolate-chip cookie and handed it to Sybil, then reached in for another one. “How’s the, uh, thing with the monsters?”
It was kind of funny. Less than a year since Sam had been kicked out of a normal social sphere and he was already rusty. “It’s…fine. We’re killing them and…it’s fine.”
“Yeah, killing. We kill a lot of them,” Dean chimed in. He added a meaningful look to Sybil, who understood perfectly and clearly didn’t give a damn.
There was an awkward moment. At least, Sam thought it was awkward. He had a feeling Stephen would agree with him, but Sybil and Dean might’ve begged to differ, given the stare-war they had going.
“This is way more fun than hanging out at some club trying to avoid my asshole of an ex,” Jack grinned. “You know, Sybil, for such an antisocial girl, you always have the best guests.”
“They’re your guests,” Sybil snapped. “You agreed, remember?”
Jack blinked, then looked a little like the Disney version of the Cheshire cat. “Oh, yeah. Since it’d be a little awkward with Stephen—”
“Conversation’s over.” Stephen gazed around, and thankfully, no one seemed to disagree. He slowly let out his breath and began unwrapping the plastic from his cookie. “New topic?”
“So this ghost…” Dean started.
Sybil rolled her eyes as she polished off the last of her cookie. “Fine, I’ll come. If only because I don’t want your idiot ghosts coming back here if something fucks up.”
* * *
“…main exploded yesterday and they still haven’t gotten water back to all the houses on that street, so Stephen’s hanging with Sybil till they do. Got to say, I’m impressed there weren’t knife-shaped holes in the walls,” Jack said. He had his head buried in his closet, which was so full of clothing it looked ready to burst outward at the slightest touch. Somehow Jack was still managing to extract towels and spare blankets without setting it off. “Anyway, the air mattress is the grey one and the other one’s just a foam bed, but it’s not too bad. Anything else?”
“No, I think we’re good.” Dean promptly handed off his share of the linens to Sam so he could trail after Jack. “You going out?”
Jack grabbed a light coat from a chair and started putting it on. “Yeah. I work in this lab and I’m running an experiment late tonight—need to go turn off equipment. I’ll be back in a half-hour or so. Help yourself to whatever you need, and if there’s a problem, my cell number’s on the fridge.”
“Thanks,” Sam called after him. It was pretty muffled due to the gigantic pile in Sam’s arms, but he heard a faint ‘you’re welcome’ just before the door closed.
Sam sat down on the couch and dropped his armful on the foam mattress. It held together for a few seconds, but the pile was already tilting and it kept on till it finally fell over. One towel flopped over Dean’s foot.
He wriggled said appendage, then kicked up so he could grab the towel. “Man, Sammy. Good hospitality is something to cherish, not to take advantage of.”
And that, coming from him, was incredibly rich. But Sam wasn’t going to bring that up right now, and not out of politeness: he had more important things to needle Dean about. “So we’re asking Sybil for help?”
“We’re consulting her. What? It’s not like we don’t go see librarians or college professors when we have to.” Dean slung the towel over his shoulder and casually walked into the bathroom, like that was going to convince Sam this wasn’t out of the ordinary.
He got up and followed Dean, stopping at the doorway. He almost got a leather jacket in the face that way and barely caught it in time. “I’m not a coathanger, Dean.”
“Nope, but you know where to get one, don’t you?” Dean said, working on his shirt-buttons. He got halfway down before he sighed and turned to face Sam. “I just thought it’d be nice to get a direct read on a situation for once instead of having to spend a day checking it out first. She’s nearby, and she wouldn’t have given me her number if she hadn’t expected me to use it.”
“She seems pretty good with Stephen,” Sam replied.
Dean mock-recoiled in horror, then lightly smacked Sam on the shoulder. He finished undoing his shirt-buttons, but let the shirt hang over his undershirt while he splashed water on his face. Halfway through he stopped and rubbed at his shoulder. “Sammy, give me some credit. I don’t always think about that with a girl. Anyway, I don’t know how Stephen puts up with her temper and I don’t want to know. He can have her.”
“But we’re inviting her to go on a hunting trip with us anyway? Somehow I’m thinking your driving isn’t going to endear you to Sybil.” Not to mention it was unlike Dean to complain much about having to do detective-work, let alone try to avoid it or to push it off onto someone else. The lag-time before they had enough information to go into action got to Dean more than it did to Sam, but Dean still seemed to treat it as just coming with the job.
“You know, I don’t get you. You’re already complaining about how I’m not careful enough, how we need to check things out more carefully, but now that I’m trying to do that, you’re ragging on me? Jesus, Sam—don’t be the nagging girlfriend in our relationship, okay?” Done rinsing his face, Dean wiped his hands on the towel he had over his shoulder. He rummaged around in the handful of bottles Jack had in the shower, occasionally pulling one up to see what brand it was.
Sam leaned against the doorway and settled in for a long wait. He looked around the bathroom to give himself something to do, but everything was pretty plain and soon his eyes wandered back to Dean. Specifically, to Dean’s shoulder. “You came out of the last mess worse off than I did. I just have some bruises.”
“Still doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass.” Dean shot a firm look over his shoulder to reinforce that. “You gonna give me any privacy, here? I know we’re close, but I don’t think we’re that close.”
Right, Dean. Just keep on avoiding the subject, Sam thought. He rocked his weight back onto his heels, then forward to his toes.
Eventually Dean ran out of bottles to examine and was forced to face Sam. He sighed and sat down on the edge of the tub, tipping back and forth a few times. Then he planted his feet flat against the ground and looked up at Sam. He uneasily moved his shoulders. “The last couple jobs have been weird. Well, weirder than usual. I mean, Max. Then the best reasons ever to kill off country music…”
So that was what this was about. On the one hand, Sam was touched. On the other hand, he was deeply exasperated. “I’m not going to get jumped in a parking lot again, all right? Besides, this sounds like a straightforward haunting.”
“Yeah, well, call me paranoid, but when Dad says be careful, there’s a demon out watching us and suddenly links to it start falling in our laps, I get worried,” Dean snapped.
That surprised Sam, but he needed a moment to figure out why it surprised him. After all, the Benders had been nutcases, but hadn’t shown any connection to their mom’s killer. Max definitely had, but Dean hadn’t seemed to take that too seriously. He hadn’t completely ignored it either, but he’d just treated it as more clues to be filed away till they became relevant. So Sam didn’t get why the two would be linked in Dean’s head, since the only things they really had in common were…
…Sam had gotten hurt, and Dean hadn’t known why. But Sam hadn’t gotten hurt, really, by the Benders. He’d just disappeared…and Dean hadn’t known where he was, and like with Max, at first Dean hadn’t been treating the job with deadly seriousness. Okay. It wasn’t a real rational connection, but Sam could see it. “You are paranoid,” he told Dean.
“And why is that a bad thing? Keeps us alive, doesn’t it?” Dean retorted. He gripped the edge of the tub and rocked in place. He looked uncomfortable, but slightly belligerent.
Sam resisted the urge to sigh, and instead stepped out to make up their beds. “She’s going to hate your music.”
“Hey, she might be a Metallica fan! Don’t say that—you’ll jinx things!”
* * *
Sybil disappeared from the rearview mirror as she flopped down on the backseat. She muttered something in Chinese that didn’t sound very nice.
“Ow,” Stephen said. “Sybil, elbow.”
“What was that?” Dean called out. He whipped them from parallel-parked to cruising down the street in about two seconds.
Something in the backseat got cracked pretty hard, and a moment later Stephen appeared in the rearview with a pained look on his face. He was rubbing the side of his head. “Never mind, that hurt more. She said she can’t believe you’re playing stuff that was written before she was born.”
“Stop making up translations.” A hand holding a black iPod hooked itself over the top of the seat. Then Sybil pulled the rest of her grumpy self up, poking at her earbuds as she did. She pushed herself back and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Stephen’s lap, as far as Sam could tell. “I said, your taste in music sucks.”
Dean’s expression seemed to be genuinely pained. Sam was torn between sympathy and amusement. Stephen threw back his head and stared at the ceiling so nobody could see what his reaction was.
“I think I like Stephen’s version better,” Dean said.
“You would. You know what, I’m taking a nap. Wake me up when we’re there,” Sybil ordered. She vanished from sight again.
Once they were on the highway and had enough room for Dean’s aggressiveness, Sam glanced back. Actually, Sybil was almost cute when she was sleeping. She stopped scowling and gave off an air of harmlessness. She was also surprisingly tiny when she wasn’t swearing and snarling at them.
“Don’t wake her up,” Stephen quietly said, bringing his head back down. He started to say something else, but a yawn interrupted and he had to get that out of the way first. “She didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Really.” As monotone as Dean’s voice was, it still packed in a hell of a lot of insinuation into that one word.
Stephen glanced to the side and chewed briefly on a knuckle. He didn’t blush, but Sam got the impression that if Sybil hadn’t been lying over the man’s lap like a beartrap with a ponytail, he would’ve squirmed a little. “She’s not bitchy all the time,” he weakly offered.
“But does it balance out, I wonder,” Dean muttered.
Sam hid a grin, but when he saw Dean gearing up to tease some more, he jumped in first. He didn’t think it was that great of an idea to antagonize the one person for whom Sybil seemed to care much. “So no offense, but why are you coming?”
“Well, I figured if you were going to get her all riled up, I’d prefer to deal with her right after. She’s worse when she has time to stew on things.” Shrugging, Stephen leaned over. He came back up holding Sybil’s iPod and started wrapping the earbud cord around it. “So what’s the deal? She didn’t say much.”
“About a week ago, people started spotting the ghost of a little girl around this neighborhood. She’s blonde, looks like she had a rough time, and is between eight and eleven. At first she didn’t do much except scare people into running back inside after taking out the garbage, but lately she’s been getting more physical,” Dean said. He popped out the Metallica tape he currently had in and swapped it for his loudest Zeppelin one before Sam could stop him. In the back, Sybil groaned and wrapped her arms over her head; Dean grinned like he could see exactly what she was doing. “She ran out in front of a car yesterday night and nearly got it plowing into a nearby house. Made the newspaper.”
He nodded to Sam. After a moment, Sam got what Dean meant and irritably handed over the printout of the article they’d found earlier in the morning. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to give it to Stephen so much that he really, really was beginning to dislike Dean’s attitude. Fine, careful was good, but this whole order-the-little-brother-around bit had been old when they were eight and twelve and Dean had told Sammy to take out the trash because Dean was busy fighting the monster beneath the bed.
Stephen snagged the sheets and quickly scanned through them, then flipped them back and read them again. He had to stop halfway through to pry Sybil’s elbow out of his stomach. “Huh. I haven’t heard of any little girls dying around there recently, and usually that stuff makes primetime.”
“That’s because there haven’t been. The neighborhood’s been picture-perfect—the whole town’s been pretty quiet for the last ten years,” Dean said. He stared at the station wagon in front of them, which was going just barely fast enough to meet the speed limit. His lip started to curl and his fingers drummed ever harder on the wheel.
Sam got a good grip on his seatbelt and turned around to motion for Stephen to do the same, but the other man had already gotten a clue. “Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a recent event to trigger a ghost,” Sam added. “She could’ve died a hundred years ago, but only show up now because of circumstances.”
“Making a compost heap on her grave and all that, right? But if she’d died that far back, wouldn’t someone have noticed her clothes?” Just as the car leaped forward, Stephen audibly jammed his heels against the floor. He almost swung off the seat anyway, but managed to get his arm up against the back of Dean’s seat in time.
What he didn’t successfully do was keep Sybil from toppling forward. She hit the back of the front seat with a thump, then came clawing up muttering what sounded like apocalyptic curses. Once she was upright, she just hung onto the seat for a second, looking at Dean. The corner of Dean’s mouth was twitching a little.
Sybil’s eyes narrowed. She whacked the back of Dean’s head so hard that Sam thought he could hear teeth rattle. “Yeah, they would’ve. So she’s within the last twenty years, at least. Not too surprising—Palatine’s had its crap moments.”
Stephen absently pulled Sybil back as she was gearing up for another whack. Then his face cleared. “Oh, right. Brown’s Chicken Massacre.”
Sam looked at Dean, and once Dean was done rubbing his head and thinking people would sympathize with his pitiful look, he glanced at Sam. Then he turned around. “I’m guessing this wasn’t a fried chicken contest gone terribly, terribly wrong?”
“Back in 1994, these two guys walked seven people into a chicken restaurant’s freezer, shot them, and got away with it for nine years. They finally were arrested three years ago, but the trial’s been delayed because somebody lost these computers with the evidence on it,” Stephen said. He shrugged and handed Sybil back her iPod. “Depressing, isn’t it? Or impressive if you’re them, I guess.”
“Where is this house again?” She stuck the iPod somewhere and grabbed the printout from Stephen. She skimmed much faster than he did, and apparently got enough from that so that she didn’t need a second read-through. “Well, not the same place.”
Dean stopped rubbing the back of his head, but still looked annoyed. “No, it’s not. Like I said, we did some preliminary research on the neighborhood and there wasn’t anything.”
“Did you only go ten years back?” Sybil asked.
“We didn’t limit the search, but nothing jumped out at us no matter how far back,” Sam said. When she was done, he took back the papers and folded them away into the door pocket. “There’s been a couple car accidents, one house fire, some fighting couples, but nothing where anybody died. Most of the incidents seem to take place around the house of a Mr. Lovett, but he seems to have a pretty quiet history, too.”
“We’re seeing his daughter, Marisa. She was a lapsed Catholic, but she had a nasty run-in with the kid and now she loves Hail Mary again, apparently.” The turn-off came up and Dean skidded them over two lanes in order to make it in time. He started bopping his head to the music. “I mean, Sam and I are seeing her. Wouldn’t want to put you out too much.”
Sybil looked like she would’ve whapped him again if she’d still had the printout. She pulled the earbuds from her pocket and shoved them into her ears. “I’ll just hang out with your car, thank you. It’s got more interesting stories.”
Dean stopped bopping. He was still for a second before he glanced over his shoulder.
“Nobody’s died in here,” Sam cautiously said. She was bluffing. He hoped she was, because the stuff that had gone on in and around the Impala wasn’t just embarrassing to Dean.
“Nope.” The expression on Sybil’s face was just matter-of-fact enough to worry Sam.
Stephen flicked his eyes upward as if he was contemplating taking up the Hail Mary line. “What are you guys telling her?”
Crap. Sam knew he’d forgotten to bring up something. With all the prodding he’d had to do to get Dean to admit why they were stopping at Sybil’s in the first place, he’d completely let coming up with a cover story drop out of his mind. “Um…”
“I was thinking the priest routine might work again. I think Marisa got told the parish was sending in specialists,” Dean said.
“You have priest robes?” Sybil incredulously asked. “My God. I’m surprised you don’t spontaneously combust when you put those on.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work. If that house over there—” Stephen leaned forward and pointed at one coming up “—is it, then I think somebody’s going to notice.”
He nodded towards the opposite side of the street, which had houses, but most of it was taken up by a fenced-in brushy area. Just over the shrub-tops, a cathedral’s spires could be made out.
“Okay, no priests.” Sam was more than a little relieved about that. Maybe he wasn’t that Christian, but he had seen at least the trappings of that religion have effects against monsters, so he had respect for the Church. He had respect, and the illogical but persistent feeling that someday their dress-up stunts were really going to bite them in the ass. “Well, the Church has laymen working for them. If this Marisa is lapsed, she won’t be too familiar with the hierarchy anymore. Just don’t stretch it too far.”
“Me? Stretch it too far? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sammy. I’m a paragon of diplomacy,” Dean primly said as he parked.
Sybil sort of fell over in slow-motion and buried her face in Stephen’s shoulder. She was shaking with badly-muffled laughter.
A good two minutes later, she was still laughing. Dean gave her a disgusted look, then got out of the car. “No making out in the backseat while we’re gone, kids,” he told Stephen.
Sam walked around, got Dean by the elbow, and dragged his brother up the walk before he could set off Sybil any more. Sometimes Dean just needed to be stopped from making things worse. With a blunt object, if necessary.
* * *
“It was all just…see, I’m from New York City and I thought I’d seen everything, but…” Marisa Dellacroce sucked air back through her nose hard and stared down at the cup of tea that she loosely held between her knees. She was around Dean’s age, with a sense of style but nothing remarkable as far as looks went. She just looked like an average person who’d been scared out of her wits and was still recovering from it. “So that’s what happened. She showed up at the door and demanded I let her in, and when I didn’t right away, she…she…”
Sam and Dean gave her a moment to compose herself. She’d offered them tea and Dean hadn’t taken any, but Sam had. He wasn’t all that into tea, but sipping gave him something to do during the inevitable awkward moments where he just couldn’t think of what to say. It was funny: all the hunting they’d done had left them really good at getting rid of monsters, but still fumbling around when it came to comforting the victims.
“Marisa? You mind if I…” Dean shyly ducked his head and smiled self-consciously “…I was just curious about something. You introduced yourself as Marisa Dellacroce, but your father’s last name is Lovett.”
“Oh. Oh, right.” She reached for some tissues from a side-table and started dabbing at her eyes. “No, it’s fine. I just found out myself. I was raised by my mom, and she told me my father was dead right up till she died. But it turns out he wasn’t, and we just met up again.”
Dean gave her an encouraging smile that brought a little bit of pink to her cheeks, which made Sam struggle hard not to roll his eyes. There was lulling the witness into a sense of security to make them talk more, and then there was just overdoing it. “Is your father around? Can we talk to him?”
“He’s always around, but he doesn’t like talking to people. I guess I can ask, but I don’t know.” Marisa shrugged as she drank her tea. When she lowered her cup, she was wearing a peculiar smile, almost bitter. “I did think to ask if he knew who the girl was, since she’d said she lived here, but he said no. But…”
“But?” Dean repeated, eyebrows raised.
She shrugged again and glanced towards the window. Her hand shook so tea splashed up against the inside of the mug so high it almost lapped over the edge. Marisa grimaced and wiped her hand on her jeans, then reached into a pocket and pulled out a rosary. She nervously clicked the beads. “He…it was like he knew something was coming. He ordered—I mean ordered me to shut the door. And he saw her too, but he ran off.”
“It’d be really helpful if we could talk to him, even if he doesn’t think he knows anything useful,” Sam said. He put his half-drunk tea on the table between them.
“I don’t…well, you can always ask, right?” Marisa uneasily remarked. She flipped a few more beads, then abruptly stood up. “He’s in his study right now. It’s this way.”
The house seemed like an ordinary house off-hand. They might have to go through it with their gear later, but usually Sam could get some kind of read just from experience and he wasn’t getting it here. He wasn’t really reassured—Max’s house had been the same way.
Mr. Lovett was wheelchair-bound, which set Dean back on his heels for a second. So that no one noticed, Sam stepped up and extended a hand. “Hi, sir. We’re—”
“Marisa told me who you were. I’m not talking to you about it, so you can leave. What’s my business is mine, and nobody’s got the right to stick their nose into it,” the old man snapped. He turned glowering, red rheumy eyes on Marisa. “Goddamn it, your mother was the same way. Always running to the priest when she didn’t get her way.”
“I’m just trying to help,” Marisa protested. “I was scared to death. And what if she—”
The screech of wheels cut her off as Mr. Lovett slewed himself around. The study wasn’t that big, but Sam supposed it was the symbolism of moving three feet further into the room that counted. It definitely came off that way.
“I’m so sorry,” Marisa said as she let them out. She glanced back inside, then looked at them. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He was all right when I first came out here, but ever since that night he’s been…like a completely different person. I’ll admit, I’d be a little afraid of him if he wasn’t stuck in that chair.”
“Well, if he changes his mind, let us know,” Dean automatically replied. He clearly didn’t sound optimistic about that.
Sam started down the steps, then had a thought and turned back. “Marisa? When did you move here?”
“Oh…three weeks ago, I guess. I got in town on the sixth.” The last they saw of her was a pale, trembly hand on the inside handle of the screen door.
Dean slowed down to let Sam pull even with him as they walked down the sidewalk. “Yeah, he knows something. Think it’s like with Lucas and the boy in the lake?”
“But then who died?” Sam asked. Then again, they’d mainly focused their searches on the area and not the people, so Lovett could’ve been involved in something somewhere else. “I guess it could’ve followed him…Stephen? What’s up?”
The other man was pacing around the Impala, hands jammed in his pockets and an edgy expression on his face. He jumped and stumbled off the curb when Sam called to him, barely catching himself on the car’s back end. “Sybil got out of the car as soon as you two went inside and caught something. She sneaked around back to take a look.”
“And…you’re guarding the car, or something?” Dean said. He wasn’t exactly disapproving, or mocking.
Stephen flushed away and the line of his jaw firmed up. “She made it pretty clear she didn’t want me coming, otherwise I would have. I…Sybil? Sybil?”
Had emerged from the backyard and was stalking towards the car with a grim expression on her face. She ignored Stephen’s and then Dean’s questions and just jerked open the car door. Dean winced.
“I need coffee,” Sybil snapped, getting inside. She leaned back out to yank in Stephen so hard he knocked his arm against the side of the door.
Dean gave Sam a look, which should’ve been the reverse order since it had been Dean’s idea to bring her.
Sybil popped her head out. “Now.”
“You want chicken with that?” Dean cracked.
“Don’t be a fucking idiot. I don’t need to talk to any more fucking ghosts after that one back there, you goddamn insensitive piece of shit. I knew I should’ve stayed home.” The car shook as she kicked at its floor.
“Hey, hey! Watch the upholstering!” That got Dean into the driver’s seat in a flash. “Look, I don’t know what it said, but my car was innocent. Leave it out of this.”
Sam sighed and mentally added something sugary and full of chocolate to his list of what to buy Sybil to get her calmed down. If nothing else, she was really expensive to feed.
* * *
Stephen came out of the bathroom just as Sam was setting down their tray of coffees and pastries. He slid into the booth opposite of Sam and Dean and stared at them. “She’s upset,” he said a bit breathlessly.
“Uh, yeah. We noticed.” Dean vaguely waved his hand at Stephen’s mussed hair and shirt. “You missed a button there, by the way.”
“What? Fuck.” After hastily redoing it, Stephen grabbed up his coffee and took a long drink. Then he put his head in his hand and rubbed at his temple, like he was coming down with a migraine.
Sam heard Dean begin to clear his throat and quickly stepped on Dean’s toes. That got him a dirty look, but at least he didn’t end up having to pry Stephen off his brother’s throat. “Is she okay?”
“Well, she’s pissed off, so I guess she’s going to recover,” Stephen muttered. He rubbed at the side of his face for a couple more seconds, then pushed back and slouched against the booth back. “She gets weird sometimes. Like she can’t remember whether she’s one of them or one of us, and she needs a reminder. Just don’t…you know…mention that to her.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Dean said. He stirred his coffee, then looked up innocently at Sam and Stephen. “No, really. I’m serious.”
“Serious about what? Being an idiot?” Sybil slid in beside Stephen. The bench was of decent length, but she smashed right up against him, and Sam got the impression she was holding Stephen’s hand pretty hard from the wince the other man tried to hide. “The girl’s Lyddie Lovett.”
Dean had been about to get annoyed, but he dropped that once new information was put on the table. He brought up his arms and folded them on the counter, leaning forward. “Relative?”
“Daughter of your Mr. Lovett, who’s a right fucking bastard, by the way. He was a drunk and liked to knock both Lyddie and her mom around. Liked to crawl into Lyddie’s bed, too, when mommy was too bruised up,” Sybil spat out. She jerked her coffee towards her so hard that it splashed out of the little hole in the cover and dripped down the side. Sybil didn’t seem to notice and just drained half of it like it was hard liquor. “One night Lyddie can’t take it anymore and makes a bedsheet rope, tries to climb out her window. It gives way and she lands with a broken ankle. It’s November and it’s cold.”
Sam was suddenly glad he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything yet, because his stomach was recoiling. He had to wonder sometimes if people were worth it, with the kind of monsters they could turn into on their own.
“She drags herself to the porch and bangs on the door, but Mom’s knocked out and Dad’s passed out drunk. Lyddie hangs there for a while, yelling, but it’s too windy and she’s still got a sore throat from last night’s visit from Dad. Eventually she gives up. Some kid’s left their bike out, and she manages to get on it and take it to a park four blocks away. She likes the swing-set there. That’s where a jogger finds her dead of exposure in the morning.” When she was done, Sybil picked up her cup and drank the rest of her coffee. She put the cup down and gazed around the coffee-shop like she wanted to kill everyone in it, and Sam honestly couldn’t blame her.
They all sat around for about a minute, taking it in. Stephen had gone pale and a little greenish, and he’d pulled up his arm to wrap it around Sybil’s shoulders. She must have been pretty far gone, because she didn’t shove him away.
“Well, that’s a pretty good motive for trying to crash a car into your father’s house, I guess,” Dean said. His voice was a little thick and flowed awkwardly around the brisk words. “It’s a vengeance thing, then?”
“She wants to kill him, yeah.” Sybil switched to staring out the window. “She’s going to do it soon. But it’s too long till the anniversary, so she has to work up enough power by scaring people.”
Dean pulled himself up. He laced and unlaced his fingers, then dropped his arms from the counter. “Salt and burn the body, then. Do you know where she’s buried?”
That brought Sybil around in a hurry, though once she was facing Dean, she just stared at him as if she was looking at an alien lifeform. “They had it declared an accident, you know. He was never charged.”
“No wonder she’s so upset,” Dean said, flat-voiced. He wasn’t meeting Sybil’s gaze quite head-on.
“You know what? For all I care, she can kill the fucker. It’s not just her ghost around that house, you know. You go in the backyard and you—well, I can see replay of what he did through the windows. It’s imprinted in the goddamn foundation.” The table apparently had uneven legs; Sybil had put her hand on the edge and was rocking it back and forth, gradually increasing the frequency. “He’s old anyway.”
Dean shook his head. “Look, she’s hurting other people in the process. She’s a ghost. I thought you weren’t all that sympathetic towards monsters.”
“Oh, for…” Sybil threw back her head and let a disgusted sigh go at the ceiling. “I’m not sympathetic towards shit that offends or hurts me, whether it’s living or dead. Wrap your head around this, Dean: ghosts are dead people. Still people, not monsters. Assholes don’t stop being assholes just because they’re dead.”
“Look, that’s all words. The important thing—” Dean started.
Her head came back down. “That how you guys sleep at night?”
“You talked to her, right?” Sam jumped in. He winced at how loud he sounded and instinctively ducked, glancing around. The couple other people in the store looked their way, but quickly went back to their own conversations, thank God. “Can’t you…talk her into moving on?”
“Do I look like a fucking Touched By An Angel clone?” Sybil snapped.
Sam’s temper started flaring up, but he pinned it back. And he stepped on Dean’s foot again so Dean, who’d been starting to push himself up, had to sit down hard. “Look, what happened to her was horrible, but it’s not good for her to keep thinking about it over and over again. What better way to stick it to her Dad than going away for good and finding a better place?”
For some reason, Dean looked sharply at Sam. Maybe Dean was drawing some more of those irrational parallels, because Sam sure as hell hadn’t meant anything right there. Dad had never gotten anywhere near that bad, even if Sam sometimes had felt as if he’d suffocate to death if he stayed any…
“Sam, she’s ten. She’s ten and abused and angry and she’s been that way for over thirty years. You want to try reasoning with her, be my guest.” Sybil punctuated her sarcasm with a dramatic flourish. “I’m going home.”
“Wait. What?” Stephen sat up straight, blinking rapidly. “They drove us here.”
“It’s called the CTA,” Sybil snarled, scooting out of the booth. She went a few steps, then turned around and looked at Stephen with an expression that had a fair amount of hurt mixed in with the anger, but not all that much surprise. “Well, fucking fine, then. See you around.”
Sybil walked off, back rigid. For a couple seconds, Stephen sat there as if someone had hit him with a taser. Then he swore, glanced at Sam and Dean, and hurriedly got up and chased after Sybil.
Sam was feeling a bit numbed himself. He remembered Marisa, and how scared and confused she’d been, but he couldn’t help remembering the bruise on Max’s ribs and the last look Max had given him. “Dean…”
“Something she didn’t mention. Why now? It’s not the anniversary,” Dean abruptly said. He looked at Sam, then got out himself and put his hands in his pockets. “I think we’d better do some research on our own after all.”
“Right. Definitely.” A tiny part of Sam was relieved at the chance to gather himself and make up his own mind about the situation. Most of him was going on autopilot. “She didn’t say how Marisa fits in, either. You’d think she would’ve remembered a sister.”
Dean picked up the leftover coffees and donuts and carried them with him as they walked out. “Yeah, and all the rest. That sort of thing leaves an impression no matter how old you are,” he said.
It was Sam’s turn to look sharply at Dean, but this time, Dean didn’t adjust his stride. He kept on going, and by the time Sam caught up, Dean’s face was as smooth as a calm lake. But it wasn’t light.
The webpage finally finished loading and the first thing Sam saw was a black-and-white picture of a smiling little girl. She was on the thin side, but otherwise she didn’t look at all as if she’d had a horrific home life. “Found it,” he said.
“Yeah?” Dean shoved back the mouse at his computer and scooted his chair over to besides Sam.
“Lydia Lovett, daughter of Michael and Deborah Lovett. Death of exposure. Police theorized that she was snatched and taken to the park, which was how they explain all the extra bruising on her.” It was a surprisingly short article, given its subject. Usually this sort of thing came accompanied with a blaring call to arms and a bunch of editorials from angry and frightened parents. “It all ties together pretty well with what Sybil was saying.”
Sam clicked for related articles. The page reloaded with a long list of links, and when he scrolled down to see how many pages of those there were, he raised his eyebrows.
“Not a good year to be living around Chicago,” Dean muttered. “No wonder nobody seems to remember her with all the other crap going on. So I was looking through birth records—doesn’t look like Marisa was born here.”
“Maybe she’s just a half-sister. She did say she didn’t know anything about her father till recently.” After backtracking to the original article, Sam set it to print out and sat back. He couldn’t help but look at Lydia’s picture; she looked so happy that he still found the whole thing hard to believe. Then again, it’d also seemed like no one had really noticed Max’s misery till it was too late.
Once the article had finished printing, Dean pulled it from the printer and bent over it. He frowned and picked up a pencil from a narrow wooden box of them sitting nearby, using it to scribble down what looked like some kind of calculation. “No, I don’t think so. She showed up on the sixth, and Lydia first showed up on the eighth.”
“There was a report on the second,” Sam said. He reached down and dug around in his bag, then flashed the appropriate printout at Dean.
“That wasn’t solid—the guy said he thought he heard a little kid running around his porch. Could’ve been a neighborhood brat. First visual confirmation we had was on the eighth.” Dean stopped and eyed his math. He flipped his pencil up, then down, then up so the end quietly sneaked into his mouth.
Sam flicked it away, and for his troubles he got a dirty look like he’d smeared mud all over Dean’s leather jacket. “You’re going to get lead poisoning if you keep doing that.”
“Lead poisoning.” A laugh cracked through with sarcasm dropped from Dean. “We’ve got a homicidal ten-year-old ghost running around, and you’re worried about lead poisoning.”
They both fell silent after that, Dean because he was redoing his numbers and Sam because he was thinking. He honestly wasn’t sure where he fell in terms of dealing with Lydia…actually, if he really wanted to be honest, he’d admit he’d gotten into the periodical searches so he wouldn’t have to face that issue head-on. On the one hand, Lydia definitely was a menace to the other people living in the neighborhood, and Sam doubted most of them had any connection to her death. She’d caused a car accident, scared a man so badly he’d checked himself into the hospital, and from the way Marisa had spoken, Sam got the impression Lydia would have hurt her, too.
Odd behavior, if they were full sisters. But then, they’d never known each other and as Sybil had pointed out, Lydia probably didn’t have a good understanding of what she was doing. Which was the thing—Lydia was a ghost, and ghosts were supposed to be monsters. A lot of the time, they did come with backstories that explained why they were still haunting the earth, but that usually didn’t matter. Maybe Sam and Dean were sympathetic, but it was still their job to put ghosts to rest.
But that, Sam thought, didn’t always solve the problem. With Lucas and the lake, it’d been a drowned boy wanting revenge, and he’d taken it while Sam and Dean had been busy saving an innocent. It was tragic, but it neatly took care of the moral issue of letting murderers get away with their crimes. With Max, it’d been a murder that had been prevented, but Sam still felt as if they’d lost that job. Here was almost the same situation—almost because Mr. Lovett had been a perpetrator instead of just an onlooker.
“Did you find out what happened to her body?” Dean suddenly asked.
“What? Uh, yeah. She got an obit here.” Sam came out of his reverie with a jerk that almost knocked the mouse off the desk. He fumbled it back upright and maximized the right window, then moved aside so Dean could see. “She’s buried in that cathedral we passed.”
“Consecrated ground. And she still came back? That’s a little weird.” Dean absently tossed his pencil back in the box. The impact made a clatter that got the librarian sitting at the information desk shooting a reprimanding look their way; Dean smiled apologetically at her and she softened. A little. “Maybe she’s put her…what was Sybil saying about things being in the foundations? Maybe it’s like the Hook-Man and good old Cyrus.”
From this angle, Sam could see the calculations Dean had been working on: they looked like he was trying to figure out someone’s age. “You mean she’s got part of her spirit in something else?”
“Congratulations, Sam. You’ve just won the Daily Double,” Dean muttered, leaning forward to squint at the screen. He gave Sam a casual, condescending hair-ruffle while he was at it. “Maybe Deborah Lovett ran off pregnant.”
“And Marisa coming back triggered Lydia’s return?” Sam finished, irritably brushing his hair back down. Sometimes he could almost swear that Dean liked playing lordly expert, no matter how much Dean ridiculed higher education. It reminded Sam a lot of his least-favorite English professor. “I’m not really seeing it. Aside from the blood connection, there’s no link. Lyddie might be mad as hell, but it usually takes more than that to set off a ghost.”
Dean shrugged and pushed back from the computer. He snagged his bag with his foot, kicked up the strap and swung the bag onto his shoulder. “So we’re missing something, obviously. I’ll go back and see Marisa, so why don’t you track down Lydia’s grave, just in case?”
“What about Stephen and Sybil?” They’d been AWOL since Sybil had stormed out of the coffeeshop. Sam had left a message on Stephen’s voicemail with the general plan for the rest of the day, but so far neither of them had called back. He was getting a little worried.
“I’m pretty sure Sybil can take care of herself, and if Stephen can handle her at all, he’s probably good to go, too,” Dean said. He spun on his heel and headed out at a relatively rapid pace, though he wasn’t exactly hurrying. He was moving like he had a clear mission and a clear end-goal, both of which would be news to Sam.
It was on the tip of Sam’s tongue to ask Dean if his briskness was to keep from thinking too hard, either. He bit it down and hurried after. “So you’re not worried that we’ve lost track of a really strong, really annoyed psychic who’s already said she’s okay with Lydia killing her father? And who doesn’t really care what we think?”
Dean paused with his hand on the push-bar of the front door. Then he turned around and gave Sam an irked look. “Well, I wasn’t till you brought it up. Great. You think she’d do that?”
“I don’t know. You—you seem to know her better than me.” Come to think of it, Sam needed to remember to ask about that later. The way Dean and Sybil had been relating had been a bit more familiar than it should have been for two people who’d met only once before, almost three months ago, and who mutually irritated each other. And Dean had had Sybil’s phone number all this time, which begged the question of how the hell he’d gotten it in the first place. She hadn’t seemed that fond of them when they’d left. “What about Stephen?”
“I think he’s leaning towards put Lydia to rest. He doesn’t seem like an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ kind of guy,” Dean said. A woman with a huge stack of books was coming up the steps as he went down them. He stepped aside for her, then caught up with Sam.
Sam paused, then asked. “What about you?”
“Huh?” Dean swiveled his head to check out both sides of the street before he crossed it. He usually didn’t, claiming that his keen hearing was good enough.
“What do you think we should do?” Sam pointedly clarified. “I was looking at some other things—the Illinois law code. But the statute of limitation’s run out, since there’s no way to get DNA evidence. So what about Lovett?”
It took them a minute to dodge their way across the street and Dean took full advantage of it. He pulled out his keys as they approached the car and absently jiggled them in his hand. A slight furrow had appeared between his eyebrows and his overall stance was uncomfortable.
“Dean.” Sam leaned against the car door before Dean could grab the handle.
“Yeah.” When a glare didn’t dislodge Sam, Dean turned around and stared back at the library. He sighed and scratched at the back of his head, half-pivoting on his heel. “Lydia’s a ghost, Sam. What do we do with those?”
“Usually? Exhume, salt and burn. But don’t you think this is—”
Dean’s eyebrow went up in the way that signaled he was not only about to close the conversation, but he was also going to do it so hard that Sam would get something broken if he didn’t back off. “Didn’t realize we were starting to pick and choose, Sam. Lyddie’s tried to hurt other people. That’s good enough for me.”
“And her father’s going to continue getting away with it?” Sam said. It came out a little more snappish than he’d meant it to.
“We hunt monsters, Sam. We don’t decide who gets to live or die like those Bender creeps. Jesus, I can’t believe you were arguing about this with everything that you said about black magic woman up in Nebraska.” Somewhere along the line, Sam had moved off the car door. As soon as he had, Dean slid his hand between Sam’s hip and the car and yanked so Sam had to either step back or get a crunched hip.
Sam stepped back. “We save people, too.”
“Lydia’s dead.” After tossing his bag into the backseat, Dean slammed the door shut and walked around to the driver’s side. His stride was angry and jouncing. “Don’t tell me you’re buying into Sybil’s whole dead people are still people shtick. People change after they’ve died, or haven’t you noticed? They get a hell of a lot more violent because they’re already dead and can’t be hurt.”
“I’m just…” Sam exhaled. He could see it wasn’t going to be any good from where he was standing, and he had a feeling Dean wasn’t going to let him get the conversation to somewhere productive. Dean tended to go off when he couldn’t take it anymore.
Which was borne out by the way Dean peeled away from the curb and went zooming down the street like he had ghosts on his back. Sighing, Sam reshouldered his bag and started back towards the cathedral. It was only a couple blocks, and the walk might do him some good. At the very least, it’d give him time to think.
* * *
Lydia’s grave marker took Sam all of seven minutes to find, which was nice in a grim, black-humor way. Usually tracking down the body was the hardest part of the whole job.
He loitered around for another few minutes, but gave up on getting anything useful and headed out of the churchyard. It was a plain stone slab, just big enough to hold her name, dates of birth and death, and a little angel in the corner. All he felt when he stared at it was a lack of meaning that put him in an even worse state of mind.
He spotted the Impala in front of the Lovett house, but didn’t go towards it. No one else was around it, so he figured Dean must still be interviewing Marisa. Him walking in suddenly might rattle her, so instead Sam took out his phone and checked his messages.
None. When he tried Stephen’s phone, he just got the voicemail again so Sam clicked off his cell and put it away. He shoved his hands into his pockets and decided he’d take a walk around the block; hopefully by the time he was done with that, Dean would be out.
But once Sam reached the corner, he got a weird…he kept on walking, with a sharp eye out for anything strange. Nothing happened, except for him almost getting tangled in the leash of a collie walking with her owner, but Sam still had the feeling he needed to keep going. It was like a flicker of white at the corner of his eye, except no matter how much he focused on what was directly in front of him and let his peripheral vision take in hints, he didn’t catch a single thing.
He started figuring it out when he spotted the sign: a strip of wood that the weather had stripped to bloodless gray, proclaiming the expanse of clear land beyond to be the neighborhood park. From the sidewalk, Sam could spot the horizontal bar of a swing-set. Part of it was moving: someone was on it.
He heard the footsteps when they were about twenty yards away, and turned quickly around to see Sybil coming down the sidewalk towards him. She looked tired.
“You walk really quietly,” he awkwardly said. On the one hand, he didn’t really want to talk to her before he’d gotten his head straight. On the other hand, he suspected he needed to talk to her to get a couple things clear.
“Yeah, I know. Bad habit of mine; I’m trying to break it. Maybe I’ll go back to wearing bells on my sneakers.” She didn’t sound like she was kidding, or look like it.
The question must have shown on Sam’s face, because Sybil smiled. It wasn’t all that pleasant a smile, but it was slightly lighter than her previous expression.
“Don’t tell me you never had a hard time not bringing home habits to college,” she said. She rose up on her toes, then let out an irritated breath and stalked around the fence so she could see over the bushes. “You still want to talk to her?”
“Is she there?” Stupid question, given the deathly silence of the area. Sam walked after Sybil and saw the answer to it for himself. Someone small was on one of the two swing-sets and slowly moving back and forth, never getting more than a few feet from the ground. They had blonde hair. “I don’t remember telling you about college.”
Sybil lifted and dropped a shoulder. She jiggled something in her pocket. A moment later, she took it out and it turned out to be a loop of little jade charms, which she moved through her fingers a lot like how Marisa had been toying with her rosary. “You didn’t.”
“So how’s the ghosts? Are you—are you seeing a lot of them?” Sam hesitantly asked, remembering her tirade when they’d first met.
“Don’t fucking ask me that. I’m having a shitty-ass time with them, but that’s not really your problem or your concern,” Sybil snapped. She was taking them on a wide circle around the swing-set, but one that seemed to be gradually closing in on it. “Don’t be polite, okay? Polite annoys me.”
Sam looked away from her in order to keep his temper, but then he was looking at the…it was a little girl on the swing-set. A little girl in a billowing white dress. “Everything annoys you, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, Dean-moment. Well, try living your life surrounded by dead people who have nothing better to do than bother you and see how nice you turn out. Tell my wife this, slap my ex, run over my brother’s goddamn terrier that always peed on my leg.” Now they were walking along the edge of a sandbox near the swing-set; Sybil kicked her foot over the logs edging it and sent sand scattering across the grass.
That got the girl’s attention. They were close enough for Sam to see the details of the girl’s face, which corresponded to the one accompanying the newspaper article, but had been distorted and broken up by bruising. Her eyes were sunken, but within their hollows, they glittered with an eerie, disturbing brilliance. They’d fixed on Sam and Sybil, and continued to follow them as Lydia stopped kicking her feet against the ground.
“Why do I get the feeling she’s expecting us?” Sam whispered.
“Because she is, I think. She’s ten, but she’d been waiting for years and years for someone to talk to. And she’s been thinking about what she’s going to do. Even ten-year-olds can notice when someone’s trying to get in their way.” Sybil’s voice had grown strained, and she was clicking the charms through her fingers so fast that the part of the string that was hanging whipped back and forth in front of her. “Stephen and I had a fight, and he said he was going to find you two.”
Sam looked more closely at Sybil, watching the way she clenched and unclenched her jaw. He wanted to ask if she’d gotten a weird feeling too, but that was probably another stupid question and they didn’t really have time for that. “He wasn’t at the car when I was there a couple minutes ago. Dean’s talking to Marisa again.”
“Think he’ll be done soon?” Now Sybil sounded downright worried. She was staring hard at Lyddie, who’d nearly come to a complete stop. Lydia’s dress suddenly billowed up in a gust of wind so stripes of blue and purple on her legs were visible; Sybil took a step back like she’d been slapped.
To be honest, Sam wanted to recoil the same way, but something held him in place. He fought down his initial panicky reaction and willed himself to move. After a moment, he managed to back up and grab Sybil’s arm, but it was like walking in water.
“You know something?” Sybil grated out. The clicking of her charms suddenly stopped, and the resulting silence was like a gunshot in its sharpness. “Much as I sympathize sometimes, there’s nothing I hate more than being hijacked for someone else’s goddamn agenda. Lydia. Melinda. Lovett.”
The last three words Sybil spoke seemed to fall like knives through the turgid air. They cut so Sam almost felt the snap and recoil as whatever was gripping them loosened…but didn’t completely let go.
Names conferred power. “Lydia Melinda Lovett,” Sam mumbled. “Michael Lovett, Deborah Lovett, Marisa…
He scrambled back as soon as he got that extra slack. He dragged Sybil with him, but he didn’t hear her complaining. Actually, she was pretty quick to catch up and then overtake him so she was hauling on him. She didn’t really have the weight to do it, but she made a good stab at it.
They both skidded to a stop on the sidewalk just outside of the park, where Lydia’s hold had suddenly, completely fallen away. Sybil dropped down and hugged her knees, breathing hard. Sam was gasping too, but he whirled around to see where Lydia was. Then he nearly fell off the curb.
Lydia was standing right behind the fence that partially lined the park edge, still staring. Her dress actually was a nightgown, torn up around the hem and stained all over. “You’re helping my daddy,” she said.
“No. No, we’re here to help you,” Sam reflexively replied. He glanced at Sybil, but it looked like she was still down for the moment. He personally felt too winded to go much further himself. It was taking all he had to stay on his feet. “We know—we know he hurt you.”
“Yeah? He hurts me a lot. He says it’s because he loves me.” The irony in Lydia’s voice was far too old for her. For how she looked, anyway. Sam had to keep reminding himself that she might have gotten stuck as a child, but that she was over thirty years old.
Did ghosts age mentally? It was a hell of a time to be wondering that, his inner Dean snapped.
“People…don’t always understand what love is supposed to be. Your father wasn’t telling the truth when he said that,” Sam said more slowly. He started to glance to the side, but movement in front of him swiftly brought his attention back to Lydia.
She’d vaulted up and was now perched on top of the fence, still nominally within the park. Her eyes were paired bruises. “Why not? Why doesn’t he love me? He’s supposed to love me. I loved him. He’s my daddy.”
“I don’t—” Sam helplessly cast about for something reasonable to say. Except what, exactly, was reasonable about this? There was hairsplitting and there was excuse-making, but even if Sam had been able to bear mouthing that, or if Lydia had been able to understand it, he didn’t think she would have accepted it. He didn’t think he could’ve accepted it. “You’re still hurting, aren’t you? Lyddie? He’s still hurting you, isn’t he?”
Wild guess that hit a nerve somewhere. “He never says he’s sorry!” she hissed. Then she burst into tears and buried her face in her lap. “Never! He’s not—not—not sorry!”
That simple statement ranged from strangely immature petulance—there Sam was, messing up her age—to a heartbreaking simplicity. She didn’t understand, and then she did, and far deeper than Sam did.
“Told you, can’t reason with her,” Sybil muttered.
For the moment, Lydia seemed to be preoccupied, so Sam chanced a glance downward. Sybil had caught a little of her breath—enough to get her off her knees and onto her feet, but not enough to get her into running condition. She’d put away the charms, and was doing something with a pebble. Scratching symbols into the pavement, but the white streaks the rock left on the concrete were so light that Sam couldn’t see what kind.
“And she ran! Mommy ran and she left me all—” Lyddie hiccupped “—all alone. I thought she loved me because—because—”
“Why?” Sam asked as gently as he could. Equally carefully, he bent down and casually reached for Sybil’s elbow. He got two of his fingers beneath it before Lydia suddenly raised her head from her skirts. “Why did you think your Mom loved you?”
He hoped, for his and Dean’s tempers at least, that Deborah Lovett had at least tried to stop it. She didn’t even have the paper-thin excuse of being only the stepmother.
“Because she told Daddy it was disgusting. She locked the door once, and she hid me in the closet sometimes. But he broke the door and he hit her, and I didn’t want her to be hurt anymore.” Lydia’s cheeks were wet and her hands had clenched into fists on her knees. They bunched up the fabric of her nightgown so it pulled above her ankles, scrunching into dark folds. “But she left me. She went away.”
“Lydia…do you remember climbing out a window?” Deborah Lovett had been around when her daughter had been found dead, Sam remembered. Long enough to be interviewed and quoted in the newspaper.
It took a moment for Lydia to answer. She kept bunching and kneading her nightgown. The sun was about an hour off from hitting sunset and the shadows were changing, but not imbuing the deathly pale girl with any more color. It was like they were somehow lifting more color from her the darker they tinted her.
Finally she nodded. “We were running away. I was going to go out first, and meet Mommy. But Mommy didn’t come and I even knocked—I thought it’d wake up Daddy, but nobody came. Then I thought maybe she’d gone already, and I was right. I came here and she never did. She left. She left me with him.”
“No. No, no, Lyddie. She didn’t leave. She thought you were…” Sam was already hesitating when something hit him hard in the side. He started to shoot Sybil a confused glance, but his gaze was hijacked by something else.
Something dark, so dark that at first he just thought it was a moving shadow, was coming down over Lydia’s legs. Then she squeezed the folds of her nightgown harder, and he realized it was too slow for that. And too thick. It was like it was dripping down her legs.
“Then why isn’t she here? And why is she here?” Lydia demanded.
“Who?” Sam distractedly asked. He had a suspicion about what was trickling down Lydia’s leg, but it couldn’t quite bring itself into the open before the reality did. His mind seemed to have frozen again.
“My sister,” Lyddie sneered, once again looking too old for her…appearance. She shoved her hands down hard between her legs and the viscous liquid suddenly surged down over her ankles and across the tops of her feet. The blood started to drip onto the grass. “It’s not fair.”
Sam was sufficiently surprised by that to be able to jerk his eyes away from the gruesome trickle. He stared at Lydia’s anger-twisted face. “You know you have a sister?”
“They both liked her better, didn’t they? They both left me for her.” Lyddie began to rock slowly on the rail, all her earlier sadness submerged in her fury. “Why? Why didn’t she like me?”
“Maybe it was because your sister wasn’t dead and buried,” Sybil suddenly snarled. Almost at the same time, she threw her weight against Sam so they nearly toppled over the curb and into the street. But Sybil was quick on her feet—either that or she’d been getting up to begin with, which Sam leaned more towards after she yanked him after her.
He distinctly felt a tension in the air belatedly try to grab him. He dug his heels into the ground and pushed hard against it, and it abruptly gave way.
Behind them, the wind kicked up and so did Lydia’s outraged scream. Something whacked against Sam’s calf so he stumbled and tried to look back, but Sybil jerked his arm again and made him keep running. They didn’t slow down till they were a block away, and didn’t stop till they were back in front of Lydia’s old house.
“Okay, so I can’t get her mad by telling her she’s dead, but you can?” Sam gasped once they were leaning against the car.
“Fuck off.” Sybil raised her head to glower at him. She was too pale, even behind all that irritation, and then her eyes rolled back up into her head. When she dropped, Sam barely got down in time to keep her head from cracking against the sidewalk. And then he noticed the blood smeared over her arm.
* * *
Dean rubbed hard at the side of his face, looking like he was about fifty and Sam was a spunky, irritating five. “Sam, I’d really appreciate knowing when you’re about to go off on your own. Especially when you’re going to do something incredibly stupid like pissing off the ghost we’re about to boot back into the grave.”
“Look, I didn’t know--it was like she pulled us there. I didn’t even realize where I was going till I was already there,” Sam protested. He glanced at Sybil for confirmation.
The blood had turned out to be from a cut on her palm, which hadn’t been deep enough to even need stitches. She’d been up about five seconds after she’d passed out, just in time for Stephen to round the corner, see Sam holding her and see the blood, and nearly go ballistic on wrong conclusions. Which had been when Dean had come out. For once, Sybil’s ability to insult people had come in handy, since it’d gotten everyone so much more upset that they hadn’t had the spare attention left to disagree when Sam suggested moving to somewhere more private.
Since then they’d moved to the back booth of a relatively empty restaurant. Sybil had submitted to letting Stephen deal with her hand and hadn’t said much since they’d sat down. She continued to follow her pattern by taking her head off the top of the seat, but just staring back at Sam.
“She’s…not exactly like the other ghosts we’ve handled,” Sam finally said. “You usually have to draw blood to break off their holds?”
“Usually I’m not in a position where I have to make that choice,” Sybil muttered. She tilted her head back again. “It’s not all her, you know. I told you two, I make ghosts worse. And apparently so does Sam.”
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. “Great. I always wanted a ghost-magnet for a brother.” He raised his hand to cut off Sam’s indignant reply. “So I talked to Marisa, and nope, she wasn’t born anywhere near here. But she thinks the timing might’ve been so her mother was pregnant with her when Lydia died. Mom never gave her many details. Can’t blame her, really…Michael Lovett is a nasty bastard, even in a wheelchair.”
“Did you tell Marisa it’s her little sister that’s causing all this trouble?” Sam asked.
The look Dean gave him said ‘Idiot’ in ten-foot letters, outlined in lights Vegas-style. “No.”
“Afraid she might tell you to let her sister go ahead and do it?” Sybil said.
Stephen, who’d been morosely drinking his beer, put that down to look sharply at her. “What the hell are you advocating?”
“I’m not advocating a damn thing, since that’s obviously a waste of time. I’m posing a question as to Dean’s motives,” she snapped. Her hand curled over the table and she began patting the side of the bottle with her fingertips. “So you’re going to give Lyddie the boot?”
“You gave her a pretty hard one yourself back there,” Sam felt compelled to mention.
Dean seemed surprised, and sat back to run a considering gaze over Sam. He stopped lounging when Sam elbowed his ribs. “Yeah, we are. It’s pretty obvious from your story that she wants Marisa out of the way, too. You think that’s righteous?”
“Nothing about this is righteous, dickhead. Righteousness is for the religious, which I’m not. The only thing I ever really got from the Bible that made sense was an eye for an eye, and I don’t like having people try to gouge out mine.” Sybil looked off to the side, past Stephen. She chewed on her lip. “You can’t just do her body. That’s no good.”
“I had a feeling you were holding back. What is it? Favorite toy? Piece of clothing?” Eyebrow raised, Dean challenged her.
That had been a bad idea Sam had seen coming from a mile away; Sybil stopped biting her lip and curled it instead. “Like Daddy’s favorite belt?”
Dean flinched. He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t come up with anything. He was like that: he knew what was out there and how bad it could get, and still somehow he managed to be shocked and horrified and in a position where he could take it as an reaffirmation that work still needed to be done. He stayed curiously unjaded that way.
Sam was getting more and more unsure that he could do the same.
“Sybil…” Stephen muttered. He took his bottle away from her and drained the last swallow left in it. “Just stop pretending you don’t give a shit about the other people in this, would you? Because I’ve seen you act otherwise.”
“Maybe that was because I didn’t want to get stuck with your fucking body.” She abruptly pushed herself up in order to step over Stephen, who was blocking her in.
Either he blocked her, or she got something stuck, but at any rate, Sybil sat back down hard and Stephen pushed himself up to look down at her.
Something brushed Sam’s arm, and he looked down to see Dean’s hand sliding over the counter. He looked up to see Dean tensed and ready to intervene if necessary.
“And maybe you give a shit about other people getting killed for reasons besides your stupid intellectual ones. Because I know it wasn’t because you cared about me personally back then,” Stephen snapped.
He and Sybil had a staring match that almost seemed like it was going to…but Sybil snarled, and in this case, it was a good thing because she was letting it out that way instead of some…other way. She yanked Stephen back down with her good hand. “You’re such a prick. And shut up, Dean, I know I didn’t answer your question yet.”
Dean, who’d dialed down his stance from high-alert to question-assault, closed his mouth. In great and visible irritation.
“Blame the mom for this, not Lyddie. Sometime right after the funeral, she shoved all Lyddie’s extra stuff beneath the porch. She didn’t want to take it with her, and the dad didn’t want to keep it either,” Sybil said. She could’ve sounded just deflated or bitterly grudging, depending on how pessimistic Sam wanted to be. “Then again, I’m wondering if there isn’t something at the park, too.”
“She was strong enough to pull both of us there. You know, I’ve never heard of a ghost splitting themselves between so many focuses.” Wait. Something was wrong there. Even through his weirdly high-pitched, relieved voice, he could hear that. “Foci. Sorry, I mean foci.”
The irritation in Dean’s face flipped to amusement. “Well, thank you, Mr. Vocabulary. It’s unusual but it happens—you remember Dad telling us about Memphis? And she’s a kid, so those tend to have a lot of excess energy anyway. We’ll just have to split up and handle them all, and hope somebody hits the jackpot.”
For a second, Sam was worried Dean had just reignited the fuse because Jesus, was that presumptuous and was it ever clear that Sybil hated people presuming about her. But thankfully, Sybil seemed to take it in stride. Sort of.
“Then Stephen and I get the park,” she said. She flashed her bandaged hand at Dean. “Walking wounded, can’t really use a shovel. But I’ll be nice and make sure nobody notices you’re vandalizing the graveyard before I go.”
She pushed at Stephen, and before Dean and Sam knew it, the other two had scooted off again. Sam had to admit, he was a little impressed. He thought he saw a similar feeling on Dean’s face before Dean slouched and sighed. “Man, she is such a bitch.”
With a shrug, Sam pulled out his wallet. Then he caught a flash of green and pulled it over: Stephen had left enough to cover his and Sybil’s half of the check. He suppressed a dry laugh. “So we’re doing this?”
“Are we?” Dean asked, sobering up.
“She’s going to hurt Marisa,” Sam finally said. That was crossing the line in a way that came home to him, he thought. And flinched away from the memory of what he’d almost done to Dean in the old insane asylum. “Good enough for me.”
“Good.” Dean clapped his hand on Sam’s shoulder, but instead of squeezing, he used his hold to pull Sam a bit closer and stare hard at him. Then Dean let go; apparently he was satisfied. “Good.”
“Sam, you’re on the aisle.”
“Oh. Right.” Sam got out.
Shaking his head, Dean tugged at his leather jacket so it hung properly from his shoulders. “Man, just for that, you get to dig her up.”
* * *
Sam hesitated, then threw his shovel up over the edge of the hole and pulled himself out of Lydia’s grave. He coughed as some of the finer particles of dirt got into his face, wiping at the sweat beading on his forehead. Then he looked towards the fence.
It was pointless since the bushes along there were too thick for him to see across the street, but he did it anyway. When he’d left the car, Dean had basically persuaded Marisa to cover for him with a loud movie while he’d dug around under the porch. Of course, the house was the kind built on low risers so Dean didn’t have to do any actual digging. He just had to pull away the wooden grating that ran around the porch and crawl under.
It didn’t matter. They both had vital jobs to do, and speaking of, Sam needed to get on with his. He picked up the shovel again and walked around to the other end of the grave. He had definitely heard wood, but the shadow of the cathedral fell right over this spot and he couldn’t see anything. He needed his flashlight.
So far it’d been pretty windless, but when he bent over to retrieve the light, he felt a cold breeze over the back of his neck. Sam instantly jerked up and stared around, clicking on the flashlight. Then he had an uncomfortable thought and shined the beam down, into the grave.
Nothing except part of a coffin showing through the dirt, wood still retaining some of its lacquer. He lowered the shovel into the grave and slowly prodded around, testing its thickness. It was a modern coffin, not the shoddy thin ones belonging to older ghosts. This was going to take some effort, small as it was…and he wasn’t going there. Keep his mind on the business part, that was the key.
Sam set the light at the edge and mounded the dirt around it so it’d illuminate the area without rolling off. He grimaced and got ready to get back into the hole—he always hated this part of the job.
Then he had a thought, and stopped to load up on the salt, lighter fluid and matches first. He wanted to get this part done as soon as possible.
God, he hated this part. Had he mentioned that yet?
He was procrastinating. After setting his jaw, Sam swung the shovel over his head and let it come down on the coffin. He heard a sharp crack and stepped back to take stock.
The shovel must have hit a flaw in the wood, because the cover had split almost the whole length of the coffin. It still wasn’t big enough for Sam to pry up the whole top, but the fracture was wide enough for the light to fall on something pale and wedge-shaped. After a moment, he realized it was a chin. Shit. The embalmers around here were pretty good, and when this was over, Sam was so going to get Dean for also pleading a hurt arm. Like scuttling beneath a house wasn’t going to stress that out, too.
Sam was getting a neck cramp. He rotated his head, then raised the shovel and gave the coffin another whack.
This time, the sound included a softer squish, and his shovel-tip nicked something that yielded. Swallowing hard, Sam couldn’t help glancing around again. His stomach hadn’t been feeling well to begin with, but now it was downright nauseated. “Sorry,” he muttered.
The crack looked big enough now. He tilted the shovel so it slid beneath one of the splintery edges, then braced himself and threw his weight against the handle. Wood creaked and dirt compressed beneath his feet—the ground was damp, and so was the smell that now reached him from the coffin—as he and the coffin struggled against each other. Then it finally gave, and so suddenly that Sam stumbled and fell nearly face-down into the body. He caught himself, and in doing so, got a look at what he’d done to Lydia’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, quickly turning away. He dug around in his jeans-pockets for almost thirty seconds before he remembered those weren’t big enough and the salt was in his coat pocket. Sam hurried to get it out and dusted her so enthusiastically that he saw some of the salt grains bounce.
He’d set the can of lighter fluid off to the side, and when Sam turned to retrieve it, he felt that breeze on his neck again. He froze.
Then he slid his thumb over the cap of the lighter can and got his forefinger curled around it. He very, very slowly turned around.
Nothing but Lydia’s wizened, broken face, though that didn’t settle Sam’s nerves. He unscrewed the cap so fast he flipped it out somewhere; Sam started to stoop down to look for it, but abruptly realized how stupid that was when he was going to fill in the grave anyway. He doused her down, scrambled out of the grave, and lit the match.
She had a point, and a right. But not the way she’d been going about it, Sam thought. Not that way, and still he knew the thought of her father dying peacefully, without ever having the real crime laid at his door, was going to be the newest ghost in his dreams.
Something stung his finger: the match, almost burnt down to his finger. Sam had shaken it out before he’d realized it. He sighed, took out another match, and folded the matchbook back over to strike it alight.
He stared at the match. They couldn’t even do anything. This wasn’t doing anything. This wasn’t going to put anything to rest—this was burying it. It wasn’t the same. But they couldn’t let Lydia go through with her plan.
Sam’s cell suddenly went off, and he nearly jumped into the grave in surprise. The match flared as Sam accidentally struck it, and he had a hell of a time juggling it and answering the phone. He finally got his cell out…and the match slipped through his fingers. He almost made a grab for it as it fell, but the phone’s ring was insistent. “Yeah? Dean?”
Lydia’s body went up like a firecracker. A firecracker nobody was going to see except Sam.
*Did you do it yet?*
“Yeah,” Sam answered. His mouth tasted sour. “But nothing’s happening. I don’t think this is it.”
Dean sucked sharply at his breath. *Well, don’t celebrate yet. Come back over as soon as you’re done—we need to talk.*
* * *
They all congregated on the front lawn, with Dean and Sam looking at another marathon late-night session at the Laundromat. Sybil apparently worked in ways that didn’t involve moving tons of dirt, so she and Stephen were clean, but she still didn’t look good. She kept poking at her bandage and looking around with a withdrawn, cold expression that Sam was tempted to read as ‘worried.’
Marisa came out and walked to them, rosary nervously moving through her fingers. She hugged herself and turned to Dean. “Is it over?”
“Well…let me just check in with everyone, all right? Don’t worry—we know what we’re doing.” He gave her a reassuring smile.
Stephen, whom Sam was clearly beginning to think was underappreciated by everyone, tactfully moved so Marisa didn’t see Sybil roll her eyes. He waited till Marisa had slowly returned to the front door before speaking. “Something’s weird.”
“We went over the whole park and we got rid of whatever drew her there, but I’m not feeling all peachy-keen now. She’s still around,” Sybil added.
“Body’s gone,” Sam said.
Dean glanced over his shoulder at Marisa. When he turned back, he looked seriously worried. “Yeah, I know. I did all the junk beneath the porch, but I didn’t get a thing. She should’ve shown up, or…something should have happened. What the hell else could be holding her back?”
“Are things okay?” Marisa hadn’t been able to wait and had come back down. She kept darting nervous glances towards the house, and when she realized they were all watching her do it, she gave them a smile that tried for rueful but hit frightened instead. “Sorry. I don’t really want to go back inside….Mr. Lo—my father isn’t very pleasant to be around right now. He’s locked up in the study again, but…I don’t know. He frightens me. He keeps looking at me and mumbling that he never should’ve tried.”
“No kidding. I’m not sur—” Sybil stopped, face freezing in her thought. Then she looked up at the house and her eyes widened. “Sam. You asked her…what did you say? You asked her if he was still hurting her and she started losing it there.”
Sam blinked, trying to remember. Then he frowned and looked at Dean, who was staring at Sybil and making the most incredible choking sound. Dean’s mouth was working soundlessly, and he was grimacing so much he looked like he was having a convulsion. Or like he was going to vomit.
“Dean? Are you all right?” Marisa asked, stepping forward.
His eyes flicked to her, and then Dean was gone, tearing up the steps and bursting into the house without so much as an explanation. He was yelling something—Sam ran after him, calling his name.
“What’s going on?” Marisa cried out behind them.
“What did your father do?” Sybil snapped. “When you first moved here, did he—”
Sam didn’t hear the rest because he was hot on Dean’s heels, confused but determined not to let Dean do anything before everything was clear. He knew that last look on Dean’s face: his brother was mad as hell and could kill someone if they took what he thought was a wrong step.
Lyddie. He’s still hurting you, isn’t he?
What Sam had meant was that the memory of what her father had done, by keeping Lydia tied to this world, had still been hurting her. Maybe he was an idiot. Things in his and Dean’s world could be way more complicated than they seemed at first, but sometimes they were just simply literal. Oh, God. He was going to be sick.
He’d thought Lydia was just confusing past and present. After all, she hadn’t seemed to understand that she was dead.
“You bastard!” Dean roared, somewhere beyond the turn of the hall. “You disgusting—”
Sam skidded around the corner just in time to see Dean break through the study door. He covered the last two yards less than a breath and got hold of Dean’s shoulder, jerked his brother back out so they both could see.
The room was empty.
“Sam! Dean!” someone yelled—Sybil. “Bedroom! First door on the left!”
Dean went stiff. “Oh, that fucking son of a bitch,” he swore, voice alone murderous.
“What’s going on?” Marisa wailed, somewhere near the front door.
Her voice mixed with a thin, high sound from upstairs. A split second before Dean would’ve cannonaded him out of the way, Sam spun and ran back down the hall. He grabbed onto the stairway railing, which saved him when his attempt to bank the turn led to the hallway rug slipping out from under him. He didn’t fall, but he lost enough ground so that when he scrambled back up, Dean had just passed him on the stairs.
Sam raised his head just in time to see Lydia come running out of the upper hall and collapse by the top of the stairs. Her cheeks were stained with tears and her nightgown had bunched up so he could see the blood smearing her thighs. She was looking at something—someone in the hall just beyond where Sam could see, and she was looking at them as if they were the end of the world.
“You threw me out! You hurt me and hurt me and then you threw me out!” she suddenly screamed. Her voice contained a sickening combination of rage and pain and a twisted jealousy.
“I was done with you! Done! Tired of putting up with you, and I’m old, want to die in peace. Want my other girl with me.” That was Michael Lovett’s hoarse voice, its quaver gone. The slight squeal of his wheelchair had to be the most incongruously mundane noise possible. “But you’re useless. Can’t even find anywhere else to go, had to come back. Come back here, you little bitch. Thank me for taking you back”
It almost paralyzed Sam with sick laughter. Instead he forced himself to dig into his pockets—he had some salt left. He pulled it out—something else creaked and he looked up to see Dean once again rushing upwards. “Dean!”
“Who’s there? You that boy my goddamn daughter invited to meddle?” Lovett finally pushed out of the hall. “You stay out of this!”
Dean had had his hand in his pocket and if he’d been in perfect shape, he would’ve made the throw without a problem. But halfway there his movements stuttered and Sam thought the arm, and by then Lovett had rolled forward. Maybe he was in a wheelchair, but his upper body wasn’t that weak; he hit Dean with something and Dean stumbled, fell down two steps. There was something else, too—Lydia had helped trip up Dean.
Sam tossed his salt and Lydia screamed, dissolved, but in her place was Lovett’s rage-mottled face. “Not your family, not your business,” he snapped.
He had something—some scrap of cloth in his lap, and Sam dove for it, which was probably what saved him from getting his skull crushed in. The goddamn old man was swinging a metal cane around and as it was, its clip on Sam’s shoulder sent knives of pain down his arm. But Sam’s fingers grazed the cloth and closed on it.
He yanked and Lovett yanked back, cane flourishing high above him. Sam threw up his arm to block, but quicker than he’d expected, Lovett changed the angle and got past to strike Sam’s hip. The bone took most of it, but it still stunned him with the pain. He nearly lost his grip on the cloth.
“Get the hell off my brother!” Dean’s face briefly appeared behind Lovett.
Then the wheelchair tipped, and everything went crazy for a moment. All Sam really was aware of was the thought that he had to hold onto the cloth, that it had to be it, and by the smallest hair, he did. He reflexively scrambled clear and yanked out his matches.
The match flared up, and its flame haloed Lyddie as she made a desperate last leap at her father’s back, nails bared like a cat. Then the flame hit the corner of the white, rust-dotted cloth and Lyddie evaporated even as she was wrenching her father’s head back by the hair.
Sam didn’t stop to take a breath. He dropped the burning cloth on the floor and clawed back up to get that bastard off Dean, only to see he was too late. Lovett was still tangled in the wheelchair as well as with Dean, and the wheelchair was going over and so were both of them.
“Dean!” No time to think. Just a leap and Sam’s body hitting the floor hard, edge of the first step smashing into his stomach, his arm out to grab Dean’s ankle. He touched denim, turned it into a hold and held on.
For a moment they hung in the balance. Then Lovett’s enraged face reared from the tangle again and Sam hated it, hated the man and if he took Dean with him—
Lovett’s face changed, his mouth opened, but he’d fallen before the scream ever made it out of him. Couple of thumps as he went down the stairs. The snap as he hit the floor told Sam everything.
After a few seconds of silence, Dean stiffly twisted around and got hold of the railing so he wouldn’t have to lie upside-down. His eyes, still staring straight into Sam’s, slowly returned to their normal size. He made a weak wave towards the second floor. “Sam. Might want to put out the fire, there.”
“What?” Sam panted.
“Oh, my God! The house is on fire!” Marisa screeched. “The house is—”
She fell silent.
“Thank you, Stephen. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s like people have no brains sometimes.” Sybil ran up past Sam and Dean with a vase, which proved to be full of water when she upturned it over the smoldering carpet. A cloud of smoke billowed up and she stumbled back, coughing and waving furiously. “Jesus.”
Dean dragged himself up enough so that he could lean against the railing. He looked down, then back up. He didn’t kick off Sam’s hand, which was good because Sam needed a moment to unfreeze his tendons. “Yeah.”
Sybil leaned against the wall and massaged her temple. She closed her eyes. “So Stephen can’t keep knocking Marisa out, and I’m not doing the explaining this time.”
“Yeah. Right, we’ll handle that.” Groaning, Dean set about righting himself. “Well, we’ll try to,” he muttered.
Sam let go of Dean’s ankle and Dean went downstairs. He heard Dean start to discuss cover stories with Stephen.
“You all right?” Sybil asked. She sat down on the top step and looked at Sam in a…it wasn’t just clinical, but that was a big part of it.
“Are you expressing interest in my well-being?” The attempt at Dean-like sarcasm didn’t really work, but then, Sam didn’t really care. He pulled himself up and perched on the seat next to Sybil. “Listen,” he started, and had to stop. He took a shaky breath. “Sybil. I…when they were falling…did I…did Lydia do it? Or did I…did I do…”
As shocking as Sybil’s temper could be, a calm her was more unnerving. She looked at Sam very levelly, without any indication that she’d be surprised at any possible thing Sam could say. She looked at Sam as if she had more than a good idea of what was going through his head, but didn’t get the reaction at all. “What could you have done?”
Sam didn’t reply, since it didn’t seem to matter.
After a moment, Sybil sighed and got up. “Look, whatever you and Dean think, ghosts are as human as people are to me. So when I get rid of a ghost, I consider it killing a person. It doesn’t matter what other people consider it—that’s what it feels like to me.”
“You ever feel bad about it?” Sam asked.
“I wouldn’t be so damn bitchy about doing it if it was something I enjoyed, would I?” She started walking down the stairs. “But you have to do it sometimes, and there it goes. I like me better than I like them, so they go before I do.”
He had to say, he wasn’t as sure as she was. Or as Dean was. He didn’t know.
“Sam? A little help here?” Dean called.
“I’m…coming. I’m coming,” Sam slowly replied.
* * *
“We’re old friends of hers from New York, visiting. We were all talking in the kitchen when her dad must’ve gotten up and needed something. He didn’t want to disturb us, so he tried going downstairs on his own and there was a tragic accident.” Dean was slumped so hard on Jack’s couch that if he’d relaxed anymore, he would’ve slipped through the cracks in the cushions. “He was a stubborn bastard anyway. Didn’t want to have a chair-lift installed in his house, though he could’ve afforded it. Case closed.”
“Though oddly enough, Marisa doesn’t remember you or Sybil at all.” The coffee Stephen had just poured Sam smelled so wonderful he took a sip before it’d cooled all the way. He hissed at the scalding he got and put the cup down on the table. “What’d you hit her with?”
Stephen shrugged and sat down in the armchair with Sybil. “I just didn’t want trouble. We’re only an hour away and we might’ve run into each other again.”
Sybil gave him an odd look. “I can’t believe you were actually paying attention when I told you about that. Or that it worked.”
“I listen a lot more than you ever seem to think,” Stephen muttered. He sounded a little less annoyed after he drank some coffee. “Is your hand okay?”
“Or that you even did that, considering your opinion on that kind of stuff.” Now Sybil was sounding odd. Like she was…
Dean coughed into his fist. Jack ambled out of the kitchen long enough to mention that this was his apartment, not either of theirs.
“So Marisa’s fine, just ultra-religious now. Her no-good bastard of a father’s dead and Lydia’s gone to heaven, so everything that everybody wanted pretty much happened,” Dean said.
“Except not the ways people wanted them to go. That’s how the moral runs.” After a beat, Sybil raised an eyebrow. “You know what those are, right?”
“Okay, okay, time for the Sybil to scoot and get her beauty sleep. Or, y’know, whatever we’re calling it nowadays,” Jack interrupted. He was pretty good at ducking Sybil’s death-glare. Not so good at dodging the hard mock-punch Stephen gave him as Sybil and he walked towards the door.
Sybil ducked back in just as Sam was turning towards Dean. “Oh, yeah. Don’t die, and next time, bring me some buffalo wings.”
She got dragged away by somebody—he was laughing, so Sam guessed it was Jack. Jack saw her and Stephen to the door, then followed them into the hallway. Then the door clicked shut, so apparently he was seeing them all the way out.
“You know, I’m not sure what to be—happy that we can just skedaddle come morning, or pissed off that she guessed we were going to ditch the goodbyes,” Dean said. He shook himself and got up, pulling off his shirt as he did. They’d given themselves a brief wash-up at Marisa’s, but were still pretty dirty; Dean scratched at some of the dust smears on his neck, then angled his hand over his chest. “God, I feel disgusting. I call the shower.”
Sam stared at the far wall, thinking. “Like usual.”
Something snapped in front of his face and he flinched. He blinked to see Dean bent down in front of him, so close their eyelashes could almost touch.
“You okay? Sam? ‘cause if you’re not, I’d like to know before we hit the highway.” Right about…yeah, there was the side of Dean’s mouth going up. “Need to know which tapes to pull out.”
It took a moment for Sam to smile, but he did. Dean was alive, and all the people that had deserved to live had. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just don’t use up all the hot water again, you freak.”
Sam still didn’t know about that, but…Dean wasn’t dying. He did know that much. Dean wasn’t dying, and that was it. Things had worked out. How they’d worked out was a different matter, but the end result wasn’t something Sam wanted to argue with.