Word Count: ~9400
Disclaimer: All the witty disclaimers are already taken. Sam and Dean belong to Kripke & Co., not me.
Summary: The brothers' investigation of a haunted cemetery reveals a 150-year-old tragedy; a worn-down Dean may become the spirit's next victim. Set between "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Tall Tales."
Author's Notes: Written for stare_at_walls for the 2008 spn_summergen fic exchange, originally posted here. The prompt was "Laughing/brotherly moment in the Impala." There's not as much laughing stuff as I planned, they didn't spend as much time in the car as I expected, and those things just happen to be surrounded by this angsty casefic that wouldn't leave me alone.
Title taken from the Kingdom of Sorrow song by the same name.
As always, thanks to my beta/partner-in-crime/enabler, laurie_bug.
He should have worn the sling.
Dean Winchester leaned over a stranger's sink, dragging in deep breaths through his nose. Everything in the room was sleek and low, hospital-white, accents of maple. Smelled like lemon and bleach. In one corner, rooted in a clear vase of smooth river rocks, stood a single stalk of bamboo. Dean squinted at the leaves. Fake.
Voices carried down the hall, Sam's deep murmur, the broken cadence of the woman's grief. Erica Banfield had lost her husband and father-in-law within the space of a week, the husband to a messy car accident on I-75, the old man to a mysterious drowning on the grounds of Vine Street Hill Cemetery. Robert Banfield's was the third apparent suicide at the cemetery in the last year.
With one offhand line buried halfway through the newspaper article, Dean had known this was their kind of thing, though he'd had to wheedle and pester for a day and a half before Sam would agree. Too soon, Sam said. Dean hated to admit it, but the pain in his shoulder told him maybe Sam was right.
He held his left arm close to his body, elbow cupped in his right hand, momentarily surprised by the slick feel of his cheap suit: unfamiliar, distracting. He spat into the sink, fumbled for the tap. Splashed his face, looked up at the mirror. Water dripped from the points of his nose and chin.
He didn't recognize the liar staring back at him. Fake cop today, the only respectable way to explain the fading bruises, the necessity of slow and careful movement. Injured in the line of duty, capturing a dangerous perp. Gen-yoo-wine hero.
He huffed a laugh. Dried his face, took a few deep breaths. He could handle this. He had to handle this. He straightened up as much as the pain would allow. Threw a wink at the stranger in the mirror.
Back in the living room, it seemed Sam hadn't gotten very far. As Dean sank back into the plush leather couch, Sam handed Mrs. Banfield another tissue. "Thank you." She sniffed, dabbed at her nose. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just – it's been so hard."
"Of course." Sam's soft words hit the tone of sympathy just right.
Mrs. Banfield wiped at her tears, face screwed up like she was applying eyeliner. She was a beautiful woman, mid thirties, warm brown skin, dark hair with a touch of cinnamon. Reminded Dean of Cassie a bit – beyond skin color, they shared a sense of stubborn strength. He shoved the thought away. Even he wouldn't stoop to hitting on a grieving widow.
He snapped back to attention with a nudge from Sam. Sam frowned, a look that asked, What's up? You okay? Dean answered with a slight shake of his head: Dude. Chill. It's nothing.
"I have no idea why Robert would have killed himself," Mrs. Banfield was saying. "Obviously he was upset when Peter died. But he has four other children, a thriving business. And I especially have no clue why he would do it where he did."
"What do you mean?" Sam asked. "I thought he died near your husband's grave."
"Well, yes – but the plot actually belongs to my family. The Banfields are all buried at Spring Grove. Six generations, all gathered around one of those ridiculous phallic monuments."
Something in the woman's stiff posture, the tight set of her lips, struck Dean as strange. "I take it you didn't always see eye to eye with your father-in-law."
Mrs. Banfield laughed, a short, bitter sound. "You could say that. Robert never forgave Peter for marrying me."
"Why's that?" Sam asked.
Mrs. Banfield frowned, a look that left Dean feeling small and stupid. "Well, the race thing, of course." Her frown deepened at the brothers' blank looks. "I'm black," she explained slowly. "Peter is – was – white."
She crossed her arms, shook her head. "You know, Vine Street Hill wouldn't even let blacks be buried there until 1974. Maybe that old bastard was trying to make some kind of statement."
The Impala rumbled down the quiet side street, foreign among the neighborhood's Beemers and Saabs, the Tudor-style homes and neatly-trimmed hedges. A weak winter sun hung low in the gray sky.
Dean snapped on the radio, reaching awkwardly across the bench seat with his right hand. After finding the same Alice in Chains song on three different stations, he shoved in a tape. It turned out to be one of those bizarre mix tapes of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply. This one started with The Stooges doing "1970." Despite rules of shotgun and cakehole, Sam didn't protest. Recovering from a gunshot wound deserved a few concessions.
Dean leaned back against the door, stiff, gripping his left elbow. "Got any theories?" he asked.
Sam loosened his tie at a stop sign, pulled out onto Winton Road. "Dunno," he said. "Guess we can rule out a water spirit – the last two victims drowned, but the one before that hung himself."
They passed through blocks of old homes – some well-kept, some boarded up or falling down –
to a more industrial area. Import garage, equipment rental, warehouses, factories. A sharp chemical scent filtered in through the Impala’s vents. Along the opposite side of the road was Spring Grove Cemetery, burial place of the Banfields, vast grounds hidden behind a tall stone wall.
Dean spoke facing the window, watching trees and wrought iron gates flash past. "Unholy ground? Garden-variety spirit?"
Sam shrugged. "Could be." He swung left onto Spring Grove Avenue. "Maybe we've got some kind of racist ghost."
"Shit," Dean said. "So long as it's not another racist truck."
Sam snorted. "I'll drink to that." He glanced over, caught Dean staring out the window, jaw clenched tight, pain written in the lines around his eyes. His shoulder wasn't healing well; Sam was starting to suspect that bullet had cracked the collarbone. At least the infection had run its course. Sam had no desire to relive those three days of fever dreams and delirium, constant vigilance and guilt. Bad enough he had to face the hazy memories of what he'd done – of what Meg had used him to do – without the visible, visceral reminders of the damage done to Dean.
Sam loosened his grip on the wheel, forced his mind back to the case. "So what do you think? Grab some lunch, change clothes" – put your damn sling back on, shove some pills down your throat – "then check out the cemetery?"
Dean nodded, closed his eyes – Jesus, still so pale. "Sounds good."
Sam worried at his guilt: picking at a scab, wiggling a loose tooth.
Paved roads wound through the grounds of Vine Street Hill Cemetery, past simple brass nameplates and ornate marble carvings, past blocks of granite, neoclassical mausoleums, and a healthy number of those ridiculous phallic monuments. Section six, where Peter Banfield had been buried and Robert Banfield had died, was at the top of a hill overlooking monuments on two sides, houses to the east, and the rushing traffic of I-75 to the north. Sam parked the Impala to the side of the access road under the leafless skeleton of a sprawling oak tree.
The pond where the elder Banfield had drowned sat in the center of the section, surrounded by benches, memorial plaques, and weeping willows. Quiet up here. The noise of the traffic seemed far away. Nice enough place to off yourself, Dean supposed, if you were of a mind to think that way.
Not that drowning would be the best way to go. Dean had had a couple of close calls over the years, and he could quite definitively state that drowning sucked balls. The thrashing panic, the cold shock and burning lungs, the slow fade of the world. Better to make it quick. Go out with a bang.
Not that he'd ever put much thought into it, of course.
He followed Sam around the pond with the EMF meter. Nothing out of the ordinary, save for a few empty beer bottles and, inexplicably, a television remote control. Mourning doves cooed somewhere in the trees. The February air had a bite, but it wasn't Minnesota cold, wasn't a flat prairie town without hill or windbreak. The breeze carried the scents of highway exhaust and barbecue.
They stopped on the shore at the spot where Banfield's body had been found. Scraps of yellow crime-scene tape fluttered in the trees and reeds; bootprints of police and paramedics clustered at the water's edge. Something about the scene was off. Dean gestured toward the lake, EMF meter still in hand. "Any idea how deep this thing goes?"
"Dunno." Sam looked around, found a good baseball-sized rock, and pitched it in. Not quite the deep plonk they were expecting. "Huh." He snapped a thin, dead branch from a tree, waded out a few feet, till the brackish water was almost to the top of his boots. He used the stick to feel ahead for the bottom. Even at the center of the pond, the water was less than six inches deep.
Dean cocked an eyebrow. "Not exactly the easiest way to off yourself," he said.
They split up after that, each taking half of the section, searching for anything suspicious: EMF, sulfur-coated tombstones, an out-of-place candy wrapper. Weak sun filtered down through the trees' bare branches as Dean threaded his way between rows of graves. He was glad now he'd swallowed his pride and worn the sling, even if he felt like a jackass with his coat sleeve flapping.
His half of the section was an older part of the cemetery, most burials dating from the late 1800s, elaborate Victorian gravestones. Shroud-draped urns, weeping angels, sleeping lambs. In one sculpture, a woman sat atop a tree stump, cradling two sleeping infants. The mother's downturned face seemed delicate, peaceful; years of rain had washed dark tracks down her cheeks like tears. The children's faces, turned toward the sky, hadn't fared so well: from a distance, erosion had contorted their expressions into an attitude of agony. Dean stepped closer to read the inscription on the front of the base:
WIFE OF HENRY
MAY 24, 1823 – JULY 8, 1857
HER CHILDREN REPOSE WITH HER
Creepy fuckin' thing. Dean circled it, but the EMF reading stayed fairly level. As urban as this place was, he wasn't surprised to find slightly elevated frequencies. He moved on, finding a bust of a stern-looking old man, a fine herringbone pattern carved into the shoulders of his suit. A stone woman with her arms wrapped around a cross, face cast down in mourning. A child-sized empty chair.
He looped back toward the pond, settled himself on one of the benches there. He could see Sam through the willow branches, making his way back to meet, stopping now and then to study something, stooping to read a stone.
Dean looked out over the still, murky water. A stiff breeze rattled through the trees, sent dry leaves skittering across the ground. A red-tailed hawk wheeled against the gray sky. Dean closed his eyes, feeling the burn of fatigue, the raw ache of his wound. Maybe he could catch a nap after dinner – they'd probably have to come back after dark.
When he first heard the sound, a low cry, he thought it was the hawk's prey, maybe a rabbit or squirrel caught in its talons. Then it resolved, gained body and rhythm, taking the shape of a woman's grief, choked sobs.
Footsteps scuffed in the leaves nearby. He opened his eyes, caught Sam looking worried. "You hear that?" Dean asked.
Sam frowned. "Hear what?"
Dean paused, listening. The cry had stopped, didn't come again. He shook his head, wondering if Vicodin caused auditory hallucinations. "Never mind," he said. "Probably just the wind."
There was a Holiday Inn Express right across the street from the cemetery, a little more corporate and expensive than their usual digs, but convenient as a base of operations. They didn't have to worry about hiding the car, they had a quick hideout if things went sideways, and the on-ramp to I-75 was less than a block away.
Dean was out cold, sprawled on the bed in an ungainly heap. Sam had tried to nap. Couldn't. He hadn't slept much lately, since – the thing with Meg.
He still hated to say it, hated to even think the word "possessed." He felt dirty, used – and then got mad at himself for being such a pussy, when he'd really gotten the good end of the deal. Steve Wandell was dead. Jo had been beaten up and terrorized. Dean had been shot. Who knew how many other people had been hurt by Sam's unwanted passenger – yet he was the one who felt traumatized?
Suck it up, Sammyboy. He poured himself another cup from the room's coffeemaker, went back to his research. He and Dean were both alive. They had a case and free wireless. That was enough for now.
Dusk had fallen by the time Dean stirred; even the panhandler working the I-75 exit had left for the day. Sam pulled the drapes and turned on lights as Dean fumbled his way out of his nest of blankets.
Typically, Dean's first thought was of Sam. "You get any sleep?" he asked, still rubbing his eyes.
"Little bit," Sam lied. Dean pulled a face, flicked an eye-booger at him, presumably to declare he knew a lie when he heard it. In Winchester tradition, Sam simply changed the subject. "You up for the full briefing?"
"Eat first," Dean said. "Then research."
Over pizza, Sam filled Dean in on what he'd found. "Okay, the first burials at Vine Street Hill were in the early 1850s. It was originally known as the German Evangelical Protestant Cemetery. Land was purchased in February 1850. No evidence of battles, massacres, or Indian burial grounds, so it looks like the property itself is clean.
"Next, I checked into victims. There've been twenty-four deaths at the cemetery since it opened. The first I could find was in 1867. There's no pattern to the time frame, and as far as I can tell, none of the victims have much in common. Different ages, different backgrounds – the only real pattern is that this spirit never goes after kids. The youngest victim was nineteen, the oldest eighty-four."
Dean picked an olive off his pizza, tossed it onto Sam's plate. "Gotta be some pattern."
Sam carefully arranged the olive onto his own slice. "Maybe we'll get a good hint tonight."
Night in the city was different, busy. Even with the February chill, teenagers roamed the streets, gathered on stoops. A dun-colored mutt strolled the sidewalk with lolling tongue and lupine grin, entirely unconcerned by leash laws. A skinny old man walked home from the Walgreen's, plastic bag dangling from each hand.
It was close to one a.m. before it seemed quiet enough to head out. Dressed in dark clothes, they crossed the four lanes of Mitchell Avenue. Didn't even have to hop a fence – just skirted around the wrought iron gate at the entrance, started up the first hill to section six.
The cemetery was a surprising oasis, cut off from the world, the sounds of traffic muffled. It was easy to forget they were so close to homes and businesses. Sam carried a salt-loaded shotgun and a few miscellaneous supplies stashed in a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, video camera in hand. They rarely spent time in cemeteries for reasons other than a salt-and-burn; he wanted to see if all those tales of graveyard orbs held any truth.
Dean was stuck with the EMF meter and his arm in the sling. His favorite pearl-handled Colt was tucked away at the small of his back. Never hurt to be prepared. Some dark part of his mind whispered how pathetic it was: packing heat just to feel useful, overcompensating for his injury. Sam would have a Freudian field day, if he weren't so busy wallowing in his own guilt.
Christ, Dean thought. What a pair.
The place was lit up with EMF – much stronger readings than they'd encountered in daylight, but spotty. Sam nudged Dean with an elbow. "Dude, check it out." The camera's screen showed at least half a dozen orbs, floating languidly or flitting about.
"Well, shit," Dean said. "That doesn't help narrow things down." They moved on, treading softly between graves, toward the center of the section and the pond. The hair on the back of Dean's neck stood up. He wasn't psychic by any means, but even he could sense the energy here.
They covered the newer part of the section first, paying extra attention to the area near Peter Banfield's grave. There was plenty of activity, but nothing that stood out, nothing that seemed malevolent. If anything, the orbs seemed curious. Sam's video screen showed the lights following them, edging closer, twining around their legs like friendly cats.
They came to the pond: still, silent, a sliver of moon reflected on the surface. The cold settled into Dean's bones, old aches and new. He paused near the bench where he'd sat that afternoon, looked out over the water. He wanted nothing more than to sit, rest, sleep; exhaustion weighed him down.
"Dude. Let's go," Sam hissed from the shadows. He'd gotten ahead, apparently ready to move on.
"Yeah, all right." Dean cast a last look at the pond, followed.
There was that noise again, that cry. Jesus, a sound of bottomless grief. It came from everywhere and nowhere, impossible to trace. Dean turned in a circle, trying to pin it down.
Sam stalked back toward him. "Dean, what the hell?"
"You don't hear that?"
"Hear what?" Sam frowned, searched the darkness. "Come on, man, we don't have time for this."
Dean recognized Sam's impatience for what it was: too much worry, too little sleep, anxiety, the need to fit everything into a neat, orderly box. He followed Sam's long stride into the rows of older graves, the wailing still echoing across the hill, wrapping around him like cold fingers, like the sticky tendrils of a vining plant.
Then everything went quiet.
Dean stopped, listening. Up ahead, Sam paused too, looking from the video screen to the night and back again. "Dean," he said. "All the orbs just disappeared."
That couldn't be good. As Sam swung the bag off his shoulder, going for the salt gun, the EMF meter squealed. Dean shut it off with a wince - Thanks, Professor Obvious – and edged closer to Sam. A flash of blue light erupted, and Sam went flying, landing with an audible thud at the base of a marble stone.
"Sam!" Part of Dean's brain registered the answering groan as he ran. He slid to his knees, wrenched the shotgun from the bag, used it to lever himself back to his feet. The spirit had vanished. Sam stirred, sluggishly pushing himself to all fours. Dean stood between his brother and the night, scanning the darkness for a target. "You all right, Sammy?"
"Think so," Sam said. He got to his feet, rubbing his head.
Dean waited, watched his breath cloud. "Come on," he muttered.
A grinding sound behind him. He turned, saw the massive stone urn shift on its base, teetering.
Right toward Sam.
Dean dove, tackled Sam. The urn hit the ground a second before they did, missing by inches. Dean landed hard and awkward, right hand still fisted in Sam's coat. Pain bloomed in his shoulder, hot, spectacular. He heard a whimpering cry, thought for a second the ghost had returned. Then he realized the sound was coming from him.
"Jesus, Dean." Sam's voice cut through the haze of pain, panicked. "Just breathe, would you?"
He tried. Forced his eyes open. Saw Sam leaning over him, backed by the crescent moon, blurry through stupid tears. For a moment, his treacherous mind flashed back to that night, Sam possessed, thumb digging cruelly into his wound.
He blinked away tears, walled off the memory. Dragged in a shuddering breath. Sam looked down wide-eyed, one hand on Dean's chest. A line of blood trickled from a thin cut on his cheek. "You okay?" Dean croaked.
Sam laughed, shook his head. "I'm fine. Come on, man, I think it's time to call it a night."
When Sam got him upright, Dean looked around, realized what part of the section they were in. "Hey," he said, "think I got an idea who our ghost might be." He untangled the EMF meter from his jacket pocket, aimed it toward the gravestone just ahead. The meter lit up with a squeal. "Yahtzee."
Directly across the aisle from the toppled urn was the carving of the mother and babies.
"Locals call it the 'Mother and Twins,' " the librarian said. Geeky guy, glasses, mid-twenties. Sam fought to hold back a grin – this dude was totally hitting on Dean.
A fluorescent bulb flickered above the reference desk in the History and Genealogy department. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County was reputed to have one of the best genealogy collections in the country; while they didn't have every record necessary for this hunt, it was a damn good place to start. Spread across the brothers' table were obituary and cemetery indexes, transcriptions of vital records, abstracts of wills and probate records. Their most valuable source, though, proved to be the smitten, bespectacled Matt.
"There are a few different versions of the story," Matt said, magnified eyes fixed on Dean's mouth. "Most people say that the babies drowned in a boating accident. Some say that the mother died trying to save them, others that she later died of grief or killed herself."
Dean, the big slut, was apparently not above using his charms on the home team. "What do you say?"
My god, that leer! Sam watched, equally fascinated and repulsed. It was almost predatory – like watching a snake unhinge its jaw to eat.
Matt blushed, adjusted his glasses. "Well, I don't know that anyone's ever tried to find out the truth, but it wouldn't be that hard. Birth and death records could be pretty spotty before the 1870s, but marriage records and wills go back a lot earlier. You'll find those at the probate court. All the burials at Vine Street Hill have been indexed through 1977, and the cemetery's records should contain information on next-of-kin or whoever paid for the burial. It was originally the German Evangelical Cemetery, so church records and the German newspapers might have some information, too."
"You wouldn't happen to have the address of the probate court, would you?" Dean's slow smile was nothing short of seduction.
Sam gave up. Headed back to their table wondering if he could permanently injure his eyes by rolling them too much.
A few minutes later, Dean returned with a stack of books and a scrap of paper with a downtown address. The phone number at the bottom of the page, Sam suspected, likely did not belong to the probate court. "Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ," Sam hissed. "Are you utterly without shame?"
Dean gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Pretty much, yeah." He opened one of the books, flipped through the pages. "Find anything?"
"Maybe." Sam turned the laptop so Dean could see the screen. "Some 'Haunted Ohio' website lists a few stories about the Mother and Twins."
Several people had heard crying near the statue – what Dean must have heard, what Sam had dismissed. Others reported seeing an apparition. The strangest story, though, was that of an amateur photographer who'd spent a day in the cemetery with her young son. While snapping photos, the woman had heard crying, seen a figure dart past her viewfinder. When she looked up, she saw her son about to fall into the pond – deeper in the springtime, more than enough to get a toddler in trouble. The woman credited the ghost of the "crying mother" with saving her child.
"A ghost that helps some people and kills others?" Dean looked up from the screen, cocked an eyebrow.
"Definitely unusual. What'd you get?"
Dean shoved a couple of books across the table. "Good ol' Matt dug up some references to the gravestone – apparently the husband was the sculptor. There's some biographical information on the guy, where he studied art and all that happy horseshit. Might be something useful buried in there."
Sam cleared his throat, bit back a grin. "So, uh – you gonna treat Matt to some drinks tonight?"
Dean didn't look up from his book. "Thought I might treat him to some phone sex once we get back to the room, see how uncomfortable you get."
Sam laughed, though he was half afraid Dean meant it. "Seriously, Dean – it doesn't bother you, leading him on like that?"
"Dude." Dean looked up, his eyes clear green, sober. "We've pretended to be priests. Is that any more honest?"
Huh. Maybe he had a point. Sam shook off his internal ethics debate and reached for his notes. "All right – you wanna take the burial records, or do you wanna interview some families?"
He wasn't surprised Dean picked the former.
I can see it in your eyes, Dean.
You couldn't save your Dad, and deep down you know that you can't save your brother.
They'd have been better off without you.
Dean jerked awake at the sound of the key card in the lock. A moment later, Sam fumbled his way inside, lugging a big plastic bag of Chinese takeout and a drink carrier with two cups. "Hey," he said. "They didn't have Coke, so I got Dr. Pepper."
" 'Kay." Dean pushed himself up against the headboard, scrubbed his face with his free hand. Christ, he wanted to be rid of that image: Sam's eyes with someone else inside, Sam's voice nailing him with all his darkest fears. It had haunted him in fever dreams and nightmares ever since, came back to him through the day when a certain expression crossed Sam's face, when a certain pitch crept into Sam’s voice.
Dean closed his eyes, let his head loll back. He just wanted this to be over.
Sam cleared the research off the room's lone table and started unpacking cartons. He waited till Dean had joined him and they'd started divvying up food to talk business. "Think we might have to reconsider our ideas on how this ghost works," he said. "Seems like more than a few of the victims had been in some kind of disagreements with their families, which would fit in with the Banfield scenario. But a few of these victims – man, I can't even imagine what the pattern could be."
Dean snagged a couple of egg rolls, dished some kung pao chicken onto a paper plate. "What do you mean?"
"The woman who died two years ago March," Sam said around a mouthful of Mongolian beef, "prime example. She definitely didn't kill herself. According to her husband, she was a happy-go-lucky person. Never had any kind of tragedy or trauma. Worked her dream job as an art teacher at the local grade school. Was looking forward to an Alaskan cruise they'd planned for the summer. One day she goes to the cemetery – not even for a funeral, just do do some sketches, make some rubbings of gravestones. Three days later, she's dead, drowned in that same pond."
"Damn. She never said that she'd seen anything, never acted any different?"
"The husband did say she seemed kind of down-in-the dumps after she visited the cemetery. But nothing so unusual that it raised any concern."
"I dunno, man." Dean poked at his food with a plastic fork. Just wasn't hungry. "Maybe the husband just didn't know her as well as he thought. Sometimes those happy-go-lucky types are the ones barely keeping it together inside. Maybe she really did just off herself." He flicked a deadly chili pepper across the table at Sam.
"Maybe." Sam used a napkin to nudge the pepper away from his plate. "Either way, Helena's not playing well with others. You find anything else in the records?"
"Well, it turns out neither she or the children drowned, and the babies weren't even twins. They were born almost two years apart, in 1855 and 1857. Both boys, and both of them died before they were a week old. Helena died a couple months after the second baby. Death notice in the paper didn't mention a cause, and if there ever was a death certificate, it wasn't filed with the probate court."
"Huh." Sam paged one-handed through his notes, till he found a Xeroxed photo of the gravestone. "Guess this was her husband's idealized vision. What she would have been like as a mother."
On that uplifting note, Dean pushed his plate aside.
Dean and the sliver of moon kept watch as Sam dug the grave. He hated feeling so useless, camped out with the EMF meter and shotgun, listening to the muted traffic, the shovel's shink, Sam's labored breath. The rich smell of earth filled his nose.
It was a mild night, mid-40s, but as time wore on, Sam shucked his jacket and Dean started shivering. He stood, circled the grave to work up some warmth. Nothing to do but pace and think.
His shoulder still hurt like a bitch, and that was starting to worry him. He couldn't move his arm without stabbing pain, and he'd noticed numbness in his fingers – not constant, but each instance was enough to send him spiraling into sheer panic. He hoped it would get better on its own, improve as he healed, but he couldn't help but think the worst. What good was a hunter with only one working hand?
He crouched by the grave again, shotgun balanced across his knee. Wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
A few minutes later, the shovel hit wood. "Got it," Sam said. Soon, the rest of the dirt had been cleared, the coffin exposed. A few well-placed strikes and the lid gave.
In the flashlight's glare, Helena Strauch was nothing but dust and bone and hanks of dark brown hair, a few tattered scraps of clothing. Nothing remained of the face so lovingly sculpted above.
Dean handed down salt and lighter fluid just as the crying started again. "Think we got company." He stood, scanned the dark.
"You hear her?" Sam asked.
"Yeah. Don't see her yet."
Behind him, Dean heard the sprinkling of salt. He turned in a circle, searching.
The flash of light blinded him before he could react. Pressure filled his skull, gripped his chest. He squeezed off a shot. Fell hard.
The salt shot must have missed. Light flooded his vision; the pressure increased.
He couldn't hear Sam anymore. Instead he heard voices, a man and woman, a flat Midwestern accent, a lilting Irish brogue. Words vague, indistinct, the murmur of lovers in happier times, an echo of the past. Then the man's voice faded; the woman's changed in tone and pitch, hysterical. Pleading. Words came clear: Where are they, where are they, where are they…?
The sounds of the world rushed back in all at once: faint rush of traffic, wind through the trees, Sam's voice begging. "Dean? Hey, man, come on. Wake up."
Dean pried his eyes open. His head pounded in time with his pulse, like goddamn mortar fire. He sucked in a smoke-filled breath. Above him, a blurry Sam was backed by the moon. Déjà vu. "We get it?" he croaked.
"Looks like." Sam nodded toward the grave, where flames guttered against the walls of dirt. "You all right?"
"Think so." Sam gave him a hand up. He swayed on his feet for a moment, grip fisted in Sam's coat. The crying had stopped, the voices silent, but god – that sense of despair, the frantic fear, stayed with him. Fuckin' ghost.
Well. Bitch was toast now. Couple'a painkillers, a good night's sleep, Dean figured he'd be good as new.
He tried to help Sam fill in the grave but ended up sitting propped against the base of an obelisk, the stone cold, eerie white, and not exactly comfortable. His shoulder and head throbbed in time; his fingers had gone numb again. He leaned his head back against the smooth stone, may have dozed.
Until the crying started again.
He waited till Sam was done before he said anything. By then the weeping had increased in volume and desperation, a desolate sound unlike anything Dean had ever heard. It gutted him, left him feeling small and weak and utterly alone. Eyes squeezed shut, knees pulled up to his chest, he tried to stop shaking. "Hey, Sam," he gritted out. "Don't think it worked."
The sobbing that Sam couldn't hear followed Dean through the cemetery and across the street. Sam kept one hand fisted in Dean's jacket, almost dragging him along, trying to keep him from stumbling, all the way back to their room.
Once they'd stepped across the salt lines, Dean sagged in Sam's grip. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead; a hard shudder ran through him.
"Better?" Sam asked.
Dean nodded once, weakly. " 's gone now." He pulled away from Sam's grip, sat on his bed, slumped forward with elbows on his knees.
Sam dropped their gear, sat at the table. "What'd we miss?" He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "What the hell is keeping her here?"
"If it's the tombstone" – Dean's eyes brightened a bit – "does that mean we get to blow it up?"
Sam snorted – his tone was so hopeful. "Let's try to save that as a last resort. It's probably something simpler…jewelry, a lock of her hair, something like that."
"So how the hell do we find it? Both her kids died – nobody to pass an heirloom on to."
"Maybe the husband kept something. If he remarried, there could be heirs."
Dean heaved a theatrical sigh. "Guess that means more research."
Sam stood, started stripping out of his smoky, sweaty clothes. "Might get to see Matt the librarian again."
"Shuddup," Dean muttered. He toed off his boots, flopped back on the bed.
Sam had to grin. As long as they were still cracking jokes, everything would be okay.
Dean couldn't get out of bed.
A patch of hot sunlight fell through the gap in the curtains and onto his sheets, baking him under the covers. His shoulder ached; his head throbbed – but that wasn't the problem. He felt hollowed out. Dead inside.
Couldn't do this anymore.
It was worse than the emptiness he'd felt after Dad died. Worse than waiting on a demonic virus in River Grove, Oregon. He just couldn't see the point anymore. They kept fighting and fighting – and for what? There was always another spirit, another creature, another demon. Another way to get hurt, to die – to watch Sam die.
Christ, what the hell was wrong with him? Winchesters didn't think this way. This was just stress and pain and fatigue, hell, maybe something left over from the ghost's attack last night. Channeling her despair or some shit. He forced himself to sit on the edge of the bed, limbs feeling sluggish.
Sam wasn't in the room; Dean found a note scrawled in his chicken-scratch: Getting breakfast. Back soon. 10:15. Dean checked the bedside clock: 10:34. Good. After that last disappearing act, it would take a while before he let Sam out of sight without worrying.
He eyed the bathroom door, less than a dozen feet away. Just a matter of levering himself upright, shuffling a few steps. He'd feel better after a shower.
Just as soon as he could make himself care.
By the time he'd showered and dressed, Sam was back, bearing styrofoam boxes of diner takeout. Smelled divine – bacon, eggs. Dean almost wept in gratitude at the sight of pancakes, but soon found he could only pick at them, drained of all energy before he was halfway done.
Sam frowned at the unfinished food. "You feeling all right?"
"Yeah, man." Dean rubbed his forehead. "Just not too hungry." Just tired. And sore. Just ready for this to end.
Outside the third floor window of the library, the city rose in brick and steel and glass against a gray sky. Sam slid into a chair across the table from Dean, taking in the stacks of books, some marked with torn scraps of paper, the sheaf of photocopies and printouts, the scattering of golf pencils worn down to nubs. Dean looked up, rubbed a hand across tired eyes. "Whaddya got?" he asked.
Sam slid his notes out of the laptop bag, flipping through several pages of his yellow legal pad. "Well, if Henry Strauch kept some kind of memento, we're pretty much screwed, because he never married again, and several years after Helena's death, he moved to Germany, which is where he died."
"Exactly. Just to be sure, I tracked down the wills of his father and siblings. Unfortunately, none of the itemized lists came right out and said 'cursed object' or ‘dead chick’s property,’ so that's pretty much a dead end. How about you?"
Dean shuffled through his stack of papers. "I might owe Matt some phone sex after all – he suggested some alternate spellings and wildcards to use for a search. I would've never found anything otherwise, 'cause 'Strauch' is apparently misspelled in every friggin' record since – since cuneiform." He handed over some printouts of scanned census pages, spidery handwriting squeezed into tight columns. "Helena Gilchrist was born in Ireland, immigrated in 1849. In the 1850 census, she was a servant in the home of Leo and Anna Strauch, where she met their son, Henry."
Sam made a surprised sound, raised an eyebrow.
"The Strauchs were a prominent local family, had a lot of money for that time. Looks like they didn't approve of Henry falling in love with the maid."
"Which is why Helena targets people with prejudices or family disputes." Sam glanced through the records, nodding, then looked up. "I still don't get the ones that don't fit the pattern – the squeaky clean, well-balanced ones."
Dean shrugged, watched some pigeons land in the eaves across the street. "Maybe it's almost an accident," he said. "Maybe she just wants to communicate, like with the crying. She tries to tell people her story, and ends up, I dunno – flooding them with grief or something."
Maybe he'd said too much. Sam's eyes narrowed. "Is that what you felt last night?"
"Dude. All I know is, if I was still hearing that crying…?" He let the sentence trail off.
"All right." Sam leaned back in his chair, let out a long breath, pushed the hair out of his eyes. "We're still no closer to figuring out what's holding her here. And as much fun as it might be to blow something up, this place is way too urban to be practicing unauthorized demolition. The cops would be there in no time."
"Yeah, ain't that a bitch." Dean didn't have to fake disappointment.
They traded notes and sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to pages shuffling, the fluorescents' hum. Dean looked through the wills Sam had copied, going through inventories of households' contents: pocket watch, waffle iron, one sorrel mare. What the hell was keeping this ghost here? Somewhere back in the stacks, a baby started to cry; Dean could hear the mother try to hush it with soft tones.
Shit. That was it.
Dean put aside Sam's notes and grabbed back his own. "Dude," Sam protested.
"I think I know what she wants," Dean said. Where the hell was it – he needed the burial records he'd gotten from the cemetery the day before. He found the page he wanted, pushed it across to Sam. "This must have happened after Henry left the country. Leo Strauch paid to have the two babies disinterred from the plot with Helena. Her children don't 'repose with her,' Sam – she wants her babies back."
Sam just stared for a minute, then got that perfectly-Sam look of indignation. "Jesus – this guy's prejudice really went that far? No wonder she's drowning people who remind her of him."
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, the psychology is fascinating and all, but you know what this means, right? What we have to do to get rid of her?"
He could see Sam's wheels turning. Then: "Aw, man. That's just gross." Sam's nose wrinkled up. "You really think we've gotta dig up dead babies?"
Dean nodded. "And put 'em back where they belong. But first" – he scraped his chair back – "we gotta find out where they're buried." He headed over to the reference desk for another conversation with Matt.
Ten minutes later, after getting groped next to the cemetery indexes, he returned with another Xerox. "Spring Grove Cemetery," he told Sam. His face felt hot – Christ, leave it to a librarian to make him blush.
Sam just shook his head. "Unbelievable."
"Dude." He felt the flush spreading down his neck, cursed his fair skin. "It's not like I went down on him in the rare books room or something."
"Oh my god." Sam buried his face in his hands. "Brain bleach. Now."
Somehow they managed to pack up their notes and properly return books to a shelving cart without looking at each other. Dean suspected Sam would be using this as ammunition for quite some time.
In the elevator on the way downstairs, Sam muttered, "Tonight is really gonna suck."
"Sorry, Sammy." He did feel like a grade-A shit; here he'd told Sam to dig up two graves in a night, and he'd be damn near useless with his shoulder jacked up.
"Think you're right about what she wants, though. Good catch."
Dean kind of hated himself for the little glow of pride that warmed his chest. If he wasn't careful, he'd be blushing again.
The elevator came to a stop with a ding. "Well," he said as the doors glided open, "I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
Oh, yeah, this case was gonna be one to remember.
With a nondescript work van jacked from the equipment rental place across from Spring Grove, they used a photocopied map to guide them along the cemetery's access roads. Bigger and more elaborately landscaped than Vine Street Hill, Spring Grove featured a series of lakes and ponds that had helped drain the original swampland and make it suitable for its current purpose. They found the Strauch family plot arranged beneath a dark granite obelisk at least twenty feet tall.
The babies had been named Thomas and Francis, and a single sleeping lamb marked their shared grave. Dean tried to help as much as he could, developing an awkward single-handed digging technique that worked fine for breaking the ground, but was pretty much for shit when it came to moving earth. Still better than just sitting there.
When the two small coffins had been laid on a tarp in the back of the van – there was no way in hell Dean was slinging dead babies around in his car – they filled in the grave as quick as they could and headed for Vine Street Hill.
It was a five, ten minute drive, at most, smooth sailing at this time of night. They'd popped the lock on the cemetery gate earlier; now all it took was removing the chain and hoping no cops happened by. They were lucky on the human front. The streets were quieter than they'd been all week.
Looked like nobody had noticed the evidence of their previous outings – the giant stone urn still lay on its side. Sam took this grave on his own. The dirt was still loose, and on Helena's home turf, they definitely needed a lookout. Dean paced with the shotgun, watching his breath cloud on the cool air.
The crying started before Sam was even a foot deep, just as mournful. Just as painful to hear. Dean stuck close to the grave and tried to block it out. He just had to keep the bitch away from Sam. If he couldn't handle that, then shit, he really was worthless.
Hell, who was he kidding. He wasn't exactly doing a bang-up job of taking care of Sam lately. His little brother had been possessed and he'd had no fucking clue it wasn't Sam until it was almost too late. How could he have let that happen? If he hadn't tried holy water out of sheer desperation, he might have actually killed Sam. He should've known. Should've been smarter.
…They'd have been better off without you.
Sorrow, regret, pain, fear: they made him dizzy, nearly choked him. He staggered away from the grave. Stumbled, nearly fell. Kept his balance using the butt of the shotgun.
That horrible sobbing was still there, just background noise now. His head was filled with his own grief, his own failures. Every time he'd made some dumb decision, put Sam in danger, fucked up a hunt, gotten some innocent killed. And he thought he could somehow save Sam? He shouldn't even be here. He should've taken that crossroads deal. Dad would've known what to do – wouldn't be fumbling around, making every mistake possible.
Tears blurred his vision. He made out the slice of moon reflected in a shimmer of water just ahead. He leaned against a granite obelisk, the stone cool beneath his cheek, through his jacket. He'd been deluding himself all this time, thinking he had some duty here on earth, some reason to exist, whether to save Sam or help people or just kill evil. The evil would never end, no matter how many things he hunted down, and Sam…
Sam would be better off without him.
He slid down to sit, his back against the stone. He could feel the hard lines of the Colt at his back, the metal warmed against his skin. There was an easy way to set things right. Sam would be fine – he'd gotten along just fine without Dean before.
He laid the shotgun on the ground, took the gun from the small of his back. Beautiful gun, the pearl grips, the engraved barrel. He ran his thumb over the delicate filigree.
The spirit's cry still split the night, but right now all he could hear was the noise in his head.
Sam was almost down to the coffin again when he realized he hadn't heard Dean in a while – no footsteps or shotgun rattle or muttered comments. He stopped shoveling, popped his head up from the grave. "Dean?"
No answer. Dean was nowhere in sight.
Fuck, that was definitely not good. Sam hauled himself out of the hole. "Dean?" he called louder. No sign anywhere, not a sound, shadow, or footprint. He dug into the duffel bag, found a flashlight, and took off through the rows of graves.
He headed toward the pond on instinct; the monuments and trees were taller that way – more places to hide. The sweep of the flashlight caught nothing but sparkling stone, pale marble. Then a flash of silver.
He swept the light back and picked out Dean in the shadow of an obelisk, sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest.
Gun tucked up under his chin.
Sam's gut twisted. He moved closer with measured steps, no sudden movements. "Dean?" he said softly.
"Get outta here, Sam." Dean's voice was raw, tight.
Sam aimed the light away, but not before it picked out beads of sweat on Dean's forehead. He tried to keep his tone light, tried to keep his voice from shaking. "Hey, man. Why didn't you tell me you heard the spirit?"
Dean choked out a laugh. " 'Cause I'm a royal fuckup, Sammy, haven't you figured that out yet?"
"Not a fuckup, Dean. This is just the ghost getting to you. We can fix this, man, I'm almost to the bottom of the grave. Just put the gun down."
"Can't do that, Sam." Dean's hand trembled, pale in the flashlight's glare. "Meg was right, you know. You'd be better off without me."
Oh, Jesus. Sam remembered the words in his own voice, while his own hand dug into Dean's wound. He swallowed hard. "You're listening to what demons have to say, now? Gotta tell you man, not exactly the best place to get advice."
"Demon or not, she was right. You know, Jo asked me, when she was digging that bullet out of me, if demons sometimes tell the truth. They do if it'll mess with your head."
Sam inched closer, till he was close enough to touch Dean, then sat on the cold ground in front of him. "You can't really believe that. I mean, god, you can't even let me out of your sight without me getting kidnapped by hillbillies or choked by poltergeists or – "
Sam took a few deep breaths. "Or possessed. None of that's your fault, man. And if it weren't for you, there'd be nobody there to save my ass when I get into these messes."
The look in Dean's eyes was sad, lost, like he wanted to believe but just couldn't. The gun wavered beneath his chin.
"Seriously – you think anyone else would have hesitated to blow me away? Even if you didn't know what was wrong, you knew I didn't do those things. If it weren't for you, I'd be dead…or still watching Meg kill with my hands."
A single fat tear dropped down Dean's face. "I'm just so tired, Sam. I can't do this anymore." His gun hand shook, then steadied.
He grabbed Dean's wrist, shoved the gun aside. A wild shot cracked off, pinged against stone somewhere. They wrestled till Sam had Dean pinned – easier than it should've been; thank god Dean wasn't a hundred percent. Dean looked up at him eyes betrayed, shimmering with unshed tears, just before Sam clocked him one.
Must've been a lucky punch; it usually took a lot more than one hit for Dean to go down. Sam wasn't complaining. He tucked Dean's Colt into his own waistband, retrieved the shotgun, and slung Dean over his shoulder. He couldn't guarantee how long Dean would be out; he had to get things squared away quick.
Back at the grave, he eased Dean down to the ground, fumbled around in their duffel. In a side pocket, he found a pair of handcuffs (along with a tube of KY – my god, what did that say about his brother's idea of "just in case"?). There wasn't much around that would work for his needs. Sam finally cuffed Dean's right hand to a handle of the fallen urn, then rifled Dean's pockets for anything he could use to pick his way out. Even with his left arm in a sling, he was nothing short of resourceful.
Back to business. Sam dug faster, even though his back and shoulders screamed. He hit the coffin soon enough, dug out the sides a bit further to accommodate the grave's new residents. He was hauling one of the small coffins out of the back of the van when he heard Dean groan and stir. He set the coffin down, knelt next to Dean. "You all right?"
Dean's eyes opened to slits. He jerked his right hand against the cuff. "What the fuck?"
"Helena was fucking with you, man. Can you still hear her?"
"Yeah." Dean let his head fall back to the ground, closed his eyes. "Just finish it."
The wind picked up as Sam was manhandling the second coffin. He set the box down, looked around. The spirit hadn't coalesced yet, but he could feel the charge building in the air. He picked up the shotgun. Decided to try something else.
"Helena!" he called. Dots of blue light flashed, pulled together into a vaguely human figure. "We're trying to help. We've found Thomas and Francis."
At the mention of the names, the light flared brighter, solidified. When the flash faded, a woman stood before him, the fine-boned face he recognized from the sculpture at his back. Tendrils of hair swirled around her face as if blown by a wind.
"Helena," he tried again. "We brought your children back to you. Leo is dead. He can't take them away from you again."
The spirit turned away from Sam, faced the two child-sized coffins. Something in her face softened, slipped to sadness. She stepped closer, knelt between the boxes. Placed a translucent hand on each.
Still kneeling, she looked up at Sam. A sad smile trembled on her face; tears slipped down her cheeks.
The blue light flashed.
Finishing up seemed anticlimactic after all that. Sam fit the children's coffins into the grave and filled the hole in, listening to the reassuring clink of Dean's cuffs against the stone. When he was done, he made a sweep with the EMF meter and found nothing. He circled the monument. Ran one hand over the inscription carved on the back of the base:
IF YOU LOST EVERYTHING YOU LOVED THE MOST IN THIS WORLD
YOUR HOMELAND, PARENTS, FRIENDS, WIFE AND CHILDREN
SHED A TEAR OF SYMPATHY FOR MY DARLING HELENA
They took a day to rest, and neither of them said anything when Sam subtly kept himself between Dean and all weapons, wouldn't let Dean out of sight for longer than it took to take a piss. Normally, Dean would've bristled at the attention, told tasteless jokes and made fun of Sam, probably shouted at some point and generally made an ass out of himself.
Today he didn't mind.
He sat quietly, surfed some porn, watched the Food Network and History Channel. Took his antibiotics and painkillers whenever Sam shoved them at him. Sometimes he dozed. Sometimes he pretended to doze, pretended not to feel Sam's worried gaze.
He didn't remember much of the night before – whether that was due to the spirit's influence or Sam's right hook, he wasn't sure. What he did remember, vividly, was the weight of the gun in his hand, the cold barrel against his chin, and the relief that had flooded him at the thought that the end was in sight.
That scared him.
Not the idea of dying – hell, he faced that every day – but the fact that one little push from a ghost had made him completely forget about the job, about Sam. While he was hiding behind a tombstone eating a bullet, that bitch could've found Sam alone and unprotected, weaponless, messing around in her grave.
The fact was, even if Sam would be fine on his own – even if Sam might have been better off without him – Dean still had a chance to make things right. To stand between his brother and whatever evil the world could throw at them. Even if he wanted to stop, Sam was the reason to keep going.
They were watching MythBusters – some good information on getting past high-tech security systems – when Sam spoke without turning to face him. "Why didn't you say anything, Dean?" His words were soft, the same tone he used on victims. "I know the spirit was affecting you from the first time you heard it. Why didn't you tell me it was – you know. Making you feel that way?"
Dean blinked. The Vicodin must have been getting to his head – before he thought, he said, "I wasn't really sure – " He bit off the rest of the sentence, cursed himself.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam frown as he worked it out. "You weren't sure it was the spirit." He gave a jerky nod, confirming something to himself, then turned to Dean.
And god, if he ever needed a reason to stick around, Dean saw it right there: the hard set to Sam's jaw, the guilt and tears in his eyes.
Dean looked away first, eyes not really seeing the TV, swallowed around the lump in his throat. For all they fought and bitched and sniped at each other, they were both alive and okay and together, and that was all that mattered. Anything else, they'd handle as it came. He felt absurdly grateful, if somewhat pathetic, to have his brother right then. He didn't know what he'd do –
Hell. Who was he kidding?
He knew exactly what he'd do without Sam.
A/N #2: The real "Mother and Twins" monument is located in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The true story behind the stone can be found in the article "Myths and Realities of Laurel Hill's 'Mother and Twins' Monument," by Janet McShane Galley, which appeared in Markers XXIV, the 2007 issue of the Association for Gravestone Studies annual journal.
The name "Strauch" is my nod to Adolph Strauch, the landscape architect who designed Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, among others.
I drive past the real Vine Street Hill Cemetery every day on the way to work, and my great-grandfather is buried there. The cemetery in this story bears little resemblance to the reality.