a gift exchange
PG-13, gen, Supernatural. Seven times in the life of Sam
Winchester when he saw the future.
i. now I lay me down to sleep
The sun is out and Dean’s decided that he likes it here. There was a demon in a
house next to a sidewalk with sand in the cracks, but now it’s dead. They’re not
moving on straight off – something Dad wants to check out before they leave,
Dean guesses – and so there’s enough time to build a big fort, really big so
that he can sit on top if the tide comes in, and the girl by the boardwalk
selling ice-cream thinks he’s a cute kid, and gives him free scoops whenever he
gets tired from digging. It’s a long job. Sammy helps, sometimes, and sometimes
he draws in the sand with the point of a stick, making patterns that Dad calls
abstract and Dean calls retarded, but only quietly, and he’s careful not to
scuff them with his sneakers.
The ice-cream girl likes Sammy a whole lot. Their first day there, she asked him
where his mom was. Sammy said, “She’s dead,” in that way he had, with head
thrown back and small voice so clear, and she got down on her knees and asked if
he liked sprinkles, just like that without all the fuss. Dean hates fuss.
It’s been three days, and the fort is getting really fancy with shells outlining
the ramparts, when Dean decides that no, actually he’s changed his mind, he
doesn’t like it here at all.
Because that’s when he notices: Sammy’s gone.
First of all it seems like he’s hiding – he’s gotta be hiding, right, Sammy,
stop it, come on out – but then he’s looked everywhere and screamed himself
hoarse and the fort’s a smashed wreck but there aren’t any answers or any small
fingers poking out from beneath the sand.
He’s worried that Dad will be angry, but he isn’t; he tells Dean where to look
and where to go, half-calm and half-frantic with a sort of twisting in his face,
until they’ve hunted around for two hours and all the time the water is getting
closer. Finally Dad says something about means and ends which Dean doesn’t
understand, but he knows it’s bad, because Dad’s going to the cops and Dad hates
Dean sits on a chair swinging his sneakers while Dad has to give a description –
he has a picture in his wallet, but it’s years old and everything about Sammy
keeps changing – of Samuel Winchester, aged five-and-a-half. Dean thinks:
he’s quiet but he’s very smart, his hair is light-coloured and gets into his
big, sad eyes and you have to find him, we have to find him and I swear
I’ll never lose him again.
Cops start moving and shouting things. Dean stares out of the window and notices
the sky is starting to look pink at the edges. Dad’s yelling a bit, something
about his son, his search, and after a minute he calls for Dean and they’re back
to looking across at the sand and the tide, only with other people as passing
shadows shouting Sammy’s name.
When the sky has gone black, they find him. Half a mile down the coast, Sammy is
sitting at the water’s edge with legs crossed and feet bare and wet. Dad runs
down to pick him up. hold him up and hold him close. Dean hangs back until Dad’s
done with the yelling, at least for now, and then he takes Sammy’s little hand
into his and asks, quietly, “What were you doing out here?”
Sammy shakes his head, says nothing. Dean follows his gaze out across the water,
the rise and fall of moonlit waves, stretching out and over and away, and
understands a bit. About what Sammy said to the ice-cream girl, and how he said
it, and how he’s five years old and this is the first time he’s seen further
than the dry earth, the rock salt and the land.
ii. dry land
So it’s usual to find porn under your brother’s mattress, or ammo or dope or
something, but Sam was never exactly a normal kid. Dean pulls out a dog-eared,
smudged, crumpled bit of paper from underneath the saggy bit in the middle of
the bed and goes out on the porch. Sitting with long legs swinging off the
steps, Sam stirs listlessly, shifting to give Dean room to sit. He’s staring out
down the road, out at where the sky comes down to the ground, white and
washed-out by the heat, like the bones they find just below the surface of
cracked earth. Everything is still and muffled by thick dust.
“So,” Dean says, holding up the letter. “When were you going to tell me?”
Sam glances at it, looks back towards the road. “Soon,” he says, tiredly.
“Were you?” Dean says sharply. “Or were you going to sneak off to California in
the middle of the night and just leave a note?”
“No.” Sam doesn’t turn to face him. “No, I would have told you.”
You but not him, Dean thinks but doesn’t say. “Yeah, well, Sammy. This
is...” – he waves the paper, goes for broke – “pretty cool.”
Sam looks at him.
“No, it is. Look, Dad and me, we both know you’re a smart kid. And this – yeah,
there wasn’t any doubt you could do it, it’s just....”
“It’s just it doesn’t actually matter.” Sam is chewing a ragged thumbnail,
talking through the torn edge. “It’s just I need to forget about this and load
up my shotgun like a good smart kid. It’s just, it’s just, so forget it.
Dean doesn’t say anything, but follows Sam’s gaze out away from the edge of this
tiny town. They’ve been here a couple of months now, their longest spell
anywhere in a long time, because this is a place thick with the heat of long-ago
summers, the heat which brought the workers of the plantations down to their
knees on the fallen cotton. They hear them after dark, the old ghosts with their
old spirituals rising up above the fields. Dean hates it, hates the death-rattle
beneath the notes, but Sam opens the windows and drinks in music with cool night
“Maybe,” Dean says finally.
Sam nods. “Put it back where you found it.”
“Look, Sam” – Dean is floundering – “maybe you should go. I don’t know. If it’s
what you want.”
Sam stares at him without smiling. “God, Dean, why aren’t you going crazy?”
Dean thinks: because you aren’t. Because Sam isn’t yelling about his
mattress, his privacy, about how people should act like people and not like
savages or ghosts, about the travelling and the past and fucking Dad and his
fucking fixation. Because it’s new, and more terrifying than any ghost, when the
fight goes out of Sam. “Sammy, talk to me,” Dean says. “Why do you want to go?”
Sam takes his hand away from his mouth. “I saw the future,” he says tonelessly.
“I woke up one day and I saw it. And it was all ghosts and demons and monsters,
and long roads that lead nowhere. I was going to die after fighting every day of
a life I never stopped to live. And that thought, Dean? It scared the fuck out
Dean takes a deep breath. “Yeah, okay.”
“What?” Sam snaps.
“It’s a long drive to California,” Dean says, and knows at once what he’s about
to do, what he’s already done. But Dean’s been fighting malevolent forces every
day since he was four, and he knows that you don’t let something like that build
up, you don’t let something dark take shape in a barn or an old churchyard or
behind your brother’s eyes.
“Dean?” Sam is looking up, with the quick smile that only ever comes from houses
not motel rooms, from long books with tasselled bookmarks, from firm ground and
ocean water and Lucky Charms.
That night Dean stands by the window and listens to the low-pitched yells and
stamping, but he worries more for himself than them, because Dad and Sammy are
the fighters in the family, and then comes the slamming door, the ringing,
resounding finality, and all around him the ghosts sing hallelujah as he goes to
fetch his keys.
iii. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon
Sam is supposed to be sleeping. Jessica has a philosophy midterm tomorrow at
nine. The day is passing them by in a long, slow sprawl of hours, marked by
green tea, green leaves making lazy flutters against the window, the spill of
papers over the sunlit floor.
She says, “Sleep, Sam,” and he will, soon, but his thoughts are flickering below
the surface, a pilot light slow to die. His mind is sharp but rusted to a
particular point; he can salt a corpse but not a salad; he can swear by a
thousand Lares and Penates, but he’s not sure how to stuff a pillowcase; he can
cast down rising water, force it back into the flow of river and rain, but
yesterday the mist in his hair made him sneeze and he didn’t know why.
“Sure I’m not keeping you awake?” she asks, with wry concern and a flick of the
blanket away from his head.
“No,” he mutters, “no, I’m not sick, I’m fine...”
“Sure you are.” She laughs, slips through his perception as a moving, elegant
shape, standing out with sharp edges in the fog. This isn’t sickness, he wants
to tell her; this is lethargy, this is peace, this is the new and unaccustomed
weight of a light blanket in the winter sun. This is a pressing down of his
limbs into the softness of an armchair, this is making his head ache with
Jess paces, recites to herself. “The Other is neither positive nor neutral but
negative without reciprocity...”
This is a raging cold, she said, and now he is curled up with cushions and a mug
of tea whilst she walks up and down in front of the window and commits her notes
to memory. Sam slips and falls in and out; as a small child, he couldn’t ever
sleep in the middle of the afternoon.
He dreams a bright blue sky, cold, crystal-sharp air, the lapping low waters of
a paddy field. Jess paces through it, “neither positive nor neutral, the Other
is how we define ourselves”, and the surface of each pool barely breaks from
each step, each pointed descent of each lily-white foot. Something snaps and
breaks, makes faraway thunder, makes him taste ice.
He gasps, a spike of a sound that cuts through the densities of air and wool.
“Sam?” Jess asks, and she’s worried.
Sam says, without opening his eyes, “It’s gonna rain.”
He hears her moving. When he can lift his head to look, she’s standing by the
glass looking back at him with a strangeness in her eyes, heavy and dark like
the first of the falling drops, and they pour through the open window into her
hands, a benediction, a gift.
How we define ourselves, he thinks, and in her mouth he tastes rainwater
fresh from the clouds.
iv. in between days
It’s hard to get a station out here, but after a couple of taps the radio is
warbling The Cure and this Friday Dean’s in love. He’s feeling it for the open
road, for the radial lines of asphalt that slam into a dreamy horizon miles in
front, and for no reason at all he remembers Sam aged about twelve, engrossed in
a book of geographic trivia, telling him about ships disappearing from view
around the curve of the earth. He always had that thing about water and waves
and the ocean, the myth as well as the science, the human tears flowing from
ancient seas. Dean prefers the easy control, the gravel thrown up by spinning
tyres; he’s got enough elemental forces in his life.
Right now they are approximately a thousand kilometres from the nearest ocean,
deluged with fresh water from a blackening sky. The soft edges of the sunset are
almost gone, but Dean knows what the night looks like and this isn’t it. This is
rolling clouds and sizzling slices of lightning, this is the might of the storm
in a world without gods. The wind is rising, buffeting the sides of the car, but
she’s low and snug to the ground and Dean drives on.
Riding shotgun, Sam fell asleep with the twilight, and Dean thinks about edging
the music up a notch just to make him squirm, but he doesn’t do it. Not for
reasons of noble brotherly feeling, but because at least when he’s sleeping he’s
not shooting off his college-boy smart mouth. Through the murmur of upbeat
instrumental, it occurs to Dean that it’s unusual; Sam’s got an even temper
until a certain point and they didn’t hit that point; it was only
knock-back-and-forth wisecracks when Sam got to be bitchy.
Crack – a broken twig hits the windscreen and he forgets what he was
thinking about. It makes a sickening scraping sound before disappearing into the
dark, and Dean peers forward, makes out the whipping tree branches, the tall
conifers bending and breaking in the gale. Night is falling behind the
thunderclouds and there’s a new quality to the dark now, deep and concentrated,
but they’ll keep going. By morning they should be driving in sight of open
water, and Sam’s gonna like that.
A sharp intake of breath cuts above the radio static, and in a still small voice
high above the storm, Sam says: “Stop.”
In lightning and headlights, his face is all stark white angles, eyes open to
the crackling of the sky. Dean doesn’t hesitate. He slams on the brakes and for
a second they’re still shifting through space, thrown forwards with the recoil –
and then a tree falls, makes a huge arc in lightning-sharp relief, hits the
ground water and they’re there to hear the sound.
The thud reverberates into nothingness, becomes part of the ticking over of the
engine and the background rain.
The radio catches again, a blurry voice babbles about eighties punk, and the
rhythm of Dean’s breathing shifts back to in and out, back to normal. With a
grunt, he shoves open the door and goes tramping out into the road, staring at
the huge fallen tree looming out of the dark. Its bulk muffles the wind, making
a long pool of silence below the livid sky, where everything is warm, wet and
still. By dint of some careful manoeuvre, they should be able to get around the
obstruction and be on their way.
Back in the car, he takes a deep breath and thinks about that broken twig, about
lots of breaking twigs, about breaking glass, breaking bones, and says, “Sam,
But Sam is asleep again, half-hidden by softening shadows, and Dean silently
turns the keys in the ignition and drives on.
v. none of his words fell to the ground
Sam borrows books from public libraries and reads them over breakfast. He
doesn’t steal them, because the mainland United States is a big place but it
isn’t infinite. One day they’ll go back, turn around and kill new monsters in
old places, and in the meantime he doesn’t turn down the corners and watches the
dates inside the cover tick further past.
He’s reading now, turning over pages with one hand and digging into cereal with
the other. Dean is at the sink, running the full blast of the tap over the
remains of scrambled egg. The mid-morning silence is unusual and comforting.
Sam drops the book and says, “Do you worry about me?”
“What?” Dean turns around to look at him, and doesn’t notice as water flares out
in curtains off a spoon. “Shit!”
It takes him a moment to wring out his sleeves, but Sam is still looking up,
waiting for his answer. “Yeah, sure, I worry about you.” Dean peers back into
the sink. “I worry about you when you don’t eat, I worry about you when you
don’t sleep, I worry about you when vampires try to cut your head off.”
“No...” Sam stands up, picks up the cereal bowl, takes two steps, changes his
mind and sits down again. The chair he’s in is uncomfortable, and he’s sitting
the wrong way round on it and that doesn’t help. He stabs a spoon into the bran
flakes, watches the milk bubble into the depression. “I mean… do you worry about
me?” He pauses, hands waving and grasping at nothing. “Worry about me like you
would worry about, say, vampires?”
Dean turns off the tap and turns around. Leaning against the counter with hands
in pockets, he asks, “Sam, what’s this about?”
Sam stands up again and picks up the book. “I have... something,” he says
carefully. “An ability, a power. A gift, even.”
“A gift.” Dean shrugs. “I can strum a mean Zeppelin, but I don’t worry
“It’s not like that. It’s not the same.” Sam has begun to pace, boots making
dull thuds on the tiles. “It’s not what I can do, it’s what I am. I’m a...”
He stops, because he hasn’t used the word before. “Seer.”
“Seer,” Dean repeats, and laughs. “Dude, so you have freaky dreams. That doesn’t
make you Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
“It’s a definition,” Sam says flatly. “I see, so I’m a seer. I can prophesy, so
Dean cuts him off. “A drama queen. This is just like you, gettin’ all stupid and
whiny, and fuck it, you're gettin' all college-boy about it. We’ll deal with it.
“It’s nothing? Really?”
“Yeah, really.” Dean’s voice hits a lower register. “I know you, all right,
Sammy? You’ve got your head too deep in all that mythology crap. It’s just a,
just a thing. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah...” Sam nods. “I’m just your kid brother, right? Same person you’ve always
“Yeah.” Dean’s wary; something hasn’t snapped in this conversation. “You can’t
“Because none of that mythology crap ever happens to us?” Sam stares at him for
a few more seconds, then picks up the book and begins to read. “So he told
him all the words, and did not hide them from him. And Eli answered: It is the
Lord: let him do what is good in his sight.”
Dean raises his eyebrows. “Cut the crap, Sam.”
Sam merely looks at him. “And he grew, and the Lord was with him, and not one
of his words fell to the ground, and all Israel knew that Samuel was a faithful
prophet of the Lord.”
Dean doesn’t say anything.
vi. the psychic thing
Sam wakes up and it’s murky and wet and cold. There is a man, coming closer,
whose eyes are black with the heart of darkness, and a shiver, long and low,
runs through Sam’s body, and the heat is leeching out through cold skin and
cloth, and through fear.
It’s all a dream, because he wakes himself up through screaming and it’s
daylight when he opens his eyes. Hush, it’s okay, says a voice, we’ve
got you now, you’re going to be fine, but a red-smeared hand pushes back his
hair, and he screams into the morning sky for Dean, and Dad, and no one hears to
Sam wakes up to learn he was in an accident. The car’s a wreck, not one moving
part, and his back hurts from the plastic chair he’s living in now, and then
Dean walks in through the door, puts one foot up on a chair and says, “Hey,
Sammy, you’re not that smart, are you? Wake up!”
Sam does, and it makes no sense that his dad in the hospital bed is the one
reaching out for him, jerking him out into the sharp, sterile air of
hospital-room consciousness. “I thought,” Sam says, and stops.
Dad asks, “When did you last eat, Sam?”
He guesses he probably had something through an IV line, but he feels like he
hasn’t eaten solid food, ever, because his mother died before he’d ever tried
it. He gets up, promises to bring Dad something back that has processed sugar in
it, goes to see Dean on the way down. Late nights, hypoglycaemia, years living
on a shoestring diet, they all do something to the edges of the brain, and he
used to see spectres back at Stanford.
Hallucinations, he thinks, and looks up to the words you and the children
like you spattered above him dripping red. He stares down at Dean, still and
quiet beneath the breathing tube, and when he looks back, the writing is no
longer on the wall.
Sam wakes up and he’s holding a cup of coffee. He drops it and scalds himself
and wakes up, and he’s sitting with Dean right next to him and Dean across on
the bed breathing through a tube, and he wakes up again and he’s in bed in
California, he’s asleep in Lawrence, Kansas, and he wakes up and none of this
Sam wakes up and Dad says, “Let’s not fight.” The coffee goes everywhere, makes
a stain that will never come out. Sam wakes up in the backseat of the car, in
the centre of the oncoming storm, in the crib in the beginning.
Sam wakes up. It’s murky and wet and cold. There is a man, coming closer, whose
eyes are black with the heart of darkness, and a shiver, long and low, runs
through Sam’s body, and the heat is leeching out through cold skin and cloth,
and through fear.
Right now he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but there is blood in his eyes
and a gun on the seat and evil out there in the dark, and he doesn’t know what
will happen, but right here, right now, he knows what to do.
vii. the Book of Samuel
This is a scene like out of the bad gangster movies he ends up watching on
crappy motel cable. The lights are dim and murky, non-existent, except right up
here, bare bulb bright on green baize. Dean shifts in his chair, holds his cards
closer to his chest.
“Ante up, boys.” The big chimpanzee of a dealer shifts his gaze around the
players: an old guy in overalls, a young guy with pointedly flashy signet, a
woman with half-smoked cigarette and bleach-tinged buzz cut. And Dean.
“You all in?” asks the chimp.
The guys are in. The girl drops her cards, scrapes her chair back. “Going for
air.” She disappears, and the dealer gives Dean a pointed look, gentle smile
covering muted aggression. Dean knows that look. It means you better have
enough green ones to cover those stakes, boy, or your ass is mine.
Dean smiles winningly back, and tosses in a chip. “In.”
Through the gap of the empty chair, he could, if he wanted, look through to the
doorway. He doesn’t because he knows what he would see; there’s a definite
shadow there, slouched against the doorframe with the streetlamps picking out
his outline in sodium yellow.
The dealer looks, though. “Who is that?” he asks as one by one the players raise
or fold. “Hey, who the hell are you?”
There is no answer. “Kid brother,” says Dean laconically, emotionless as the ace
“Uh-huh.” The dealer peers into the middle distance. “Is he retarded or what?”
“Mildly.” Ace, ace, king, four. High ace, but fucking weak with it, and no
movement from the door. The dealer’s getting impatient; bleach-blonde girl is
back, tapping her feet.
“Well?” The monkey’s getting angry, and Dean’s feeling the first stab of worry.
Come on, Sammy – and he looks up and sees Sam give a brief, almost
Dean’s expression doesn’t change. “I call.”
Turns out, weirdly enough, that the old guy’s bluffing on nothing and no one
else has more than two kings. Dean lets a grin crack across his face, sweeps
across his winnings. “Gonna take my leave, boys,” he announces. “While you’ve
all got shirts on your backs.”
Chimpanzee growls but it’s fair and square, and Dean can’t see, but he knows Sam
Later, they’re walking slowly down the rain-wet street, dodging puddles by the
light they reflect, and Dean says, “I don’t know how you do it, though. You got
the sight, but one kind of psychic ain’t every kind of psychic, right? You’re
not clairvoyant, too?”
Sam shakes his head. “I saw you win,” he says simply. Watching his brother count
crisp green twenties into his wallet, he adds: “Hey, half of those are mine.”
Dean laughs, slaps his hand and the money passes between their skin. Rainwater
trickles down into Sam’s hair and eyes as he pockets it. “There you go, you
little card sharp.”
Sam grins. “I learned from the best.”
“No, you didn’t,” Dean says quietly, “you got this somewhere else.”
“Yeah.” Sam gets it; out here in the clarity of the night, it’s easy to reach
out for Dean’s mood, easy to feel the stillness about it. “But there’s no giving
“Shouldn’t exchange gifts, anyway.” Dean sticks his hands in his pockets and
splashes into a puddle. “It’s rude.”
“Yeah, and you’d know all about that.”
“I hope you’re not calling me rude, Sammy. Don’t forget who taught you
your table manners.”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“Bet you didn’t, you little fucker.”
“You’ll never know.”
“No,” Dean says, “no, I won’t, but I’ll know you,” and they’re walking through
fresh air and fresh water, on the way to somewhere new.