Title: Lady Madonna
Warnings: Adult language, angst
Summary: Gen; Pre-series. After the family moves on short notice, Mary realizes their new home is inhabited by a ghost with an alarming fixation on three-and-a-half-year-old Dean. She has to take care of the situation while keeping John in the dark. A story of wee!Dean in danger.
Author's Notes: The title "Lady Madonna" refers to the Beatles' song of the same name about an overwhelmed mother, as well as to Mary's sacred status as mother of Sam and Dean. (The song was also a track on the "Hey Jude" album!) Written in response to an intriguing prompt for sophiap during the 2014 Summergen Fic thanks to my amazing, supportive, and insightful beta, scullspeare.
"Mommy, I don't like that night lady," Dean said in his high, sweet voice. He chased some soggy Cheerios across the laminated Batman placemat in front of him, pinching them between his thumb and index finger before popping them into his mouth.
Mary, wearing cut-offs and one of John's old Metallica t-shirts, was building her husband a turkey and Swiss on rye at the kitchen counter. At her son's words, she stilled.
"What lady, honey?"
Dean, spooning sugary milk from the bottom of his bowl, didn't look up. "That lady that talks to me at night."
John quirked a brow, coffee mug halfway to his lips. "Bad dreams?" The question was directed at Mary-the person he viewed as expert in all-things-kid.
"For sure," she managed.
If she just hung on, she told herself, John would finish his coffee and head to work so she could figure out what the hell was going on. She quickly shoved an apple, a Rice-Krispie treat, and the sandwich into a brown bag, folded down the top, and used a big black marker to scrawl "Winchester" across the paper surface. John reached for it; she playfully snatched it back and ran for the front door, sidestepping the few remaining unpacked boxes of books and albums in the hall. On the threshold he bent to kiss her, taking possession of his lunch while they smooched. "No fair," she teased. He must have sensed her underlying tension because he pulled back, his eyes searching hers.
"I know this move sucked," he said, "but it'll be OK, Mary. You'll see. Just a bump in the road."
She smiled for him, making sure it reached her eyes, then kept smiling and waving until the Impala pulled away and rumbled down the street.
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, pasted a happy face on, and went to debrief her three-and-a-half-year-old. He was sitting where she'd left him, wearing nothing but his underwear thanks to the sweltering summer temperature, humming to himself and pushing a miniature die-cast Batmobile back and forth across the table.
He was so beautiful, her little man. Wavy blond curls atop his head, brilliant green eyes full of caring, a sprinkle of freckles across his nose, a smile that broadcast his whole dazzling spirit - she loved him beyond measure, even when he was running her ragged.
She sat down beside him, pulling her chair close. "So, sprite," she began. "Tell me about the 'night lady.'"
"I don't like that lady, Mommy," Dean confided, gaze earnest. "She's cold."
"Show me where she was, OK?" Mary kept her voice level as she propped Dean on her hip and headed up the stairs to the tiny room that was his in this still unfamiliar house.
Their rental on Robintree had been sold out from under them when the landlady died in her sleep and her ass of a son decided he wanted to liquidate the property. They'd hoped to stay for another year at least, to save for their own home, one large enough to accommodate all of them plus another baby or two. Instead, they'd found themselves with just four weeks to find something and move. It was a shitty time of year for it, super-busy for John at the garage and blasting hot to boot.
Mary had been having a hard time coping with the upheaval. She usually managed to leave the past behind, celebrate the gift of John, the miracle of Dean, and not dwell too much on all that had happened. But secrets weighed her down, as well as the guilt she carried like a lump of granite in her gut. She'd made a deal with a demon of terrifying power–the same one who had murdered both of her parents and snapped her fiancé's neck. (That he'd brought John back was her sole consolation. The price-? Too vague and terrifying to dwell on and still function.) Dead set on "normal" and afraid of too many questions from the supernaturally informed side of the family, she'd cut herself off from the entire Campbell clan. There were times she felt hollowed out by it all.
Mary shook herself back to the present to find she had moved them all the way into Dean's room. It contained a scattering of toys, a small dresser, and a toddler bed topped with Superman sheets.
Dean was looking at her with a frown wrinkling his brow. He was so perceptive, picking up on her moods with unnerving accuracy. More than anything else, it was why she fought to keep herself in a good place, and not let happen…what had just happened.
"Hey, baby." She hugged him close so he couldn't see her stricken face, pulled herself together before putting him down. "Is this where you saw the night lady?"
Dean nodded with vigor. "She was right there." He pointed to his bedside.
"Did she say anything?"
"Dean, what did she say?"
The blood that was supposed to power Mary's brain plummeted to her toes. Faint, she sank heavily to the floor, taking Dean with her to end up sitting awkwardly criss-cross-applesauce on the worn carpet.
"Mommy?" Dean looked worried again.
Mary took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, shoving all emotion aside.
"C'mon, little man," she said, rising and taking Dean by the hand. "We've got work to do."
Mary knew there are three tasks you have to accomplish when you are on a hunt. First, muster immediate protection from whatever supernatural danger you face. Second, identify the specific threat and how to neutralize it. Third, eliminate whatever-it-is for good.
So…first things first.
She did keep a large store of salt in the pantry. She was retired, not crazy. "What the hell?" John had exclaimed when he saw the dozen jumbo boxes lining the shelf, but Mary had mollified him, saying you needed a ton of salt to make your own play-dough, and she had that and some other pre-school projects in mind. He had just laughed, white teeth flashing, and forgotten about it, thank God.
"Hey, Dean," Mary called, grabbing one of the boxes of ever-useful sodium chloride. "What have I got?"
Curious, he took the box–it was nearly as wide as he was—and shook. It made a raspy shoosh-shoosh sound.
"What's in it?" he asked.
"Salt!" Mary exclaimed as if the contents of the box were the most precious treasure. "We're going to use this to make a little river in your room. This stuff is great for making pretend rivers, but we'll need boats, too. You wanna help make some boats?" Except for splashing in the inflatable kiddie pool for a limited time, Dean was going to be housebound in the three-digit heat and need something to do. Two birds, one stone, and she had to have some explanation to hand John about the salt ring on the floor around Dean's bed, no matter how lame.
Lunch was PBJs and chocolate pudding cups, shared while the cut-up egg carton boats they'd painted in bright primary colors dried on the windowsill. Next came the fun part. After pulling Dean's bed out from the wall, Mary opened the big box of salt. Dean's mouth dropped open as she poured it out in a ring half a foot wide right on the floor! She grinned at his delight, showing him that he had to step over and not mess up the salt or his river would be ruined. Dean ran to place his crude little boats on the circle of white crystals.
"Toot toooooot!" he cried, crashing together a green one and a yellow one.
It wasn't long before the salt line got mussed. No big deal, Mary thought. She'd fix it once Dean was in bed and asleep.
While Dean played, Mary wracked her brain about the next steps.
It was damn hard being a young mom with no family and no real friends to support you. She missed her father sorely, but her heart downright ached for her mother. What wouldn't she give to ask her advice, to be able to say, "Mom, can I drop Dean off with you for a couple of hours? I need some time," and know that her son was safe and loved with his grandmother.
But poor Dean would never know a grandmother or a grandfather either. The thought never failed to depress her.
Other people…. Well, the people who knew about hunting were the ones she'd turned her back on. The people who didn't had mostly been high school friends, now beginning to drift away, or her Uncle Rick in Indiana who had always doted on her but was too far away to do her much good.
The research she could handle, but managing a salt-and-burn on her own was going to be a bear.
It was a miserable night. John had merely snorted at the salt "river," so that had gone OK, but then she'd had to stay awake until he fell asleep with his arm about her waist, waiting until his breathing was slow and even to extricate herself and check on Dean. It was awful. Every moment Dean was alone her guts compressed into an ever tighter ball.
Once she made it to her son's room, she softly brushed his hair back from his face then turned to stand vigil, an iron crowbar in her grip. At one point her gaze caught on the ceramic angel smiling beatifically from Dean's dresser.
"Well, you're not doing your damn job," she gritted.
It was after 2 a.m., and Mary was pinching herself to stave off sleep, when the ghost showed up, standing distraught at the edge of the salt barrier. She was only about five feet tall, with a heart-shaped face. Her brunette hair was brushed back and pinned to fall in coiled waves at the nape of her neck. She wore a short-sleeved yellow dress, knee length, with a narrow belt around the waist, white socks turned over so they reached just above the ankle, and dark, sensible shoes. She might have been pretty if it weren't for her sunken eyes which roved back and forth, hungrily regarding Dean then, full of spite, coming to rest on Mary.
"Mine," she hissed.
Jaw clenched, Mary stood and swung the crowbar for all she was worth.
The ghost's essence shredded, a swirling maelstrom of gray and black that wisped to nothing.
Grim, Mary settled in to wait. She had to smack the apparition twice more before dawn.
Thankfully, the summer sun was up before John was. At 4:45, she reapplied the salt line and reluctantly slunk back to her room, shoving the crowbar as far under the bed as she could reach before squirreling her way in next to her oblivious husband.
"I need the car today."
Shirtless and sporting a blue and green striped towel about his hips, John paused, razor in hand, to meet Mary's eyes in the bathroom mirror.
She usually gave him more of a heads-up than this, so Mary had expected a bit of push-back.
"They're having Story Time at the library, and it's too hot for Dean to play outside."
Wiping remnants of shaving cream from his face with a hand towel, John turned towards her. "I was going to do some work on the car during my lunch break…." he began to protest.
Mary wrapped her arms about her husband's trim waist, big blue eyes pleading.
John laughed. "OK, OK. Jeez. Don't look at me like that. Or, on second thought.…" He swept her into a blistering kiss, which she returned with enthusiasm, hoping it made up a bit for the fact she was a lying shit.
Mary and Dean dropped John off at the garage then went home to clean (Mary) and play (Dean) until the library opened at ten o'clock.
Getting research done was going to be a little tricky. The children's area was one very distinct library space, amenable to little people reading Where the Wild Things Are out loud. The microfiche room was another thing entirely. On top of that, Dean's attention span was less than terrific.
She was going to have to hurry.
Fortunately, the encounter with the ghost had given Mary one advantage: she had a little intel. The spirit was female, and young, and dressed in clothing reminiscent of the girls waiting for their soldier-beaus to return from overseas in World War II movies. Gender, age, epoch–that should help. Plus she knew the exact address where the haunting was taking place.
In sepia hues, illuminated from behind, the details of one girl's unhappy story emerged.
Her name had been Gracie Gardner. She'd committed suicide by slashing her wrists in Mary's house when she was sixteen. That much Mary found out pretty quickly. Next, she'd need to go beyond newspapers, check into personal accounts….
"Mommy?" Dean, a stack of children's books abandoned on the floor, was pulling on the hem of her T-shirt.
"Just a little longer, sweetie," she coaxed, digging in her bag for a handful of Matchbox cars. "Play with these, OK?"
Dean's eyes lit up. She'd bought herself maybe fifteen minutes.
She enlisted the help of a young and tolerant librarian–avoiding her older and crabbier supervisor who would not approve of Dean's presence in the microfiche room—to access some sources of local history from the mid-1940s: books, collections of letters, and a couple of diaries.
Luck was with her. She found a diary—
"Mommy?" Dean squirmed. "I need to go potty."
She couldn't help a sigh. Afterwards, when she led him back to the microfiche room, Dean looked dismayed, and with good reason. It was well past lunch time.
"Mommy just needs a few more minutes," Mary promised. She knelt down, giving him a quick squeeze. "If you can just be a good boy for a few more minutes, we'll go to Jay Bird's for burgers and pie, how about that?"
Dean's grin lit up the room. Going out during the day was a big treat; they didn't have the car very often. Mary pulled out some crackers from her bag. "Have a little snack, and we'll be done soon, OK?"
OK. Diary. Her finger skimming the page, she quickly found her place.
With the war, hearing that one of the boys from school is gone is no surprise, though it saddens me. But Gracie? Though we were not close friends, she was in school with me all the years through, and she always seemed merry and open-hearted.
They say she took her own life, and I have my suspicions why. There was a boy. (Isn't there always?) He joined the navy, gone in two shakes, and she was sent away soon after for several months. When she returned there was no child, but of course her parents would never have let her keep one. Then the news came that the boy she loved had died when the Japs sunk his ship–not one survivor. Who did she think of more when she decided to end it, I wonder, the father or the lost babe?
Well, that explained a few things, including the fact that the only reports of trouble in their house were during periods when an infant or small child had lived there. The "lost babe," Mary surmised, was the crux of Gracie's grief, and the reason she kept making a beeline for Dean.
She rose and stretched, stiff from the hours of inactivity and already planning to call local cemeteries to locate Gracie's final resting place when she got home.
"Pie?" Dean asked, hopeful.
Mary scooped him up and tickled his tummy. "Pie," she replied, and together they laughed, looking forward to a special time together, just the two of them.
Mary spent a second miserable night deceiving John, guarding Dean, and dispensing Gracie.
By morning she was tense and irritable. When John tried to stroke her cheek and ask what was wrong, she pulled away, muttering something about PMS.
She'd need time away, during the wee hours, to salt and burn Gracie's remains. It had better be quick, too. She couldn't take many more nights like this, and Gracie was growing increasingly agitated. Above all, Mary needed Dean to be safe while she did it, and that was a problem. Taking him to the graveyard with her wasn't an option, and she certainly couldn't leave him at home with an irate ghost and a father who didn't know such things existed, let alone how to fight them.
She needed help.
Denise Salvatore was half-Italian, a chain smoker, and a terrific cook. She was also the mom of Linda, Mary's best friend from high school, long since moved away from Lawrence.
She was the only local person Mary could think of who she'd trust to watch Dean for her while she was digging up Gracie's grave. She called the minute John left for work.
"Mary, I can't tell you how good it is to hear from you," Denise enthused in her cigarette-roughened voice. She said she'd be more than happy to keep Dean at her place while Mary spent a night working things out with her hubby.
Mary hotwired a car from two blocks over then brought it home and loaded it with shovels, salt, and a can of gasoline. She threw spare clothes for herself and jammies for Dean into a backpack, then tossed that in the car, as well.
Last of all, she penned a note for John. She couldn't disappear without an explanation. That would be even worse for him than believing she was angry enough to leave and take Dean with her, that she'd holed up somewhere for the night to cry and think. Her hands, which had been steady as she stole her neighbor's car, now shook, making her handwriting wobbly.
I've taken Dean and left town for the night. I need to clear my head.
I'll be back very soon, probably tomorrow. Please don't worry.
I love you,
She felt sick; she could picture far too well what coming home to that note would do to her husband. His father had left in the night never to return, and this was maybe the worst thing in the universe she could have done to the one person she never wanted to hurt.
Denise misunderstood the reason for Mary's agitated state of mind. "Men are idiots," she consoled once they'd arrived at her modest ranch-style home. "But you'll see, he'll come to his senses."
Mary nodded, feeling rotten about letting Denise think badly of John. He didn't deserve it, but what other explanation could she give for leaving Dean with Denise after dark except needing to return home so Mary and John could discuss their adult issues in private?
As the day wore on, Denise brought out her kids' old toys and Dean half-heartedly played with them. As usual, he sensed his mother's upset, and repeatedly asked for his room, his house, his own toys, and his Daddy. Perhaps it was the wrongness of it all that kept Dean stubbornly awake until late in the evening. By 10:30 p.m. Mary simply had to leave. "You're going to sleep here tonight, angel man," she told him, poker-faced and hating herself. "You'll have a bath and ice cream and story time with Miss Denise. Won't that be fun?"
Dean was having none of it. His lip trembled as Mary slung her backpack over her shoulder, and tears spilled as she opened the front door. She knelt, hugging him tight, kissing his damp little cheek and whispering reassurances. But in the end, she had to peel his clinging fingers from her neck while Denise pulled him back by the waist.
As she drove to the graveyard, Mary cried.
Gracie's marker was in a public cemetery, not the Catholic one where the rest of her family was buried. Her suicide had been common knowledge, and no quarter had been given by the diocese as far as her final resting place.
As she drove through the gate, Mary thanked her lucky stars that the moon was only a thin sliver, low in the sky–it was black as pitch in the deserted boneyard.
She threw down her duffel by the teenage girl's grave and bent to read the inscription.
Gracie Gardner, beloved daughter
Born 1928 – Died 1944
She permitted herself a moment of sadness for the long dead girl, placing her hand on the stone and giving it a gentle caress. "Gonna send you home, sweetheart," she murmured.
Then it was all business–like riding a bike unless you considered the fact that she was doing this alone (not a smart move) and worrying about what John would think if he had to post bail because she'd been arrested for grave desecration.
She began by pulling her hair back into a ponytail, twisting a rubber band four times around the thick mass to keep it out of her face, then donned sturdy work gloves. Thank God it was summer, she thought, as she grasped her shovel and stamped its edge into the hard-packed dirt. At least the ground wasn't frozen.
By the time she'd cleared a measly foot of earth she was drenched in sweat and her arms were aching from the unaccustomed labor. Maybe summer wasn't such an ideal time for this either. This was going to be a bitch, but that was just too damned bad. She dug harder.
By 4:00 a.m., when her shovel thunked against wood, she was filthy, with dirt-clogged, ruined sneakers and soil smeared all over jeans, tee, and exposed skin. With a sharp stab of the shovel, she cracked the simple wooden casket open, rushing now because this was usually when things got dicey.
She was pulling up the edges of fractured wood to reveal rotted rags and stark bone when Gracie materialized above her.
"The baby's mine." Her voice dripped malice.
Mary yanked up wood to reveal more of the remains beneath, grabbed for the box of salt sitting ready on the lip of the pit, and poured it liberally over Gracie's corpse. "I'm so sorry about your baby, Gracie," she stalled, though the words were sincere.
The next thing Mary knew, she was flying out of the hole she'd dug and crashing hard into a nearby headstone. Her right shin took the brunt of it. She ended up on her back, gasping in pain.
"My baby. Mine!" Gracie shrieked.
The thought of this unhinged spirit fixated on Dean was enough to get Mary moving. She belly crawled back to the hole she'd dug, fingers reaching for the gas can, and brought it with her as she pulled her upper body over the edge, gas cascading haphazardly into the grave.
Gracie straddled her, an unsettling force that wasn't exactly weight pressing into her back, pinning her in place, claw-like hands closing around her throat from behind. Mary bucked on instinct, but realized it was no use. She put all remaining energy into stretching her fingers back towards the matchbox on the cavity's brink. Her vision was beginning to go dark when, shoulder straining at the awkward angle she felt the edge of the matchbox beneath her fingers. She gripped it and brought it in front of her face, scrabbling to open it.
Matches rained out to scatter over Gracie's bones.
Mary uttered a strangled cry as she finally, finally, snagged a match, striking it frantically against the side of the box.
It caught. Her fingers released their grip. The flaring match seemed to fall forever, drifting down slow as dandelion fluff to meet the salt and fuel-soaked mess below. Then it went up with a "whoosh."
Gracie brayed a terrible, animalistic howl. Bright embers consumed her from her core outward, flaring bright as she disintegrated to ash.
The pressure on Mary disappeared, and she rolled away from the heat and flame that burst from the grave. Stunned, she gazed up at the star-dusted sky, panting.
"Thank God," she gasped. "Thank God."
She changed into fresh clothes and sandals before she got back to Denise's at dawn, rehearsing a story about a walk in the nearby state park, and being distracted, and tripping and falling, and…nonsense. But she hoped it would do to explain the hour, her limp, and the general state of her, cleaner clothes notwithstanding.
Denise looked a bit perplexed, but didn't say much. Neither did Dean. Without a word, he walked up to her, let her lift him up, and clung for dear life. "We're going home now, little man," she whispered into his soft curls. "Everything's OK." In the car, she filled the silence with his favorite lullaby.
Don't be afraid
Take a sad song
And make it better…
At home, dog-tired but needing to pamper him, she dragged out the Bisquick to make up for scaring him and, worse, burdening his sensitive heart with worry. He began to perk up when she squirted whipped cream to paint a happy face on his pancake. They passed a subdued morning, cartoons on the TV, Mary popping Tylenol because her leg throbbed and every muscle she had was screaming at her for moving six feet of earth single-handed. She and Dean both fell asleep in their respective rooms in the late afternoon, still worn out from what hadn't been a good night for either of them.
Mary woke when John gently shook her shoulder.
"Mary.…" he sounded uncertain. When she blinked her eyes open, his wrecked expression tore at her soul.
"Baby, I'm so sorry," she whispered, sitting up, ready to embrace him. He took a step back through a shaft of late afternoon sunlight, not letting her.
"I don't understand," he choked out. "What the hell did I do that you would take Dean and leave?"
She sprang from the bed, despite her sore muscles, and closed the space between them.
"I'm sorry, so sorry. It's not your fault, John. You didn't do anything wrong…." She reached out to him, hesitant. "Please forgive me. I was stupid, freaking out…stupid.…" She wanted to hide her eyes, her lies, but he firmly gripped her upper arms and held her back, searched her face, anger overlaying pain.
"If there's another man, if you don't want me.…"
"There's no one. I swear to God."
"Then why…?" His voice broke as the anger guttered out, swamped beneath a wave of hurt. "There's only one thing I want, in this whole world. To be a good husband to you, a good father to Dean."
"You are, John. You're a great father…."
"If I'm doing it wrong, show me how…tell me how…."
Tears glimmered in his eyes. Her heart seized. She'd never seen him cry, never.
She whispered consolation and love and promises, her tears mingling with his as she kissed him, touched him, made him hers.
Across the street, on the neighbor's cluttered wraparound porch, a wicker swing hung from rusted chains. It squeaked as a swarthy man, greasy hair slicked back, settled into it, yellow gaze trained on John and Mary's bedroom window.
"Keep it up, lovebirds," he smirked, lascivious. "You've got another baby to make. Mine."
His eyes gleamed with unholy satisfaction. Then he was gone, leaving nothing but the swing rocking empty in the oppressive summer air.