Some families reserve Saturday as Family Movie Night. Some spend Christmas binge-watching every holiday film ever made. Some even let the special someone choose places of interest on their birthday. The Winchesters, on the other hand, have a completely different set of traditions. I've only been to the theaters a handful of times, tight budgets restricting entertainment to local television stations. As a kid I never received a traditional Christmas present. Sure, sometimes we got candy or an article of clothing. That always involved a lot of talking and manipulating. And birthdays? Don't even get me started on birthdays. My only celebration as a kid, cake and all, was the summer of '97. Bobby only insisted because he knew Dad planned to tell me the truth, to toss the last remnants of my childhood into a shredder. From then on Winchester tradition took over. Fourteenth is first hunt, 16 first solo hunt. Holidays are spent passing a basket of fried chicken and a bottle of whiskey. Mother's Day is only acknowledged with heavy drinking and maybe some pie. On Father's Day Dean sits in the Impala all day, staring blankly at the steering wheel with a beer in the cup holder and the radio blaring Metallica. Sam grabs every weapon he can carry for the closest hunt he can find. I spend the day pretending monsters don't exist. Afterwards we all get drunk as can be. Random anniversaries in between have their own requirements. Compare that to regular traditions. Nothing the Winchesters do is ever conventional.
There are still kids in my grade that refuse to sleep without a nightlight. Who still check under the bed every night just in case. I haven't been like that since Dad told me the truth. Then there are the kids that devour ghost stories like a fat kid eats cake. Who actively seek out the small adrenaline rush that comes with reading Scary Things That Go Bump in the Night (even I found that one pretty scary. Dean would never approve, so I had to sneak it in before class and during cross-country meets. Lucky for me my events finish first. It gave me nightmares for a week). Never in my life have I used a nightlight. Dad forbid it. He said sharing a bed with one of your brothers was good enough. When I turned eight, the first time I was left completely alone, the special monster check was over. Watching my 16 and 14-year-old brothers look like idiots for my sake was getting ridiculous anyway. There is no point in reading ghost stories when I know ghosts really exist. Most are wrong. And in a few short days I'll be operating on adrenaline by itself. So yeah, I'm not normal.
Yet the only thing that pops through my head during target practice is I wish I was normal. Normal kids can't hit the bull's eye on a target the size of a squirrel moving 100 feet away. They can't tell the difference between silver and iron bullets, what hurts a djnn but not a hellhound. The small, almost invisible signs showing you're dealing with a person that's just flat-out crazy or one that's possessed by a demon. How to take apart and put a gun back together in a minute flat. Fluent in tens of weapons and street fighting but can't read and write for crap. Normal kids don't know monsters exist. Here I am proving I can not die on my first hunt tomorrow night.
I shoot the last target. Dad jogs out to look at them, making sure each is a bull's eye. If they're not we start over. Lucky for me they're all perfect. Next we set up for a race. Whoever wins gets a two-minute breather between finishing and the street fight afterwards. Despite the fact that Dad's been doing this longer than I've been alive, I know more about pacing. I only sprint ahead when we're close to the finish line. Ha-ha, I win. Just enough time to catch my breath. Dad crosses the finish line and signals to enter a fighting stance. You would think your father wouldn't actively try to hurt you. You'd think he'd pull his punches, just a little in consideration of his daughter. Nope, not Dad. He goes at me like a demon would. He even takes into consideration my extreme shortness. Dad's been training me for this all summer. This moment to prove myself. So he can see I won't up and die my first time out. Even with that backing me Dad very nearly wins.
A lucky shot connects with my nose. Blood spurts out. Hurt registers a second later, sending me back into a tree. Every tree looks the same out here. Same bark, same leaves, same colors. I wish we could stay here until winter. Stay here for more than six months. They say Vermont's very pretty in the winter. Snow and ice make it look like a holiday postcard. They say it snows so much everybody's used to it, so school is almost never called off. There are plenty of ski resorts not that far away. I've always wanted to learn how to ski, ever since my old friend Jamie went on vacation to Colorado. If we stay here long enough maybe I can convince Sam to drive us to the nearest mountain. He's always up for new things. We'd save up enough for tickets and rentals for a day. Dad would never find out. He'd be off hunting with Dean, then they'd go out and find a pretty girl to spend the night with. It'd be our own little secret.
"Eve! Get your head out of the clouds and fight!"
I snap out of it fast enough to see a fist flying at my face. Somehow I stop myself from cursing. Dad hates it when we curse despite how often he does it himself. I duck to lunge for his legs. He grabs my hair, flying straight up at the moment, to swing my head around. A scream pops out. Hopefully nobody heard that. The ear-shattering sound gives me the chance to tackle Dad, spinning him to the ground. He can't push me off from his position. I can't help laughing. That shows how good I can be. He grunts, dusts himself off. I grin like an idiot all the way back to the cabin. The Impala is back in the driveway. Sweet. They're back with food. I open the door with my non-bloody hand. Inside Sam and Dean are putting groceries away, joking with each other. Cans of soup are falling out of the cabinet. Dean can't catch them in time, standing there cursing. Sam has to sit down, he's laughing so hard.
I dodge the bags scattered on the floor to get to the sink. Clear water turns red with blood. When the bleeding gets under control I look up from the sink. "Guess who won everything today?"
Dean glances up from his predicament. "Judging the bloody nose and the shit-eating grin, I'm gonna guess you did?"
"You guessed right!" He pulls me over for an awkward one-armed hug. Then I follow Sam to the bathroom to treat my nose. I launch into a full account of the events. Sam nods and chimes in at all the right places. "So you think I'll be fine tomorrow?" I say after a minute of silence.
"Well, you shot 10 bull's eyes in a row. You beat Dad fair and square in a race. You lucked your way into winning a street fight. You'll have the three of us backing you up. I'll try to talk Dad into letting me switch positions with me if things het too heated. So I say you'll be just fine."
He throws all the bloodied tissues away. I can feel the bruise forming already. I really hope it's gone by the time school starts. Nobody wants to talk to the kid with black and blue marks everywhere. It's hard enough getting them to talk to the weird dyslexic girl whose older brother drops off every day. Even if we only stay here a few weeks I want a friend to sit with at lunch and walk the hallways with. If it doesn't heal in time I'll have to look into the makeup I sometimes find lying around. How hard can applying it be?
Outside the bathroom Dean is cleaning his mess while Dad has already hit the bottle. At this rate he'll die of alcohol poisoning by the time I graduate. Dean charges me with chopping vegetables with a dull knife, the most I am capable of. He and Sam prepare stuff to make chili for the hunt. Who knows how long we may have to track down the source of the ghost before its next kill. I toss them into the pot with a hunk of meat, watching Sam leaning against the counter reading Tolkien. If it's any good I'll be hearing it whenever a free moment pops up. Reading time is Sam's only special thing shared with me, starting the year we moved to a crappy town with a crappy elementary school. The teachers refused to help me out, refused Dean's proof that dyslexia is a real problem. So Sam tried his best to help out the only way that didn't end in tears: reading aloud.
With nothing better to do I jump up on the counter next to the stove. Dean is by far the best cook in the family. Dad and Sam only cook for survival. I can only bake. But since cookies and cake are a rare luxury, that never happens. Still, Dean tries to explain what he's doing. You never know when all but one is too hurt or drunk to cook. He knows how to make it by heart. Lucky for me; the meat would burn by the time I read a written recipe. I keep watch over the pot, telling him when to stir. Then, when it's left to cool, I leave for Sam. Time to bother the other brother. He's completely absorbed in his book. I worm my way through his arms. The words are a blurry mess at first, but I try to read a line or two. Sounds kinda boring. "Whatcha reading?"
He folds the corner of a page. "Try to figure it out yourself. You've heard of it before."
I squint at the words on the page. Only a dragon in a forest is on there to help me out. "Is it…Lord of the Rings?" It takes an extra minute to translate what registers in my head to actual words.
"Correct. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. You want to try it?" He flips to the excerpt on the first page, letting me get comfy leaning against him.
It takes me a minute extra, but I read the first paragraph fairly easily. Doesn't sound very good though. Too many words that don't make sense. "Let me know when you finish. We need more reading material." By now dinner is ready. I set out spoons and hold bowls for Dean to fill while Sam fills four glasses with tap water. He goes to fetch Dad. He comes out a moment late, without a bottle but smelling of whiskey. Dinner is mostly silent. We look up, everybody at least once, wanting to start a conversation but not sure how. There are plenty of things to talk about. Dean perfecting a new weapon, Sam learning how to make fake IDs, my schedule and a list of supplies coming in the mail. Even the hunt tomorrow. Something. Anything. To make up for not being allowed seconds, we pass around a package of saltine crackers to let the bowl seem fuller. Then there comes a question.
"So, uh, how's your reading coming along, Eve?"
The words came out of nowhere. At least we didn't go the entire meal in silence. "It's gotten better." My answer would be longer if I knew for sure Dad's stance on my progress. Usually he lets Dean deal with talking to the specialists, or Sam when they don't listen. Sam always gets them to listen. Whether or not they do anything about it is another story. "I can get things from my head to my mouth much easier. Last night I tried reading To Kill a Mockingbird."
"That's nice. Real nice."
Nothing but the sounds of spoons scraping bowls fills the kitchen for the next few minutes. Before anyone has a chance to bolt I clear my throat. Eat one last spoonful of meat. Finish my water. Blurt out the words before they leave me. "My schedule came in the mail today. The school newspaper said they'd be happy to have me." I glance around the table. Sam is staring at me encouragingly. Dean is gathering the silverware, occasionally glancing in my direction. Dad is swirling remains around in his bowl. "But, uh, that's not all…" You got this, Evie. It's just school supplies. "It came with a list of supplies we'll need. I was wondering if, after the hunt, we could go balk-to-school shopping? Some places have really good deals and…" I trail off after a quick ramble. The explosion I know is inevitable doesn't come. That's a surprise.
"I don't know, Eve. The latest credit card is almost maxed. Once it is we can't risk staying in town much longer. Then there's the matter of hunts…"
"It's okay, Dad. I understand." It was a long shot anyway. I bring my bowl and glass to the sink, waiting for everyone else to so I can do the dishes. At least Dad didn't explode like the last time I dared ask for Christmas presents. Apparently even the small things are too much to ask for now. Now I'll just have to suffer through the usual, "I'm sorry, sir. I won't be able to bring in supplies. No, I have no say in the matter. No, I won't be a problem." I start scrubbing harder. The rag wraps itself around my hand. A hunk of burned pepper refuses to come off. Eventually I give up and let the pot go to soak. The rest are set out to dry on the dish rack.
Sam is putting the leftover chili into plastic containers. He finishes, stacking them in the fridge. He stares into it. Then he walks over to grab my shoulder. "I know how you feel. Getting supplies on your own for once isn't just readiness. You want to prove you don't have to mooch off others for everything. Tell you what." I look up, craning my neck to meet his eyes. "After the hunt, whenever you finish, you and I will walk into town and get whatever you need. How does that sound?"
I can't help smiling like an idiot again. If he keeps his promise this will be the first year I'll go to school prepared. I smoosh my face into his stomach, hugging him tight. "Thanks a lot, Sam. That sounds great."
He hugs me back, ruffling my hair as he does so. "It's the least I can do. I know I hated being in your boat. Now come on. We got guns to clean and a hunt to prepare for, plus reading time. Unless you don't want to know if Tyler is going to carry through…"
"I want to know!" I bolt to the living room, the corner where all the weapons are stashed. We're the first ones there, but a bag is open with a couple guns missing, meaning they're being tested outside. I take weapons out and hand them to Sam, who puts them on rags on the floor. We sit in silence, taking apart guns with military speed and precision. No talking at all. After guns we move to stakes, then blades, then nunchuks. Make sure we have enough bullets and leave out supplies to make more. Let Dad and Dean replace the rock salt in the trunk. Add some more to the windows. Put everything away. By now it's dark out. We watch TV in the living room, taking turns in the bathroom. At nine Sam leads me into our bedroom, a tiny room with a cheap mattress on an old frame. The window nearly covered by the dresser is the only thing keeping the room kind of cool. I sit on the edge of the bed, giving Sam as much room as possible. He digs out the book and begins reading.
As always we end with me reading the last couple pages. Sam puts the book away and asks me to summarize. I get it perfect. Dad comes in to say goodnight and give an awkward hug. Dean shouts it from the couch. Sam and I say it, me from the bed, him from a layer of blankets on the floor. He's supposed to sleep there, but most of the time he crawls into the bed with me. It helps the nightmares go away. We both get really bad dreams. A lot of the time they're the same. Weird, but whatever.
Sam's yelling wakes me up early for summer. His spot looks like it wasn't slept in. The window is open but it doesn't help the heat. I kick off the sheet. Thank God I can't remember last night's dream. I stall in the bathroom to wait out the argument. There's a 50/50 chance it will end in the next couple of minutes. After organizing the medicine cabinet into strengths of painkillers and what's best suited for what injury, I can't push off breakfast any longer. Dean's lurking outside the kitchen. He's always nearby when fights start. "What are they fighting about now?"
He wraps an arm around my waist. "Stay out of it. It's about you. These fights always end up bad."
Dad always takes fights about his children way too far. Knowing Sam, he wants to keep me on salt detail, usually the least dangerous part. To make sure I'm in his sights or covered by him at all times. Dad will never let that happen. When he finds the hunt he decides where everybody will go. This is the first tie I'm not supposed to wait in the car. Must put a wrench in his plans. "Let me through," I whine. Jeez. If Dad ever caught me whining at this point in my life I'd get whipped. "I just want food. Pleeeease."
Dean sighs. "Can't wait an extra five minutes?" I shake my head. "Go to your room. I'll be back."
With a huff I do as Dean says. I plop on my bed and stare around the room. Bare walls. Plain wood furniture. Crappy sheets and blankets. Books stacked on the dresser. A shirt peeking out of the closet. Everything perfectly organized due to Sam's OCD. Nothing to do. Nobody comes in the next couple minutes, so I fish out the copy of Fight Club. If they're gonna fight might as well read. Practice makes perfect. Even at my slow pace I'm able to finish a section before the yelling stops. An extra minute to cool off, then Dean comes to fetch me. Food at last. I grab a box of Frosted Flakes from the cupboard. Then I realize the table is already set with chocolate chip pancakes. How could I forget? The one normal tradition we have and I completely forget about it. Happy birthday to me. Next my eyes go to the glasses of chocolate milk and a card in front of my plate. Someone grabs my hand, a large, warm hand wrapping around my tiny one. Sam. He came back for me. He leads me over to the table, trying to get Dean to sing Happy Birthday with him. Dean would never do something so cheesy, but he smiles and pulls me into a hug. Sam smooshes me in the middle. Dad's not here but it's okay. They remembered.
Inside the card is a pasted photograph of the three of us at an awards ceremony. That year Sam's soccer team went all the way to finals and he helped, a big thing for a freshman. We were allowed to get new clothes and everything. My big brother got an award and we were right there in the audience, Dean and me. It was a good day.
The simple meaning is so nice. I stare at the card, completely forgetting about the pancake in front of me. Only Dad coming in saying to hurry up draws my attention to my food. I shovel it in, hurrying to get dressed and brush my teeth. In the car we review everything one last time. Thirty-year-old man named Hugo Cortez who killed his wife to "protect" her from an "intruder" before turning the gun on himself. His bones mysteriously disappeared from the morgue a week ago. All the signs pointing to him haunting his old home. I am to cover Dad while he searches for and destroys the bones. Dean will keep the ghost distracted while Sam patrols the perimeter. Guess that means he lost the argument. Yet Dad doesn't forget to say happy birthday while handing me a gun and bag of rock salt. Oh boy, this should be fun.
Everything works out fine. No signs of activity or nothing. Then we reach the dining room. It's a complete mess: furniture broken, tiles missing, the back door hanging on a hinge. A breeze picks up, making the air noticeably colder. Out of the corner of my eye I see the outline of a person. Then BAM! Dean goes flying across the room, smacking his head on a picture frame. He doesn't get up right away. I move to help, but Dad shouts to follow him. He's close to the bones. I distract Hugo the best I can with the gun. When he moves towards Dean I toss a handful of salt on him. That works. Dad begins digging far enough away from the house I have to step out. Dean is back on his feet. I stand with my back to the hole, ready to shoot. Slowly I go back to the home. Sam and Dean are pinned to the wall. I sprinkle some salt into the barrel of my gun and shoot Hugo. He starts to flicker and releases my brothers. Dad's burning the bones now. Hugo roars angrily and lifts me into the air. My airway is closing. I can't breathe. I worm around in the air, fighting to get free. Before Hugo disappears for good he slams me around the room. I pass out when I collide headfirst into a wall for the second time.
I recognize the mental problems tagging along with hospital grade painkillers. Something tells me this is not my bed, not my room; open your eyes to make sure you're safe. No matter how hard I try I can't get my eyes to open. They won't budge. A second later I try to take a breath. My throat is killing me and I would kill for some water. Then I can't breathe in anymore. My airway is blocked again. Panic comes as I start to choke, cough to remove whatever's blocking the passage. It won't come out. Nothing gets it out. A hand presses against my shoulder. A voice shouts for help. Dad. If he's here then I'm safe. We're safe. He killed the ghost for good. I still can't stop trying to hack up whatever's blocking my throat. Breathing's a little easier now I'm not having a full-blown panic attack.
"Eve, Eve, it's okay," Dad says, keeping me pressed onto the bed. "You're fine, you're safe. It's okay. You're okay."
I calm down a little. Even with my brain feeling like it's been steamrolled it manages to wonder where the rest of my family is. They should be here. Sam buried in a book, Dean flirting with the nurses. Dad sits down next to me, his hand still on my own. Never forcing me to open my eyes, just explaining what's wrong the best he can. The ghost went away the way he died: in a blaze of violence. I hit my head a couple times hard enough to cause some damage. My shoulder blades are all cut up. There's a tiny fracture on my collarbone, somehow not too big. My trachea is bruised and swollen. Long story short I'm a mess. All on my first hunt too. This story can't get any better.
"Good afternoon, Mr. and Miss Peck." I look to the door where a nurse is standing with a chart. "Glad you're awake. I assume you're ready to take out that breathing tube?" I try to talk, not sure what I would say. Probably beg. But she understands. She walks over to prop me up. "On the count of three I need you to cough as hard as you can. One…two…three. Good job. Your throat feels bad, yes? That's from the tube; it'll go away soon. Does anything hurt? Okay, we'll bump up the painkillers now that you're awake. Mr. Peck, you should really move around a bit. You've been sitting there since visiting hours began. If you want I can fetch your sons if they're still here. Just a moment." She returns a couple minutes later with Dean. Dad follows the nurse out of the room.
Dean takes Dad's spot in the chair. His eyes scan me, checking to see if I'm in pain. His eyes narrow like he sees how bad I hurt. "Nice to see you're awake, kiddo. You've been out for a couple days now. Anything hurt?"
I try to say yes, to answer with words, but the smallest movement hurts my body so bad. It feels like crappy diner French fries on strep throat. So I nod my head yes and point to various body parts. Just moving my arm makes my entire chest burn.
"I'll make sure it won't later. You know, you really had us worried there." I stare at him, remembering his meeting with a picture frame. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just some bruising. Worry about yourself for a second. You stopped breathing on the way here. You know how scary it was, knowing you were laying in the backseat with Sam trying to keep you breathing? You know how scary it was, listening to doctors say how much could go wrong, explaining you might…you might die?"
There is no possible way I'd know the answer to any of that, but that's how Dean vents. Better that way than doing something stupid on a hunt. Was it really that bad? Could I have died from a simple salt and burn? God. All from one frickin' hunt. I try to get my head comfortable on the pillow. My hair keeps getting in the way, curls bunching against my neck. Dean pulls it to the side. I smile in thanks. I really hope they let me out today. I don't care how long I was out. Dean knows. Sam knows. Even Dad knows how much I hate hospitals. Especially staying overnight. My dreams get freakier, meaning I sleep less, more so than usual. If I'm awake I can go home.
As if reading my mind, Dean says, "You are not going home until the doctor says you can. You hit your head hard enough to black out for two days. They think your reading ability got screwed up too. We learned the hard way what happens when you take a kid out of the hospital too early."
God, how I wish I could talk. Then I could explain the sleep, the dreams, how scared I am to sleep alone in a place like this. Sam understands. He's been sharing beds with me my whole life. Since when did they follow rules as stupid as visiting hours anyway? If he knew Dean would never agree to this. Despite his stern glare I try to talk. "I don't…care. Take…me home." Right after I start talking I hack up a lung. Doesn't help my point, but my throat is swollen and scratchy. There better be some water around here.
To avoid answering Dean gets up, hopefully to find me some water. Not finding any in the room, he goes into the bathroom and returns with a plastic cup. It's gone in seconds. When he sits back down I tug on his shirt. "No, Evie, I will not bust you out of here 20 minutes after a breathing tube. Never. You need to heal. Here, not in a crappy cabin three days before school starts."
That's right! If the adults have their way I'll never get out of here by the time school starts. Now I'll start the year late and unprepared. I was so pumped for the start of my high school career being a good year. The local school has a great cross-country team, they have a big library, and I can go on hunts instead of waiting by myself. Maybe tackle a length novel without help. Hunting already started on the wrong foot. Why does everything else have to? Just once I want everything to go right. And now it never will. My luck is the worst.
"I know you don't like it. I know you'll try to run the minute they take out the IVs. Do you want me to stay all night? Will that work?" Again I stare at him, asking questions. "Doesn't matter what visiting hours are. I'll talk to the right person." His eyes look at everything in the room except me. "Sam's out on the town. He had to pick up a few things. He has the car."
That doesn't sound suspicious at all. What could we need on such short notice? It hasn't been that long since the last shopping trip. Our budget's stretched far too thin for this. I'd question further but Dean shuts me up with a look. No pushing him once he's this anti-talking. So I get comfy in the bed, waiting for the painkillers to kick in. Once they finally do I spend the rest of the day in la la land. Things are so much better that way. Dad comes in for a while so Dean can get some food, then leaves for the night. Dean ends up staying far past visiting hours dictate. I wake up to his head on my hip. The medicine wore off hours ago. Everything hurts again. And stiff from lying in the same spot. The skin around the needle is super itchy. All I want is to yank it out and run from here. I hate hospitals so freaking much. I fight the urge to move, to scratch. Dean needs his sleep. My efforts hold until I can't keep a cough in anymore. It lasts a lot longer than I thought, waking him. I smile to say how sorry I am, my throat burning. Isn't the point of an IV so the meds don't wear off?
Dean sits up straight in his chair. His head whips around for a minute, almost reaching for the gun that may or may not be in his waistband. Then he remembers where he is. "Mornin', Evie. I know I planned to stay up all night just in case, but… Sorry."
"It's okay. I don't think I actually slept at all anyway." Talking is much easier, but my voice is still very raspy. Before Dean can yell at me I sit up in bed, searching for a clock. The curtains block all light. At the very least it's long before Sam will arrive. With enough time my voice will get better so I can talk Dad into letting me out for school. I try to straighten my spine, to stretch. My back is killing me. I make it halfway up before something gives out. Dean catches me, but stopping so quickly starts the fire in my chest again.
The pressure of Dean's hands on my shoulder blades makes them sting too. Forgot about those. He feels the bandages lightly, knowing the way my back tenses means pain. A deep coughing sensation works its way up from my lungs. Dean holds me, letting me lean into him. "You okay, kiddo? Need a nurse? More meds?"
This coughing attack doesn't last as long as the others. My throat doesn't hurt as bad afterwards either. Everything else does. The IV still has fluids dripping down the tube. Why aren't they working? Something's wrong. "That stuff's not working anymore. It all hurts again."
"That's right. I forgot to tell her you need stronger painkillers. Be right back." He leaves the room, searching for my nurse. Hopefully food too.
Dean walks back in a moment later trailed by an overworked brunette. "Good morning, Miss Peck. According to your brother this medicine isn't strong enough?" I nod my head. "Before we do anything we have to let the old fluid leave your system. That should take some time. After that we'll try this."
Just the words I wanted to hear. So much for leaving this place today. I sigh and get comfy again. To keep me from getting antsy Dean tells stories, talks about the next hunt, flips through magazines, plays with the radio, anything he can think of. For the rest of the day Dad doesn't show up. Same with Sam, but he's out on the town. When the nurse comes in with new bags of painkillers she makes Dean leave. Breaking the rules two nights in a row is too much for her to let slide. I beg and whine, even pull out the hurt puppy face. All that gets me is a promise to stay and talk until the medicine kicks in. Works for me. Hopefully once it does I won't remember a thing anyway.
The next afternoon, after Dean leaves for a shower and some actual food, Sam shows up for the first time. I'm way too out of it to hold a regular conversation, but I still turn my head when he knocks. My smile is loopy but I don't care. He's seen me act far crazier. Granted, that didn't include powerful medicines. I open my mouth a couple of times before words come out. "Where'd you been Sammy?"
He pulls up a seat and sets down the plastic bags I didn't know he carried in. "I got you some surprises. But first, how are you doing, Evie? The nurses nice?"
"They r'nice. Food sucks, but they'r'ice. What's inta bag?"
"The surprises. Since you won't be out in time to go back-to-school shopping I took the liberty of finding the nearest door buster. Take a look."
I sift through the pile of supplies. Puppies, nature, cartoons we watch together. Batman pencils. Superman pens. Wonder Woman pencil pouch. Everything I need. "Pretty! Thanks, Sammy." Since I can't get my brain to register stacking the items I lean over to kiss his cheek. "You're da best."
"I try." He smiles faintly. "I also found a copy of The Princess Bride. You can tear into that once you feel better."
I stare at him, the dopey smile gone. Why wouldn't we tackle it together? Especially if the doctor is worried about mental problems. Us both have wanted to read that book forever. No way he would pass up a chance to read it.
Sam sighs loudly. He gets that weird look, the one where he knows Dad will slap him for saying something that stupid. "Evie, there's something I have to tell you. I can't wait until you're cleared. I don't even know if you fully understand what I'm saying. But… God, there's no easy way to say this. Tomorrow morning I'm taking the first flight to California. Stanford University is offering me a full scholarship and I said yes. After that I'm going to law school. I never told Dad. I just…I'm sorry, Evie. I don't want to leave you. This is for me. I'm so sorry." He packs up the supplies so he can hide his face. No way he's leaving so soon. Not after not being here for so long. Instead Sam picks up the book and somehow manages to read the first chapter without choking up. And the second. And the third.
When he pauses at the end of the fourth I can tell what's coming. He can stay for another chapter and risk running into Dad or leave now so he has time to pack. But I don't want him to leave… "Please," I beg, grabbing onto Sam's arm. "Don't go. I need you. Pweease!"
"I'm so, so sorry." Sam fishes a bookmark from the bag sporting a message I can't read from this angle. He carefully places the book on the food table on the other side of the bed, easily within reach. Then he takes my hands in his, completely enveloping them. I can't stop crying. I really should. Crying is never okay. "Don't cry. Call me whenever you want. Just try not to do it in front of Dad. He'd get so pissed. Whenever you need something or just want to talk don't hesitate to call." He stands, letting go of my hands. Before he leaves for good Sam bends down to kiss my forehead. "Goodbye, Evie. I-I love you."
"I lov'u too Sammy." I grab his hand running through my curls, like he used to when I was little. As Sam leaves the room for good I stare at the blank TV screen. My brain is starting to come out of the drug-induced haze for the first time all day. Couldn't've picked a better time. I fight it. If I think clearly I'll actually understand what he said. Right now I'm not paying attention to anything. Makes it easier. No one else comes for the next day. Or the next. A full 24 hours go by before anyone asks where my brothers are. I guess they were here more than I thought. The nurse walks in to make sure I'm still alive. She doesn't leave. I'm so bored I pay attention to her. I ran out of TV ages ago.
"I'm surprised your brothers haven't come to visit you. The way the taller one stays I thought he'd move in."
"Yeah." I try to remember the fake names on this insurance. Nothing. Oh well. "They don't like to leave me alone. Plus I hate being away from them and Dad."
"How sweet. They look out for you as much as your dad. Close-knit family you have. What about your mom?"
"I never knew her. For all intents and purposes I don't have one. Ever since I showed up there's been nothing to keep Dad in one place, you know? That's why we keep moving around the country." I really shouldn't be talking about this. Normally I clam up, but it feels good to say this stuff. Dad never lets me bring it up. I can always blame it on the painkillers, right? That and getting thrown into a wall.
"Oh, you poor dear. I can't imagine not growing up with a mother. Especially being the only girl. You're about the same age as my daughter and she's always asking questions. Speaking of which, I know you're living with a bunch of men, so if there's anything womanly you want to ask, fire away."
"I really shouldn't." I sit forward on the bed to let my shoulders breathe. "You have other people to take care of."
"Please, honey. You haven't asked for anything this whole time. Compared to everyone else you are incredibly easy to take care of. Even with your extra meds."
"Well, if you have the time…" I ask everything question I wanted so badly to ask but couldn't. I'd never ask Dad. I tried Sam and yeah, he went through the public school system, but all he knew was how to deal with growing pains. Don't know how I would've survived without this conversation. She answers every question, never judging me. Thank God she understands. A buzzer sounds halfway through explaining an answer. "You might want to check on that."
"Yep." She stands. "Nice talking with you, Emma. Perhaps we can talk again later." She races out of the room to the next patient.
On the first day of school the doctor lets me out on one condition: no exercise at all. If anything weird pops up I need to go to the nurse right away. They only let me out because they ran out of tests to take. The minute the doctor pulled out the IV I tried to run. Lucky for me Dean's a smooth talker. He got me out of this place. Dad took the car a state over for a hunt. Figures. Can't even be there to see his kid out of the hospital. Or see the test results. Oh well. At least Dean's here. Did Sam go with Dad? I can't remember. The nurse walks us out the front door. She doesn't say anything about the lack of a waiting car. We walk the three miles, stopping every now and then to see the sights. There're a couple newspapers at the end of the driveway. Dean fumbles with the door, then lets me go in first. Everything's the same except for a fresh stack of money on the kitchen table. I take a shower and put on a clean tank top and shorts. "Where's Sam?" I ask, shaking my head to rid the last few droplets of water.
Dean looks up from the pot of mac n' cheese. Real food. Wonder how he spiced it up this time. "He, uh, he left. Didn't he tell you?"
"Tell me…oooh." Our last conversation pops back into my memory. It's kind of fuzzy but still there. I throw my useless brush on the living room chair. "Why'd he leave, Dean? Why would he do that? To me? To us?"
"Go ask him. He only told me the night before he told you."
"Don't snap at me. Not my fault he wanted out. Dad's gonna flip." With any luck he'll come back when I'm at school. I plop down at the table for mac n' cheese with peanut butter. Not as bad as it sounds. Lunch is weird, just the two of us. Too quiet. Dean sits there in anger, completely ignoring me. At the very least he should be happy for Sam. He never wanted to hunt. He wanted to be normal. Afterwards I get all my school supplies ready for tomorrow. Too bad we can't afford a decent backpack. Dean's old one is held together with duct tape. This whole no exercise thing sucks. Most of what I do for fun is physical activity. There's nothing on TV either. That leaves the Princess Bride. I skim the first four chapters. Now I remember Sam reading it to me. The memory hurts. For all I know it's the best book ever written, but I can't concentrate. Just the act gives me a headache. Doctors were right. That really sucks. So much for freshmen year being a good year.
The next day proves me right. Dean walks me to the front door, making sure I have each classroom memorized. He leaves with a promise to beat up anyone that looks at me funny. This morning he watched me like a hawk, not giving me a chance to put on makeup to cover the bruises. If anyone asks I fell out of a tree. Once I find my locker I spend a solid five minutes trying to open the damn thing. First period isn't so bad, at least compared to the disaster that was homeroom. The teacher says we'll be doing a lot of labs this unit starting next week. English, like usual, sucks the most. I'll somehow have to keep up with the rest of the class. Citizen's rights are this year's focus in Civics and Government, starting with the Revolutionary War. Lunch comes after Algebra. Twice a week I'm to spend the half hour with a reading specialist. Then comes a rotating period with Home Ec, Creative Writing, and Art. Last is Journalism, this year being the first they allow underclassmen to become so active. Even though it's only the second day cliques are already forming. My closest match is the jocks, but I'm also the new kid. I need to prove I'm not some weirdo. The bruises aren't helping. Lunch is the worst. I go through six tables before someone says yes. The conversation feels forced but it's a conversation. Better than nothing.
At the end of the day I stack my stuff in a pile. Before I need to leave I need to see about the cross-country team. I ask the teacher where the main office is. She says if I want to play sports I should be more careful while playing. If only I can tell her I got these cuts and bruises from saving lives. Ugh. On my way to my locker kids point in my direction and whisper. This is the first time I've shown my face in the hallway all day. That makeup better still be in the bathroom tomorrow. I finally find the office and get the info. Outside Dean is waiting for me as promised. Probably bored out of his mind with no one home.
"How was day one, kiddo? Need anybody beat up yet?"
I answer his question with silence. His hug with limp arms. Today was horrible and he should know that. The first day of school has never been good, never. At most it's been okay. Rarely has it gotten better. For the walk home I only answer Dean when I have to. Even then only one-word answers. We walk up the driveway, unlock the front door. I unload my homework, mostly getting-to-know-you stuff, stack it on the table. Plop down on the couch. Stare out the window. Wish I could go out for a run. Get away from school for a while. Sigh. No such luck.
Dean sits down next to me. He leaves some space to breathe, but leaves his arm open in case I want to slide closer. He doesn't say anything for a minute. Then he says, "This is the first time you haven't spoken for more than 10 minutes in weeks. What's wrong?"
"You wouldn't get it."
"Try me. I have been through middle school. Wait. Is this girl stuff?"
"No it is not girl stuff." The look of fear on his face is too funny not to laugh at. I really don't understand how people can stay mad for so long. It's too hard. "You know how much I hate school?" Once the first words come out I can't stop the rest. "I can't open my locker to start the day. I can't read the whiteboard in time. I take twice as long with the worksheets. Nobody wants to talk to me. People barely look at me. I sit with the weirdos at lunch. The nurse just gives me a lecture. And to top it all off everyone knows we're dirt poor. I can't go a single period without someone pointing out I'm too small, or too skinny, or too poor to get new clothes. Or I'm dyslexic. Or I show up hurt. I can't even tell them it's from saving their miserable lives! I have to lie about everything! It's not fair!"
By now I'm sobbing into Dean's chest. Rants tend to end like this. He pats my back, pets my hair. Then he lifts my face up so he can look me in the eye. "I swear I'll help you, Evie. Anything so I don't see you like this again. Read with you, help with homework, whatever it takes. I'm no Sam but I know some things. I know it's not fair. You know what I've always wanted for you? For you to find a good school and go to college to earn that journalism degree. Settle down with a nice boy and a couple of kids. Get a normal job. Stay away from the family business. Now that's fair. But for the time being we'll work on your reading and your sports. Nobody will make fun of you once they realize how smart you are. Now come on. Let's get started on this book."
I wipe my eyes on the back of my hand. That felt good. Dean hands me the book to restart the chapter. With him helping it's pretty easy. We get so wrapped up in it Dean forgets about dinner. Thank God Dad's not here to go on and on about how books aren't helping me become a better hunter. Lying in bed that night, I stare at the neat stack of blankets that used to be Sam's bed. I almost say goodnight to him. Then I remember and try not to cry. Sam is gone for good. He left a phone number in my Justice League notebook, but secret phone calls aren't the same. How is he going to hug me when I bring home an A? How is he going to keep the nightmares away? Is he ever coming back? He might not even be able to find us! God, this is a mess. Those blankets will be stuffed in the trunk and never seen again. They're the only things he left behind. Everything else is gone. I fall asleep with my face pressed into Sam's last surprise: a stuffed golden retriever. I think I'll name him Sammy. Or, if Sam asks, the highly original Puppy. Maybe Sam will be here in the morning. Maybe this was all a bad dream. Maybe things will go back to normal.