Punxsutawney Sucks – Chapter 1

Summary: Six weeks after Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, people are mysteriously bursting into flame. Dean lets his guard down at the wrong moment, Sam feels awkward around girls, and everyone gets what's coming to them. Especially the groundhog.

A/N: Profound apologies to all the good folks of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I'm sure Phil is a great groundhog and not at all evil. And that's why we call this 'fiction'.

The Small Print: Bad language, episode spoilers, almost-adult situations. I own no part of Supernatural, not the car, not the monsters, not the boys - not a hair on their pretty heads. Let me just think about their pretty heads for a moment... Excellent, thanks. That was nice. Moving right along...

He unclipped her bra, and Rebecca reckoned enough was enough. She sat up fast, hit her knee against the stick shift, yelped, and drew back just an inch too much for him to mistake it for anything but what it was. Full stop. Austin made a low, weird yowl, the same noise her cats would make when they were wrestling. Play fighting. Could get serious if one of them got pissed off.

"Give me a minute," she said, but she was already struggling with the clasp, pulling down her top, wondering if she really wanted to lose her virginity in the cab of Austin Boorsma's pickup truck. It was kinda...lame. Austin's jaw worked a little, but he straightened himself to a sit without complaint, his face flushed. He was very fair and coloured easily; the moon was almost full and blue light filled the cab, so she could see the expression on his grain-fed face.

She looked at the dashboard clock, just as the deejay announced that it was eleven o'clock and a commercial for a mattress factory sale kicked in. This evening was such a fucking write-off. "My dad's going to kill me."

Austin nodded. "Cold?" he asked, almost gentlemanly, turning the key in the ignition. There was click, a whirr, then nothing. He tried again. Rebecca grimaced. Oh, great. Stuck up here at Gobbler's Knob, with Austin Boorsma, an almost-full moon, and a dead battery.

Austin didn't swear; it wasn't his style. Without a word, he slid out of the truck, letting in a blast of cold, a swirl of loose snow, and Rebecca realized that she wasn't as cold as she could be. The hood creaked open, a big Ford product the size of a queen sized bed, and Austin tinkered away, doing whatever boys did when they leaned into the engine like they were coming in for a kiss. Rebecca's dad was on the force, and Austin really wouldn't have done this on purpose. He was trying.

After a minute, he jumped back in, fast, and his face was set in a weird way, still and frozen.

"Austin?" she asked, uncertain.

"Something's out there," he said, not wanting to tell her more. He turned the key again, and the engine roared, the result of his foot jammed against the accelerator. He threw it into reverse, and the truck bounced down the parkland road and Rebecca could see the lights of Punxsutawney in the distance, sparkling like tears.

Halfway down the hill, the engine died again. This time, Austin muttered under his breath, and it sounded like swearing, even if it wasn't. The truck coasted to a stop, and Austin zipped up his down jacket, knowing this might take longer than a minute in the cold night air. He reached across Rebecca like she was the family dog, pulled a pair of gloves from the dash in front of her.

She could see him for a minute in the headlights, young, blond, good-looking in the way that strapping sons of Dutch immigrant stock tended to be. Then, he wasn't a young man anymore, he was a column of flame, burning up in front of her eyes rocket-fuel white and hot enough to melt the pavement on which he stood.

"This is the fucking lamest idea yet," Dean probably said. Sam was guessing, though. It was difficult to actually know what he was saying: his mouth was overflowing with hamburger. To Sam, it sounded remarkably like: 'Desperado clucking vet', which he was pretty sure his brother wouldn't say. He tried to keep a straight face. It didn't help that Dean had a glob of mayo on his chin.

Sam passed him a napkin, gestured to his chin, spun his plate of fries around, so sick of fast food he thought he might abandon Dean to run across the street to the supermarket and plant himself face-first into the first bin of broccoli he saw. And now Dean was giving him the look. Deservedly.

"Three kids going up in flames in the last week alone? Official police story about 'accidental gasoline immolation'? Really? This doesn't interest you?" Too many questions all at once guaranteed Dean's complete non-compliance. Mulish. That's one word to describe it. Just one.

Dean chewed, swallowed, then opened his mouth to speak, marginally mindful of table manners. A learned response to hanging out with Sam. It didn't bear thinking about, what his manners might be like when he was alone. "Two words for you, Sammy: Groundhog Day." Shrugged, those expressive brows mamboing around. "That's how lame this idea of yours is."

"Dean – I can't believe I'm getting this from you. Just because these kids live in a town with the world's most inane tourist attraction, you're going to give the whole thing a pass?"

Dean smiled up at the waitress as she swung by, attentive and right to be so: Dean was dialing up the charm-o-meter. Sam waited patiently for the moment to pass. She asked if everything was all right, and Sam found himself wanting to be elsewhere, exposed to Dean's unabashed prowl. Get a room, man. If Dean asked for her number, Sam swore he would scream. "You ever go over to Punxsutawney?" Dean asked, full of surprises.

The waitress adjusted her bangles, all white teeth and manufactured tan. "Of course. Only an hour away. My kids," and stopped on that, as though something like kids would factor when Dean set his sights on a female target, "they love Phil. Bit of a gong show, tell you the truth." She gestured with the coffee carafe; Dean nodded, still smiling. Sam had to actually pick up his mug to get seconds, move it around a little, like he was asking for change on the corner. "You're late, though. Groundhog Day was, like, weeks ago." She poured, one hand on her hip, angling in a way Sam had seen Jessica do a million times in front of a mirror. In front of him. "Saw his shadow. Wicked bad weather they're getting now, in Punxsy. Just plain weird."

It was so hard sometimes, keeping a straight face when Dean got his comeuppance. Something weird in Punxsutawney, Dean. Toldyouso, toldyouso. "Bad?" Dean said, recovering in a second.

"Yeah, freezing cold and snow." They all looked outside the big plate glass window, to the parking lot and the park beyond that, next to the supermarket. Kids were playing on the slides and swings in hoodies and sneakers. No hats, no mittens.

That morning, Sam recalled, he had actually been able to talk Dean into throwing the ball around, fished out a pair of well-worn baseball gloves from the back of the trunk, a ball nestled in each one, keeping the shape over the winter. Portable in a way football and hockey gear had never been, smaller than a soccer ball. The easy back and forth of catch, the sound of the ball slamming into the glove, the sort of thing you'd do until evening made it impossible to see anymore, a thousand evenings in a thousand shitty towns, the only redeeming factors a stretch of grass, a dusty diamond, and his brother with a mitt and a ball. Dad coming to fetch them as dusk fell, ready for an evening's work, that grim expression on his face, as though he'd never played catch in his life. Sam had always found it harder to put away the gloves than Dean had.

"That gopher got some 'splainin' to do," the waitress deadpanned, hoping for a smile that wasn't coming. Dean had moved on, oblivious. And, after a moment, so did she.

"So, we going?" Sam picked at the fries, considered the innocuous sprig of parsley on the plate, masquerading as a vegetable. Ate it, hoping Dean wouldn't notice and hand him his ass.

"Might as well," Dean replied. "Been waiting a long time to make a bunch of groundhog jokes." He got up, grabbed his leather coat, didn't even appear to be looking at his brother when he said, "You got something stuck between your teeth. Green." And under his breath, "Freak," before going to the till to pay.

They approached town from the north, saw the signs when they were still a fair distance out. Shit, how could you miss them? I am so going to have a field day with this, Dean thought, glancing at Sam in the passenger seat. "You're only 10 miles from Punxsutawney, home of Phil!" he read softly, like he had children's stories when Sam was little. And in the middle of the billboard, a painted image of a big bulky rodent on his hind legs, little forelegs held out almost zombie-like. Dean bit the inside of his mouth, hard. Poor Sammy. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

"Don't," Sam warned, as though Dean had subtitles. A little unnerving, that habit, actually. To cover his chagrin, Dean bent forward and turned up the volume on the radio. A classic rock station was playing, it was always a classic rock station, unless he had a tape in. These kinds of stations were ridiculously easy to find, especially some distance from a big city, as they were now. Dean liked hearing the local news from the town; knowing details made him feel as though he could start a conversation. And classic rock was better than country or a barnyard preacher, any day of the week.

The hills in this part of western Pennsylvania were turning green, pretty as a collector's plate, dipping into valleys cut by streams, the roads following old railroad tracks leftover from when coal mining had ruled this part of the country. They passed through a factory town, the workers changing shifts, swinging metal lunch boxes like kids – serious fucking lunch boxes, aluminum grey, big enough to hold a side of beef. The men looked like kings, the few that still had jobs in the steel industry. And Dean did not envy them one little bit.

Dean counted six deer carcasses during the drive to Punxsutawney, road kill, in various stages of decomposition, hit by drunks, or shot by idiots, or maybe just dropped dead by the side of the road. They're sleeping, Sammy. Shh. Don't wake 'em up.

The billboards were getting more frequent. At first, because he'd taken a less-traveled route, the signage had all been plaints to Jesus, out-of-date notices for the local hockey tournament, or advertisements for gun stores. They'd rolled past a wooded lot with a faded Quonset hut, a spray-painted sandwich board near the road, 'Home made porn. $5'. Dean had turned to Sam, who was so squee'ed he looked as though he might shriek like a six-year-old girl.

"Don't even fucking think about it," Sam had breathed, horrified.

Actually, the whole idea had made Dean's skin crawl, but he had eased into the smile that he knew made Sam want to hit him. Recalling that, he could now afford to be magnanimous about the Zombie Groundhog.

"Looks nice," Dean offered, biting his lip this time. He kept biting it until they passed the billboard.

The car laboured a bit going up one big hill, and then they were over the ridge and the valley cut by Mahoning Stream laid out before them, a fair sized town nestled in its elbow, surrounded by fields giving way to industrial parks, bare-limbed trees taking over when field stopped. And all of it was covered in a thick blanket of white, pristine snow.

Dean was so shocked he pulled the car to the verge, tapped his hands against the wheel. They had driven from one season to the other in the space of a hundred yards. He could see the line between the two on the field beside him: green, and white. The radio was blaring a CCR tune and he turned it down, forced himself to look at Sam.

Graciously, under the circumstances, Sam said, "Do we still have winter coats?"

By way of reply, Dean slid the Impala's chrome lever to the heat setting, and pulled back onto the road, hoping the all season radials would be enough.

Dean recovered his equilibrium by the time they'd arrived downtown, was getting his own back by pointing out every fucking fiberglass groundhog he could see. There must be dozens of them, all about four foot high, each one painted differently, some Chamber of Commerce venture, strategically placed in front of various sponsoring businesses. Oh god, Sam thought, watching Dean fighting really, really hard not to say anything truly antagonistic, this is going to be excruciating.

They parked in front of one fiberglass groundhog painted as an Italian pizza chef; Dean looked up the street, staring at something across the road. Sam followed his line of vision, and saw a whole storefront devoted to souvenirs: Git your Groundhog Gear Here! On the side of the building – a 1970s cinderblock construction – was a huge and alarmingly bright mural, executed by schoolchildren. Rainbow waves emanating from the sky, a hollow tree, and a really, really happy looking groundhog in a top hat.

"Shoot me now," Dean murmured, flashing a quick disgruntled stare at Sam before slamming the car door and heading for the trunk. He pulled out two parkas, one down filled, the other polyfibre, and scrounged around looking for something warmer. He found a scarf, which he wrapped around his neck, but nothing else remotely useful. The snow had been cleared on the streets, was shoveled onto the strip between the road and the sidewalk, but the road wasn't wet, it was that crisp lacy white that came when the temperature dipped below freezing.

It was biblically cold, the sort of deep-freeze old people talked about. Something out of Laplander legend. Nunavut cold. Sam hoped the Impala would start again; they should probably try to find a motel with a plug-in for overnight, like they had when they'd wintered in North Dakota one year. Dean had supreme confidence in the old car, and usually it was well-founded, but this wasn't normal.

They passed a patch of graffiti marking up the alleyway between the souvenir shop and Dean's destination, which seemed to be the pizza parlour. Scrawled in red paint was a groundhog identified as 'Phil', and he was doing something that groundhogs probably did all the time, in this particular instance with 'Mrs. Phil'. Beside that, in large black letters, dripping with an inexperienced tagger's hand: "Punxsy Sux!" Sam believed it, knew that particular brand of small-town boredom and feral captivity. Get me outta here, it practically shouted.

Actually, Dean wasn't headed for the pizzeria; the tourism office was located directly beside the restaurant. Sam hadn't immediately identified it as such, since he was distracted by yet another large toothy fiberglass Phil, this one dressed as a fireman. Despite the biting cold, Dean stopped in front of the groundhog, looked as though he was contemplating doing something unnatural to it. It was hard to come up with anything more unnatural that what the artist had already done, however. Dean turned to his brother, and Sam noticed that his breath was crystallizing on the scarf, his hands jammed deep into pockets. The tips of Dean's ears and nose were bright pink. Why the hell hadn't they brought toques? For god's sake, he reminded himself, this morning they had played baseball.

"Want a picture?" Dean asked, his breath pluming out, gesturing to the groundhog with his nose. Under their feet, the snow made the faint creaking noise it did only when the relative humidity plunged into negative digits. All Sam wanted to do was to get inside; the hairs in his nostrils were freezing, and it hurt to take a deep breath.

"I'm sure they've got postcards, if you're interested." And he kept walking, not missing a beat, wondering which was potentially weirder: the cold, or the three young people who had caught on fire. Right now, his money was on the freeze, but he'd be willing to admit the two might be connected.