The operator came on the line just as a car’s headlights shone in Dean’s eyes. He blinked and turned away.
“Operator, can I help you?” said the operator.
“Y-yes, I’d like to make a collect call to—” Dean stopped. He didn’t know her real name, only her phone number. Could you get in trouble for giving a false name to an operator? He supposed it wasn’t any worse than taking credit cards that belonged to other people.
“Uh, I’d like to make a collect call to my Aunt Sissy,” he said.
“And whom may I say is calling?”
Dean swallowed. “Tell her it’s Dean Winchester, John’s son.”
There were beeps and taps coming through the receiver, and the tinny sound of a faraway phone ringing. It rang five times. Then someone picked up at the other end.
“Hello?” he heard. It was Aunt Sissy, her voice tight, no doubt not enjoying getting woken up at such an hour. The night they’d spent with her, everyone was in bed by 9:30, and they’d all gotten up with the sun.
“This is the operator with a collect call from Dean Winchester, will you accept the charges?”
“Who?” Aunt Sissy asked. “Operator, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Yes ma’am,” said the operator. “It’s 12:35 a.m. mountain time.”
“In this time zone,” said Aunt Sissy with some tartness, “we are all supposed to be asleep. I think it’s an unwritten rule or something. Who the hell is calling me?”
“It’s Dean Winchester calling for his Aunt Sissy,” said the operator.
“His Aunt Sissy?”
“Yes, John’s son, he said to say.”
There was a small but deep silence at the other end. Dean could almost hear Aunt Sissy holding her breath.
"Ma’am will you accept the charges?”
More silence followed. Then the operator said, “I’m sorry, sir, the party to whom you’d like to be connected—”
”Wait, operator, I’ll accept the charges.”
”Thank you, ma’am. Mr. Winchester, I have Aunt Sissy on the line for you.”
Then there was a click as the operator connected them.
“Dean? Dean Winchester?”
“Aunt Sissy,” he said. “It’s Dean. John’s son.”
“I know who you are, Dean, why are you calling? Why are you calling so late? Is everything alright?”
He licked his lips and swallowed hard. His arm still hurt from his father’s grip on it, the hot-handed snag as Dean went past the bed, insisting that no one be called. No doctors, no grownups. Insisting that Dean not leave. Asking for Sammy, and then forgetting what Dean had just told him. That Sammy was crouched down behind the TV stand, sucking on the neck of his t-shirt.
“Dean?” Aunt Sissy asked again. Her voice was soft now, and he could almost see her dipping her chin to look down at him, even though it’d been two years since she’d rescued them from Social Services. His throat ached from the lump in it.
“Is Sammy okay?”
Dean grunted. “It’s Dad,” he said, barely managing that. “He went hunting. Got hurt.”
“Hunting?” asked Aunt Sissy. Then Dean thought he heard her swear. “What was he hunting?”
“I can’t tell you—”
“Dean, your Dad told me all about hunting the evil things under the bed and in the closet. Now you tell me, what was he hunting?”
Always wanting the facts, that Aunt Sissy. That’s what Dad said. He’d even found a few articles she’d written about her travels through Texas and across Kansas. Dad had read them aloud and chuckled at parts, though Dean could not understand what was funny. Her eye for clarity and facts was what Dad admired, and as he finished each article he would turn to his boys and say, almost to himself, “Now there’s a woman with brains.”
So of course she would want to know everything.
“Troll,” he said.
“Yeah, under a bridge, one of those old mountain ones. We shot at it, and then it bit Dad, and I could barely get him back to the c—”
“He took you hunting a troll?”
“Yeah,” said Dean, surprised by the snap in her voice. “And a good thing, cause I had to get him back to the motel, but he wouldn’t let me drive, an—
“Son of a bitch,” said Aunt Sissy, and Dean got the impression she forgot she was talking to a kid.
Then she asked, “How bad is it, and where is Sammy? And where are you?”
“It’s a bite on his leg,” said Dean, rushing, his heart thumping at having found someone who could help. “Just from yesterday, but it already smells bad.”
“Smells bad? That sounds like an infection, why didn’t you take him to a hospital or call a doctor?”
“Dad said no,” said Dean. His throat went dry at how strange it must sound. “Dad said no hospitals, don’t call no grownups, nothing.”
“No grownups? So what am I? Not a grownup?” Now she sounded mad.
“No.” Hesitant, voice small.
He heard her sigh. “No, I guess not. I don’t have any kids. You’re not a grownup, a real grownup till you have kids.”
Dean nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t see him, but she was exactly right.
“So where are you now?”
“I’m in a phone booth.”
He cringed, waiting for her to get pissed that he was out on the street, but she didn’t.
“I mean what city? And where is Sammy?”
“Were in—” Dean stopped and thought about it. “We’re in Estes Park, at a motel by the river called the Swiss Chalet. The troll was—”
“I don’t care about the troll, Dean. You’re in a phone booth and you’re going right back to the motel. Sammy is there with your Dad, right?”
“Yeah,” said Dean.
“Okay,” she said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Are you listening?’
“Yes, Aunt Sissy.”
“Go straight back to the motel. Get a cold washcloth, a really cold, wet one, and put it on your Dad’s forehead. Then get another one and put it on the bite. Just that. Then, get Sammy and—”
She stopped and Dean could hear the catch in her voice. “Just watch him. Stay with them both till I get there. You got a first aid kit?”
“The best. Dad put it together.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Aunt Sissy?” he asked.
“Is it—is it okay that I called you?”
She sounded so mad and tired at the other end of the line, he didn’t think he could bear it when she got there if it wasn’t okay. At least a little bit.
“Yeah, kiddo, you did good. You did right to call me. Now, I gotta go. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
Then she hung up.
Dean replaced the receiver and opened the door to the phone booth to let in the cool spring air. It woke him up and made him draw his jean jacket closer to his chest. There was blood on the sleeve, but it was dark and Aunt Sissy wouldn’t notice. Especially if he took it off and crumpled it away somewhere. There was a little bit of rain in the air as he trotted up the hill towards the little side street that led to their motel. Estes Park was all on a slant. Trolls liked slanty, hilly towns with fast rivers and old bridges. Dad had been surprised to hear of one at such a high altitude, but then shrugged. They’d seen stranger things, he’d said, and they’d left Sammy at the motel while they’d driven up the frontage road to the wooden bridge.
The fight had come at sunset, as Dad had tricked the troll into coming up from beneath the bridge. It had wanted to give them a riddle, but Dad had attacked it instead. Light in Colorado slanted hard at sunset, the twilight had been thin, and then it had gone dark all of a sudden. The troll knew the terrain and Dad didn’t. Trolls had better eyes in the dark, too, and the blast from Dad’s rifle had gone south. Then the troll had bit him. Right on the leg. Dean knew he’d made the wrong sound at the wrong time, and when the troll had turned on him, Dad had grabbed him up and they’d both stumbled back to the car, Dean half dragging his father, getting banged up by the rocks. His pants had gotten ripped below the knee and he could feel the sting of a newly made gash. By the time they’d gotten back to the motel, Dean could tell his Dad had been hurt worse than he was, so he made himself forget about his knee.
He managed to help Dad lay down on the bed, but every time he’d made a move to help Dad off with his boots, Dad had yelped. He wouldn’t let Dean touch him. The wound kept on bleeding, and then had started to smell. Troll bite, Dad had said in a way that made it sound like a death sentence. Then the fever had set in, and Dad had started saying things. Raving things. Asking them, no, demanding at the top of his lungs that they tell him what insect a blacksmith made. That’s when Sammy had taken up residence behind the TV stand, muttering something about fireflies.
Dad had gotten mean in the hours that followed, grabbing for Dean, hard, leaving bruises. Shouting. Insisting no one could help him, and then telling Dean to tell him which was the noblest instrument or describing the glittering that lay above the moist environment below, which sounded like it was going to turn into a question, but which he spouted out at least three times without finishing. Telling Dean again to call no one. Giving him a smack once when Dean had begged to use the phone. Dad had ripped the phone out of the wall without even looking at it. That’s when Sammy started sucking on his t-shirt, saying more nonsense under his breath, which Dean began to realize might actually be the answers to the questions Dad was throwing at him. Not that it would do him any good to have such a geeky brother, even if Dad had troll saliva in him and was acting like a troll and handing out riddles. Answers to riddles wouldn’t help if Dad’s shouting got them noticed by the staff of the motel.
When Dean unlocked the door to the motel room, it was as he had left it. The TV was on, he could see Sammy’s shadow against the wall behind it. Dad was on the bed, his eyes were closed, and wound was still bleeding and seeping, a slow, red and green ooze. Dean reached under the thick, dusty curtains and opened the window a little ways. Maybe the fan would help erase the dank, charnel house smell. He tried that. Took off his jacket and shoved it under the bed. Knelt down by Sammy.
“Sammy,” he said. “You comin’ out?”
Sammy shook his head, the damp t-shirt tight between his clamped lips.
A gust of wind brought the smell of spring rain in the room.
“Aunt Sissy’s coming, Sammy. You hear me? Aunt Sissy.”
Sammy’s almost-rocking motions stopped. He didn’t stop sucking on the t-shirt, but he was still, his dark eyes bright beneath the uncombed swath of hair.
“The last one was a stamp,” he said around the t-shirt.
“Yeah,” said Dean, trying not to roll his eyes. “You just sit tight. I gotta put cold washcloths on Dad.”
Sammy’s eyes seemed to say better you than me, and Dean pushed himself off the floor. He got the washcloths, and wet them in the sink. Let the water run as cold as it would and wondered where and what they would do with the stained articles once they were finished. Dad had said never to use motel supplies that way, because the loss would be noticed and their little family might be visible on the radar. But Aunt Sissy had said to do it, so he would.
With the wet washcloths in hand, he approached the bed that Dad was on. Dad’s boots had left muddy groves at the foot of the bed, and the polyester blankets were rucked, the pillows askew. Dean went closer, and placed a folded washcloth on his father’s forehead. He saw his dad wince, and then went to put the other washcloth on the wound. The smell whisked up at him as he did this, and then Dad grabbed him.
“What are you doing?” came the hiss. “Don’t touch me.”
Dad’s eyes were filmy and dim. His grip was hard, the fever came through his skin like a summer desert.
“Dad,” said Dean, trying to pull away, “Aunt Sissy said—”
“I told you not to call anyone!”
Dad jerked hard on his arm.
“But it’s Aunt Sissy, Dad, an’ she—”
The hand on his arm released him, and then Dad reached up and smacked him on the face with the back of his hand. Dean stumbled, and fell against the other bed. His nose started to bleed, and he backed away, face ringing. This was the fever, of course, it wasn’t Dad. Troll bites must make you crazy, that’s maybe why Dad didn’t want anyone else around. But it was too late, Aunt Sissy was already on her way.
Then Dad started in again. “A cowboy rides into town on Friday. He stays three days and then leaves on Friday. How did he do that?
“Dean,” said Sammy, sounding like he’d taken the t-shirt from his mouth. “Dean, tell him the horse is named Friday. The horse. Get it?”
Dean backed away from the bed, ignoring Sammy, the heat in his face turning to cold. He managed to sit in the room’s only chair, an armchair covered with what felt like fine burlap. It was a horrid green, but so stained, it looked brown. As he sank into it, he realized his legs were shaking. He wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve and made himself watch the TV. Sammy stayed underneath it, the t-shirt once again in his mouth, sucking and rocking and answering riddles at random while they waited for Aunt Sissy to get there.
It had been two years since he’d seen her, in that place, that Social Services, that had taken them from the parking lot of the Golden Buff. He remembered sitting on those hard seats, wondering why the people had not been able to get hold of Dad, who surely would not have changed motels. Not with his boys gone. Every day he and Sammy had waited, reading the Sammy comic books over and over, trying to beat each other at checkers. One time Dean had made the Superman doll walk and talk and this had sent Sammy into such a fit of the giggles that they were told to stop it or the doll would get taken away. It had been hard to resist Sammy’s begging and pleading for him to do it again, again, but Dean had remained firm. Sammy would cry harder if the doll was taken away.
Then, around five days later, they came to tell the boys to pack up their duffle bags and get their coats (new from the Christmas bin), and Dean and Sammy were placed in the waiting room. Dean fully expected Dad to be there, filling out paperwork or something, but he wasn’t there. Instead, there’d been a woman at the counter, dealing with the clerk, trying not to raise her voice and failing. She had her coat, and scarf, and purse over one arm, and was using the other arm to gesture with in wide, bold arcs. Then she said Dad’s name. It was then that Dean realized who she was. Or who she was supposed to be.
Not that Dad had ever given them any specifics, but he’d given them particulars as to what to look for. It made the hair on the back of Dean’s neck stand up how many categories Dad had been right about. Nice coat. Check. Loud, clear voice. Check. He could almost see her profile; she seemed to have a nice face. Nice hair that a lady would have, nothing too fussy.
Dean motioned for Sammy to stay put and then made himself walk up to her to tell her who she was, heart pounding in his chest.
“Dad’s on a hunting trip, don’t you remember, Aunt Sissy?”
She looked down at him with clear, china blue eyes and a still, intent expression on her face. Then she turned back around to talk to the clerk. The conversation that followed sounded like she was going to leave them there, so Dean moved on to step two, which was to tell her what they needed from her. He pulled out all the stops and slipped his hand into hers.
“Can’t you take us home now, Aunt Sissy? Sammy doesn’t like it here. The beds are hard and the food makes him cry.”
“Sammy?” She looked down at him again with those same eyes, then looked at Sammy, and then looked at him.
Dean tugged on her hand. He had to get Sammy out of there, and himself too, that was the main thing. But he remembered thinking at the time that this was the woman Dad had told them about. The nice lady in the nice coat who would help them. He had a strong feeling that it had to be her, or it was going to be no one. Besides, hadn’t she mentioned Dad’s name? It was like she knew Dad already.
“Please?” he asked. “Dad’ll come get us soon, Aunt Sissy. And we won’t be any trouble, I promise. Dad wouldn’t like it if we went into foster care.”
All of which was true, especially the last part. Since they’d been foolish enough to let themselves get caught, Dad was liable to be very pissed off to the point of threatening to let foster care keep them the next time so there better not be a next time.
But then Aunt Sissy had made up her mind and taken them home.
It had been a wonderful night, the details of which had blended into a solid and comfortable memory that was rather like a blanket he could draw over his head when the nights got too dark, or Dad had been growling and angry, or Sammy had needed too much, demanded too much. She’d fed them, and gave them a place to sleep, and didn’t ask too many questions. Rather, she tried not to ask too many questions, but they’d come just the same. Mostly about Dad, and what the hell he was up to.
Dean could tell she was pretty ticked off about the way Dad had handled things, leaving kids alone in a motel like that. He couldn’t tell her that Dad did it all the time, because he had a feeling that would only tick her off even more and then she might kick them out or take them back to Social Services. She hadn’t liked the motel they’d been staying at (Dean was very glad she’d not asked about the pictures on the wall), hadn’t approved of the fact that they had nothing to sleep in but the clothes they stood up in, and most of all she hadn’t approved of Dad. It wasn’t anything specific she’d said, more, it had been the tsk tsk sound she almost seemed to make under her breath each time she discovered something else lacking in Dad’s care and feeding of his boys. At least that’s the way it seemed to Dean.
She’d taken to Sammy right quick, that much was certain. And Sammy to her, come to that. Hardly two words had been spoken between them, and Sammy had practically been in her lap demanding a cuddle every other minute, even though he was far too old and he knew it. He’d held on to her hand every chance he’d got, and had slipped so easily into looking to her for what he wanted, when before he’d only ever looked to Dean.
The food had been good though. Lots of it too, even though Sammy had again managed to be the center of attention by having a full on barf fest. Got a shirt out of it too, one that Dad had even let him keep, the brat.
As for him, Dean didn’t know what she thought. Yeah, she’d tried to make sure he had his favorite flavor of ice cream, and that he got to watch the movie he wanted to watch, and let him be the boss of Sammy. Mostly. She’d even given them all the privacy she could, letting him close the door to the guest bedroom, instead of demanding he leave it open. He guessed his favorite moment was the one where she’d wanted to know why she was Aunt Sissy. He’d told her, and then she’d warned them about evil.
The thought of her worrying about him hit him in so many ways, it almost knocked him down. And the fact that he couldn’t tell her about any of (per Dad’s orders), not even to tell her how well prepared they were (especially Dad) to fight against that evil made his heart feel like something was tearing at it. But what he remembered most, what had hit him the strongest, was when she looked at him with those china blue eyes of hers and that intent, still, listening look that said, you can tell me anything, and I won’t get mad, I promise. But he couldn’t tell her, which messed him up inside while at the same time made him feel that there was a still joyous part of him that knew that one day he would be able to tell her. Because she would have to know, even Dad would see that, if she was to be their Aunt Sissy.
He’d told her they’d be careful, and then she’d gone to bed. Dean had lain awake on the top of the covers for what seemed like a long time, thinking about how quiet her house was, and how clean, and how Sammy had fallen asleep right away as soon as his head had hit the pillow. And about how safe he felt. And then he’d fallen asleep himself.
Sometime during the night, Dad must have shown up and Aunt Sissy must have let him in because he came into the guest bedroom before sunrise to get them up so they could clean the kitchen and do the dishes. Dad had seemed rather at peace with himself, even as he hustled both boys along, making them be as quiet as they could. Not quiet enough, apparently, because Aunt Sissy was upon them, even as they were finishing up, looking at them. Wanting them to stay. Dean could see it in her eyes. She’d made Dad let Sammy keep his shirt with the dog on it, and then Dad had made the boys say thank you and goodbye.
Her first goodbye had been for Sammy, of course. She’d kissed him and petted him and smiled down at him as he’d smiled up at her. That real smile that he so seldom showed, and never to strangers.
Then she’d reached for Dean. He would never forget that moment, when her eyes had looked only for him, and she had reached for him and folded him close. The way he remembered that a mother would, in a soft way, and strong, in arms that would never let you get hurt. Then she’d kissed him on the forehead and sought him out with a glance that said I will always be here. He wanted to cry, but Dad might have smacked him upside the head, and definitely later would have given him a talking to about being tough, so he didn’t. It had been a very long drive to wherever they’d gone that day, moving from snow covered high plains to somewhere in the desert. A long time ago.
The Tonight Show came and went and the infomercials started by the time he heard the knock on the door. Three taps, very sure and swift, and before Dean could even unfold himself from the chair, Sammy had gotten up to dash out from behind the TV to open the door. He flung himself at Aunt Sissy, wrapping his arms around her hips and burying his head in her coat. Aunt Sissy’s hands came down to stroke his head, pushing back his hair, and then she looked up at Dean. He saw her face wrinkle at the smell in the room, saw her eyes narrow in that way they had in the past when she looked at him. She was mad at him, he just knew it.
“Dean,” she said, in that stern way of hers that meant business. She was already taking off her coat and flinging it on the table. “Take Sammy and keep him out of the way. Where is the first aid kit?”
Dean managed to unpry Sammy’s arms from Aunt Sissy, and then pulled the first aid kit out from beneath the duffle bags and the backpacks. Aunt Sissy had it on the empty bed and opened before Dean could even begin to attempt to put Sammy in the green chair.
“You stay here, Sammy,” he said.”
“I’m not a dog,” said Sammy, scowling, trying to get up. “Not a dog, you know.”
“Stay out of Aunt Sissy’s way, anyway,” said Dean, shoving him back down.
“Dean,” said Aunt Sissy, “get me something to cut cloth with and then you and Sammy watch the TV.”
“But I can help you, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean, coming up to stand beside her. The smell coming from the troll bite made his nose feel like it had been burned from the inside. “I can help you. I can hold stuff, I can—”
She frowned at him, looking down at him with those narrow eyes, all the softness gone from her face. “What happened to you, I thought you said the troll missed you.”
Dean shrugged like he didn’t know and moved his knee back so she wouldn’t see it. She sighed.
“Okay, we’ll wash our hands, and you can help, but only do what I tell you, right?”
Now he nodded. She was mad, maybe, but not too mad. Her hair was tied back in a sloppy ponytail, like she’d gotten hauled out of bed before she could comb it. There was still sleep in her eyes, and she still had not smiled. Dean knew what it was like to get woken up sudden; it made him feel like crap all day.
They washed up at the sink together, using hot water and tons of soap, and then Aunt Sissy grabbed a bunch of towels and carried them back to the bed.
“Dad said not to use—”
“Your dad is unconscious,” said Aunt Sissy, “and we can pay for towels. Especially ones as thin as these are.”
She took the towels and slid them under Dad’s leg. Then she grabbed the scissors and began to cut the leg from Dad’s jeans. Dean felt his eyebrows raise. He wished he’d thought of that. Now, as she pulled the material away, the bite was clearly in view. The bleeding had almost stopped, but the skin around the bite had turned green with pus.
“Gack,” she said. “This bite turned bad in one day, you say?”
“Yeah,” said Dean. “Since yesterday. “That’s why I called ya. It was happening so quick.”
“Hot water on this one,” she said, handing Dean a hand towel. “And I mean hot.”
Dean rushed to do as she asked. He came back with the towel dripping and practically smoking it was so hot. Aunt Sissy took it and slapped it on the wound. Dad began to twitch, his head digging into the pillow.
“Get another cold washcloth and wipe his face with it, okay?”
Dean was glad to move away. He didn’t want to get smacked again. He came back with the towel, almost tiptoeing, and patted Dad’s face with the washcloth. Then he folded it and laid it on Dad’s forehead. Aunt Sissy was wiping Dad’s leg around the wound, and wiped across it, pulling the towel away, covered in what looked like green snot.
“Trolls have dirty mouths, I gather,” she said. Then she looked at Dean and he realized she was talking to him.
“Yeah,” he said. “When they can’t get fresh meat, they live on garbage, the older the better.”
“In Estes Park?”
“They eat small kids too, sometimes. A few had gone missing, and that’s why we came.”
Aunt Sissy shook her head like she didn’t really want to know this, and Dean shut his mouth.
“Hand me that brown bottle,” she said. “The hydrogen peroxide. We’ll clean this out like we were dentists.”
He handed her the bottle and stayed near Dad’s head, even though it meant that he was in reach of those arms. Aunt Sissy opened the bottle and poured some of the peroxide out on the towel to let it drip on the wound. The wound started fizzing up with white foam, tinged with green like a science experiment gone bad. Dean moved forward to wipe the foam that dripped down Dad’s leg so it wouldn’t soak through the towel and into the mattress. She did this again, and then again, until the wound stopped foaming. Then she wiped wound down with the clean, damp end of the towel.
“Think we got it?” she asked him, in a way that said she was going to trust his opinion completely.
He made himself hide away his pleasure at this and to think, really think, about what they needed to do next.
“I think,” he began, looking at the wound, and the new, clean blood coming up from the bite, “I think we should use the peroxide one more time, wash it with cold water, and then put that cream on.”
“Not the red stuff?” she asked. It took him a second to realize she was kidding.
“Naw,” he said. “That would sting too much and he would really holler.”
Together they did as Dean had suggested, but just as she was using a plastic cup to pour cool water over the bite, Dad reached up to grab her. Quicker than that, she pulled his hand away, and jumped back just as he demanded, “What falls but doesn’t break and what breaks but doesn’t fall?”
This was something none of them could understand. Even Sammy, from his chair, didn’t have an answer for that one. Dean could see her hands were shaking.
“Has he been getting violent?” she asked, her voice getting high as she tried to take a breath.
Dean chewed on his lower lip. “Yeah, but—mostly the shouting.”
“Dad h-hit Dean,” came a voice. It was Sammy, moving to stand beside him, folding himself into the line of Dean’s body. “He’s been mean an’ yelling things.”
Dean stared at his feet, feeling the start of Aunt Sissy’s whole body, hearing the yelp she couldn’t quite contain. He didn’t want to see the expression on her face. But then he felt her hand on his shoulder. He pulled away and stared at the carpet.
He saw out of the corner of his eyes that she was petting Sammy’s head. Sammy was still under her touch, head tilted in a way that said he liked it.
“Okay,” said Aunt Sissy, as if she were thinking out loud. “We’ll finish cleaning the wound, like you said, and then we’ll wrap it, and then we’ll give him something for the pain and the fever. You got liquid Tylenol?”
“Yeah,” said Dean, reaching into the first aid kit for it. “Sammy doesn’t like pills, so we got him this.”
As he handed it up to her, she was looking at him with a steady gaze, behind which, he could swear he heard her silent but angry tirade.
“I did the best I could, Aunt Sissy,” he said, swallowing. “Sammy kept rocking against the wall and Dad was shouting for me not to touch him, and I didn’t think about the Tylenol.”
She blew air out like she was counting to ten, and Dean hurried to pull Sammy to one side, to give Aunt Sissy more room. She finished with the wound, putting the antibiotic cream on it and wrapping it, and then she managed to get most of a dose of the pain killer inside of Dad. Then she took the discarded washcloth and wiped his face with it. This time, Dad let her, his face easing into slack lines that told Dean he’d fallen asleep. It was only when Aunt Sissy untied Dad’s boots and slipped them off his feet to put them at the foot of the bed that the tightness in Dean’s chest began to ease. Dad would get better. Things would be alright now. If only Aunt Sissy wouldn’t be so mad at him.
She was taking a clean washcloth now, wetting it, and wiping Sammy’s face, the way their mother used to do to Dean. Sammy wasn’t squirming away, the way Dean remembered doing. No, instead, he was leaning into it, almost purring, eyes closed. Then he let her take off his damp shirt and put a clean, dry one on. Dean began to move to the green chair. He would sit down. Maybe he would find some cartoons on, the kind that came on at three in the morning.
Aunt Sissy released Sammy. “Go lay down, now, see if you can get some rest before the sun comes up.” Sammy did as he was told, plumping up the pillows, and stretching out on the bed, content to watch the channel that Dean had picked.
Dean nodded to himself. Aunt Sissy knew what Sammy needed, just as he himself did. Too bad Sammy never did what he was told unless it was Aunt Sissy telling him.
Dean looked up. Aunt Sissy was rinsing out another washcloth; it must be the last clean one in the room. She tipped her head to one side in a way that said come here. Dean felt his chest lurch. He was going to get a lecture now.
“C’mon, Dean. It’s late, come on.”
He made himself walk over to her, feeling his feet scuff on the carpet, ears already ringing with the scolding he could hear in his head.
She stopped him with her hand and then knelt down in front of him. He could not avoid her eyes now. They dipped down at the corners, sad, grey circles beneath them. Her hands were on the sides of his face, he could feel the roughness of the cold washcloth.
“When your Dad smacked you, it was the fever, you realize that, right?”
Dean nodded. Being Aunt Sissy, of course, she would line all of her facts up before tearing him a new one.
“You did such a good job Dean, I’m very proud of you, and I know your Dad is too. Or he will be, when he wakes up with his leg still attached to him. Which he will because you called me, and I know first aid.”
“I know first aid too, but—he said not to—”
“I bet you were scared, huh?”
The question stopped him. She wasn’t yelling at him. She wasn’t even mad. Her thumb came up to trace the lines of his forehead as if she were erasing the worry she saw there. Dean clenched his mouth shut, but he could feel it quivering anyway.
“Jesus, I know I would have been scared to see a troll. But you kept your head, and helped your Dad. You’re a good kid.”
He had to swallow hard, but he almost didn’t make it because whatever was in his throat felt as big and dry as a baseball. But she stopped talking and began wiping his face, the way she had with Sammy. Long, slow strokes, up to his hairline and down to his chin, and Dean understood why Sammy looked liked he was purring. Aunt Sissy even wiped the back of his neck, taking away the grit from the day. Then she patted his cheek and stood up, throwing the washcloth in the sink.
“Go lay down. Get some rest. You can help me check on your Dad in the morning.”
Some weight that he did not know he’d been carrying flew off of his shoulders, and as he kicked off his shoes and crawled onto the bed to lay down beside Sammy, he wondered if this was how other people felt. Other 12 year olds, maybe, who were being babysat by their Aunt Sissy. Who were staying in a motel with their Dad while their house was being worked on. Yeah, that was the story. Dad had a cold, and Aunt Sissy had come to help, had let the brothers stay up way past their bedtimes, and had asked the boys not to say anything to Dad about it and get them in trouble. If they were good, she’d buy them ice cream the next day. Dad would never know. They would never tell him. He was asleep before the next infomercial began.
When he awoke, light was peering in from beneath the curtains and someone was tugging on his arm. Hard.
“Dean. Who is that!”
Dean was able to lift his head partway before he was jerked clean off the bed. He could see that Aunt Sissy had fallen asleep in the chair by the bed. She looked like she’d tried to prop herself up to stand guard, but had fallen asleep and collapsed sideways. In the second before Dad shook him, Dean could sympathize. It was hard to stand watch all night, especially when Sammy was sound asleep. He snored.
But now there was Dad, eyes sparking in the morning’s darkness, grabbing Dean by both arms. His hands were tight. He moved forward, hitching a step as his weight landed on his bad leg.
“I thought I told you not to let anyone in here! And not to call any doctors!”
“But Dad, I didn’t call—”
“Then why is my leg bandaged, someone had to do it and it certainly wasn’t you.”
Dean swallowed this, knowing it was true. First aid was not his strong suit, and Dad forever despaired of him.
“And why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“A raven!” Dad shouted, shaking him. “Why is it like a writing desk!”
Unfortunately, Dean didn’t know any riddles, so Dad shook him again.
“Because both come with inky quills,” said Sammy, waking up.
Aunt Sissy got up from the chair. Moving. He could feel her reaching from behind him, coming up and taking Dad’s hands and pulling them off. Then she stood up and gave Dad a push so he would fall back on the bed. There was a grunt from Dad’s chest as he landed on the mattress and the bed creaked. The headboard slammed against the wall. Then it was quiet, except for Dad’s breathing, which was thick as his eyes opened and shut as he tried to wake up. Then he let them fall closed.
“Dean?” asked Sammy.
“Open the curtains, Dean,” said Aunt Sissy, “and the windows too. All the way open.”
As Dean did as he was asked, light and air rushed into the room, cool air, straight down from the tops of the mountains. Wiping out the last traces of the smell of troll.
“You can wake up now, John Winchester,” said Aunt Sissy, her hands on her hips.
“I am a joke and I protect the heart, what am I?” said Dad.
Aunt Sissy thought a moment. Then she said, “I don’t know.”
“That’s easy, Aunt Sissy,” said Sammy. “A rib.”
When Dean came up beside her she asked him, “Is this normal? Is this the affect of a troll bite?”
At first he didn’t know whether she was asking if it was normal for Dad to be spouting riddles or whether it was normal for Sammy to know the answers to all of them. Dean had to shrug. “It’s our first troll.”
“And hopefully our last,” said Dad, his lips barely moving “All I have are riddles in my head.” His eyes were still closed. Sammy came up and stood next to Dean, as close as he could.
“Hard ones I hope, said Aunt Sissy in a way that told Dean she didn’t have much sympathy, now that Dad was conscious.
“I’d rather have a hangover than these bastards.”
“Well, it’s no more than you deserve, John Winchester,” she said. “Imagine taking a twelve year old boy out hunting a troll. It’s bad enough he knows how to use a gun at all.”
“Is that Aunt Sissy I hear?” Dad asked this, opening his eyes to squint up at her.
“And Sammy. He’s only eight, and you left him alone for how long in a motel room? What if you never came back.”
“That’s definitely Aunt Sissy,” said Dad. His face seemed to smile as he closed his eyes again.
“We always come back, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean. He didn’t want her mad at Dad, now.
“I thought I told you not to call anyone,” said Dad now, his face getting serious.
“I’m not just anyone,” said Aunt Sissy. “Besides, you needed help. You would have lost that leg, if your son hadn’t called me.”
“He disobeyed a direct order. He’s not supposed to think, he’s supposed to do as he’s told.” Dad tried to sit up as he said this, and now he opened his eyes and looked at Dean. Aunt Sissy helped him lean against the headboard and planted pillows behind his back without a word. But Dean knew he was in big bad trouble, even if Dad didn’t look like he could move very fast.
“Come here, Dean.”
Dean walked to the side of the bed, Sammy as his shadow, shaking but staying close. Aunt Sissy made a sound like she wanted to say something, but didn’t.
“I told you not to call anyone, especially no grownups. What if they’d taken you away from me?”
“But Aunt Sissy’s not a grownup, Dad,” said Dean. Dad wasn’t going to hit him again; he was coming out of the troll bite. But it was still making a queasy, jumping feeling in his stomach to have Dad look at him like that. With his black brows drawn low, and that serious pull to his mouth.
“Not a grownup?” Dad’s gaze flicked to Aunt Sissy and then back to Dean again, taking in Sammy along the way. “She looks pretty grownup to me.”
“She doesn’t have any kids Dad, and besides she wouldn’t take us away. I wouldn’t have called anyone like that.”
“I like Aunt Sissy,” said Sammy. “And I’m hungry.”
Dean swiveled his head to look at his brother. So did Dad and Aunt Sissy. Then Dad asked, as if he couldn’t help himself, “What’s black and white and read all over?”
“That’s easy,” said Sammy. “A newspaper.”
“Let me get you something to help you sleep, John Winchester,” said Aunt Sissy. She motioned for Dean to give her the first aid kit and then she dug through it, with John watching her.
“There. That stuff, in the bottle,” said Dad, pointing. “It’s valerian and poppyseed. That’ll whack this bastard right out of my head. And the silver, Dean. Get the silver.”
Dean saw Aunt Sissy frown at Dad, but she went and got a glass of water while Dean got the two bottles of what Dad wanted. Aunt Sissy didn’t know what to do, so he showed her how to measure out drops in the water. Then he handed it to her, so she could look at it. Dean knew it looked like a mixture of mud with everything in it together, but she nodded.
“Bottoms up,” she said, handing the glass to Dad. While he drank it, she checked his bandage, which was still mostly white, with only a little dark stain showing through. “I’m taking the boys to breakfast.”
Dad gave the glass back to her and she handed it to Dean, and then helped him lay back down on the bed. Dad looked them all up and down. “Get Dean some clean jeans first,” said Dad. “Can’t have him walking around like that.”
Dean looked down at himself, and Sammy whooped out loud and ran to get his sneakers. Dean knew that Sammy was thinking about pancakes with chocolate chips in them with whipped cream on top that little kids liked that breakfast places usually served. He’d forgotten about his knee and gave it an experimental bend. It felt like the blood had clotted over just fine and he didn’t need any help. Besides, Aunt Sissy would probably put the red stuff on like Dad did, and it was going to hurt. He tried to think instead about how maybe Aunt Sissy wasn’t going to let Sammy have pancakes with chocolate chips in them, but it didn’t work.
“Musta ripped them on a rock, or something, but it’s okay,” he said, looking up at her. Dad, he noticed was almost already asleep. “I’ll put something else on.”
“Come sit here, Dean, and roll up your pants. Let me look at that.”
He wanted to refuse her, and she was looking at him like that again. In that way, that serious hard way, with her eyes narrow and her mouth making that frown.
“Don’t be mad, Aunt Sissy, I didn’t—”
“Mad?” she asked, her hands pushing him into the green chair. “Sammy, get one of those hand towels and get it wet, okay?”
Sammy ran to do this, and Dean watched him. Not wanting to look at Aunt Sissy.
“I’m not mad at you Dean, why do you think so? I’m just sorry I didn’t notice this before. Really, really, I am.”
She looked sorry too. He had to swallow. Then Sammy rushed over, towel dripping from both hands.
“’Cause you’re frowning at him, Aunt Sissy, he doesn’t like it.”
Aunt Sissy looked at Sammy as she took the towel, wringing it out in the plastic trashcan. Then she motioned for Dean to roll up his pant leg, tsk tsking at the long jagged scratch running across the bone of his knee. When she put the wet cloth to it, it stung, but Dean didn’t let himself make a sound. If he winced, she would get stern, like Dad sometimes did, to teach him to be brave. Then she would reach for the red stuff and it would be all Dean could do to not howl.
“Hey, Sammy,” she said, dabbing at the dried blood on Dean’s leg. “Could you do me a big favor and get a tube from the first aid kit that says first aid cream on it? A white tube with a red cross at the bottom. Will you find it for me?”
It was with pride that Sammy did this, head held high, almost marching to the first aid box. Dean didn’t have the heart to tell Aunt Sissy that Dad normally didn’t let Sammy go in there on his own, there were all kinds of herbs that he might think were candy or something. Not until he was ten, Dad said. Sammy began digging through the first aid box, flashing Dean a look that said, check me out!
Then Aunt Sissy was kneeling in front of him, concentrating on cleaning his leg without actually dragging the wet cloth across the cut. She dabbed around it, something Dad would never do. Then she looked up at him.
“I frown sometimes, Dean, when I am upset, or something worries me. Every time I look at you and your brother, it makes me sad. You living on the road the way you do. All the perils your Dad drags you into.” She stopped, resting her hands for a moment, the tail ends of the cloth dripping down Dean’s calf and into his sock. Her eyes were shining like Sammy’s sometimes did when he wanted to cry. “He’s your Dad, so of course, he may do what he likes. I just wish, well, I just wish that it could be different for you. Nicer. But I can’t change anything. That’s why I frown.”
The baseball was back in his throat, stuck as hard as if Willie Mays himself had whacked it there with his bat. Dean tried swallowing three times, never so glad as when Sammy raced up to them to slam the tube of cream in Aunt Sissy’s hands. Aunt Sissy looked glad, as well, to get it, and concentrated on applying the white cream to Dean’s leg, slowly and carefully, along the cut.
"You’re a brave boy, Dean,” she said, taping some bandages across the cut to keep his pants from scraping it, “and there’s no doubting that.” She patted him as she rolled his pant leg back down. “But there’s no need to torture you with iodine. That stuff should be outlawed, I say.”
“Outlawed!” said Sammy, agreeing. Then he tugged at her. “Let’s go, Aunt Sissy. Make Dean change, and let’s go.”
Dean got up and scrubbed his eye with his palm, grabbed some clean jeans from the duffle, and went into the bathroom to change his pants. He kept the light off so he didn’t have to look at his expression in the mirror on the back of the door. The mirror was warped anyhow, and had been making his head look too big on his shoulders. Then he opened the door, where Aunt Sissy and Sammy were waiting. She had her coat on, and her purse looped over her arm. Sammy held tight to her hand.
“Shoes on, then. I spotted a place that looks promising. You hungry, Dean?”
“Yes, Aunt Sissy,” he said, tying his shoes as fast as he could. Then he stood up. “Will it be okay to leave Dad here alone?”
“Your dad will be fine, and we will be back within the hour.”
“C’mon, Dean, c’mon!” This from Sammy with as much excitement as if he’d never eaten at a restaurant before. As if he didn’t eat at them every meal of every day. It was going out with Aunt Sissy that had him this worked up, of course. As Dean realized he was himself. He watched as she handed her purse to Sammy to carry, took Sammy’s hand again, then she held out her now free hand to him.
“Too big to hold Aunt Sissy’s hand walking down the street?” she asked.
Of course he was, that’s what Dad would say. Dean cast a glace over his shoulder. Dad was asleep. His aunt wanted to hold his hand and he would let her. They would go to breakfast that way, and Dad would never find out. Dean pulled out the key, and they stepped into the day, then Dean locked the door behind him. Checked the knob, like Dad said. Then slipped the key into his pocket, and his hand into Aunt Sissy’s. Curving his fingers along her warm, solid palm. Feeling the squeeze she gave him. Returning it. Yeah, that was the story. Their Aunt Sissy was still babysitting them. Dad was still getting over a cold. They would go to breakfast, and Sammy would have pancakes with chocolate chips in them and whipped cream on top. And maybe Dean would too, just this one last time.