John knocks on the door to unit 16 a little after two in the afternoon. It's just one more anonymous brick townhouse in a whole row of them, white paint and green lawns in a suburb so neat it makes his teeth ache. Just like all the others, but this one has a vicious spirit haunting it: a few months of pranks, but now the cop in unit 14 is in the hospital and this townhouse is at the top of John's list. He's ready to jimmy the lock when the door opens under his hands, and he has to scramble to paste a dumb, harmless smile on his face and be glad he's wearing a uniform.
"Exterminators, ma'am," he says, lifting the can and hose. "The couple in unit 8 have a problem, so we're doing the whole--"
She slams the door in his face.
"Ma'am?" he asks. "It's just a routine call."
There's no answer from the other side of the door, and something about the woman who opened the door is making John uneasy: not her blond hair or her green eyes or the shape of her face, but the way she looked at him like she knew damn well he was no exterminator. He hesitates a moment longer before heading back to the curb.
He sets Dean to watch the place, doesn't want to risk the woman recognizing him. Dean doesn't grumble, doesn't ask questions, doesn't say any more than he needs to, which is how it's been since Sam left. He'll do fine, John tells himself, but still ends up down the block, watching Dean stake the place out, like the boy's going to disappear too if John's not there to keep an eye on him. It's no use anyway: she walks away that evening, suitcase in her hand, and when they break in a few hours later it's clear that she's gone. Oh, the furniture is still there, and little things like blank cards in a wooden desk, but the woman isn't coming back. John knows, as surely as he knows he's no exterminator, not in the normal sense anyway, what a house feels like when no one lives there any more. They go through the motions of cleansing the house, but he'd be willing to bet the spirit's gone as well: nothing on the EMF, not now.
But she's not just gone; she was never there in the first place. Catherine Murnaghan turns out to be a well-constructed shell, better than anything he could ever make, and he thinks even Sam might have trouble finding out what's hiding beneath it. It's beyond him and Dean, that's for sure. All they have now is a dead end and news of a poltergeist in Ames.
A month afterward, he reads that the cop in 14 pled guilty to a set of assaults. He makes a note in the journal. He's still hunting, even though he's not sure what the quarry is.
The mother greets them at the door, a small,
skinny woman with wispy black hair and a face which veers between
anxiety and relief. "I didn't know what to do," she tells John, sitting
on her worn sofa while Dean talks to the girl. "Every night it got
worse. I wouldn't believe it, no one would believe it. Things flying
around, broken plates and glasses -- she set that chair on fire two
"Ms. Blanchard," he says, "you know it wasn't your daughter doing these things."
She looks down. "I didn't know what to do. I got your number from a friend, someone who knows that family you helped in Clinton, Iowa." John nods in what he hopes is encouragement. "And then, two nights ago, everything just stopped."
John sighs. It's a puzzle, all right: the apartment is totally clean, nothing suspicious hidden anywhere. No sign of ghosts or poltergeists. The girl's eleven and claims that some seventh-grade girls have been teasing her at school; the mother's starting to look at him and Dean suspiciously, like somehow this is all their fault. It goes against the grain to leave them unprotected, but when he offers to do something about that, the first words out of her mouth are, "I can't pay."
"No charge," he says, and they set to work.
"Don't know what the landlord's gonna think," she says as he knocks the first small hole in the drywall, but he can hear the satisfaction in her voice.
He's working in the kitchen, staring out the window down at the garbage cans, when it clicks: the stack of cardboard boxes, neatly folded and bundled up. "Some one just move in?"
"Yeah," she says. "Three days back. She's pretty quiet."
"No family?" he asks.
"Nope," she says.
He hasn't heard anyone moving around up there. It might be worth letting himself in and taking a look around. He tells Dean that he needs something from the trunk and heads for the stairs; he's got lock-picks in his coat pocket. He heads up halfway and turns the corner and there she is: quiet, that's for sure. He rocks back on his heels and she clutches her purse like it's the only thing she owns. "The exterminator, again?" she says; her voice is steady but her face is white.
"It's not..." he starts to say. She pushes past him down the stairs, around the corner and she's gone.
He stands just inside the apartment, taking his time before he starts to search. He doubts she'll come back here again, and there's not much to keep her, anyway: a bed, a battered table and chairs in the kitchen, a lonely couch in the living room. The only thing that makes him think a person lives here is the book on the floor by the bed: Russian, and it looks like some kind of poetry.
It's weird, standing in a place like this, seeing it with a stranger's eyes. He's moved himself and his boys in and out of what feels like a hundred of them, over the years: stained carpet and cheap furniture no one would worry about leaving behind. He never had the skill or interest to turn a set of rooms into a home and it looks like this woman's the same. Cleaner, maybe, no dirt in the corners or cracked plates in the sink or black marks on the walls where Sam drew pictures. He wonders what it would have been like, drifting from place to place without his sons, thinks how easy it would be just to disappear in a set of rooms like this: pills, a knife, a gun, whatever you wanted. Easy. Days before anyone would find you, that's the whole point. But she hasn't: she's running, but she isn't finished.
He's still standing there, thinking, when Dean stamps up the stairs to get him.
They wait all night, parked across the street, drinking Mrs. Blanchard's coffee, but the woman is gone already: the next morning there's a Salvation Army van to pick up the furniture. John talks himself and Dean in to take one more look around. The book is still there, on the floor by the bed; he slips it into his coat pocket, thinks he'll give it to her next time he sees her. He's sure there will be a next time.
There almost isn't. They're driving out of town that night when something grabs hold of the wheel and yanks it around, trying to swerve the Impala into oncoming traffic. Dean jerks awake as John pulls it back and hits the brakes, sending the car screeching and skidding to a halt, sideways on the shoulder. John's breath is coming hard and his heart is beating fast and something is revving the engine. "What the hell, Dad?" Dean says, like it's John’s fault somehow, like he wouldn't care what's happening to the car.
John clutches the wheel and keeps his foot on the breaks. "God damn it," he mutters. He knows he can't let go of the wheel long enough to shut the engine down. The air inside the car is freezing, and Dean is grabbing stuff out of the glove compartment, ID cards everywhere, shotgun shells and a knife and a bag of salt: there's a shape flickering on the seat between them, a man, dark hair and the familiar smell of leather and gunsmoke, ghost hands next to his on the wheel. Then there's salt flying everywhere and Dean gets the lighter open and a smudge burning and it's gone.
"It fucking followed us," John says.
"Are we going back?" Dean asks, but John's already making the u-turn. They roll down the windows to let the smoke out as they drive, turn up at Blanchard's apartment past three am. She looks ready to argue when they bang on her door; John pushes in and lets Dean handle the sweet-talk while he stalks through the apartment one more time, trying not to notice the scared look on the little girl's face as she stands in her doorway clutching a worn cloth bear. Then it's up the stairs to the other apartment; it's not the lack of furniture that makes it feel empty. Nothing to find in either of them. He knew there wouldn't be when he made the decision to go back.
The sun is coming up by the time John stands by the trunk, that damned book in his hand. They ought to burn it, it's the obvious thing, the safe thing. That's what he tells himself. That woman probably knows exactly what she's doing, exactly what she brings with her wherever she goes. Brought, anyway. But he thinks about those empty rooms, like no one ever lived there, and the fear and anger on the woman's face, and the way she clutched her purse like it was the only thing she had left. He wonders what keeps a person going, by herself like that.
John flicks the book open, looks down at the meaningless symbols; it's powerless now, clean, but he doesn't kid himself. That spirit will be back. Dean's at his back, ready for whatever John tells him. He knows what to do, would be hunting on his own these days, if John didn't keep him close.
He's opening up one of the bags in the trunk almost before he's realized what his decision is: silk to muffle it, salt and the mix he uses to keep poltergeists back sprinkled in the pages. It'll be safe, wrapped up like that in the trunk. He's not going to destroy it; he's not going to take this one last thing away from another person. He thinks of Dean, ready at his shoulder, of Sam, miles away at that fucking college.
He slams the trunk down, ignores Dean's unspoken criticism. As they drive off, he can hear the Blanchard woman shouting at them not to come back.
Dean's busy in the motel with some girl he picked up, so John sits across the road in a diner; he's got a cup of coffee and his journal open on a battered formica table. He'll give Dean a few hours, pull together the case on whatever's killing cattle up around Bend.
He sees the bag first, worn navy blue leather, and looks up just as she sits down opposite him. Her hair is tied back and she's got circles under her eyes and a faraway look, like she's been spending too much time staring at the road. "I saw your car, back at the motel," she says. "And your partner."
"My son," he says: the words are out of his mouth before he thinks it's just that he's been chasing her long enough to think he knows her. But she might feel the same: there's a half-smile hiding at the corners of her mouth, like he's just surprised her.
He's thinking about offering to buy her a cup of coffee when her eyes fall to the papers open on the table. The ghost-smile disappears and her face goes perfectly blank. "You are following me," she says. She's clutching the purse to her body, her knuckles white.
"No," he says. "No, I'm not. But there's something--"
"Leave me alone," she says as she stands.
He stands as well. "Look," he says, "You need help. I can--" but there's an expression of such exhausted disbelief in her eyes that he doesn't finish the thought. "I kept your book," he says instead. "From Des Moines. Last year. If you want it back."
She hesitates a moment, then gives in. "I'd like that." He thinks it's as much to keep from attracting attention as anything else; she waits while he shoves the clippings into his journal, between instructions for banishing a poltergeist and an account of selkie sightings near Monterey. When he looks up, she's staring at the battered leather cover. "You weren't looking for me after all," she says. "Or for him."
"I told you that already," he says. By the time he gets to the door he remembers to hold it open for her. "Him?" he asks when they're outside, away from the diner's bright lights and scuffed floor.
She shakes her head and starts walking across the parking lot.
"You know what it is," he presses. "It has to be put to rest. It's dangerous."
"He always was."
She says it so simply that the hair prickles at the back of his neck. "I can stop it."
"You can't help me," she says.
It takes him to the road and across it to the motel court to realize that she didn't say she didn't need help. He starts talking as they get to the car and he opens the trunk. "Whatever he was, I know you don't want to give him up." The book is in a side pocket in his second duffle bag: not in the motel and not under the false bottom of the trunk. That's lucky, since he figures that a look at what's in there would scare her off for sure. "But they're not the same, when they're dead. I've seen it, again and again. They get violent. They forget. It's not... they can't help it. It just happens."
She's looking at him as if she doesn't quite believe what he's saying. "Who are you? And how do you know that sort of thing?"
"It's..." he pauses, then makes a decision. "My name's John. John Winchester. I lost someone, and ever since..." He hands her the parcel; she runs her fingers over the silk, a question on her face. "Don't unwrap it. I think the ghost is tied to it."
"He gave it to me," she says. She clears her throat. "If you were going to... how would you do it?"
"We'd start with the grave. Where was he buried?"
The noise she makes isn't a laugh. "I don't know. I don't know what they did with his body. I was..." She collects herself. "Most likely, they burned it, but I don't know. I couldn't stay and look for it."
A missing body, what sounds like a violent death -- it's a miracle there hasn't been more violence. "Anyway, since it's following you, it's probably attached to something of yours. Have you seen it since Des Moines?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"It has to be burned."
She pulls it back toward her. "No."
Shit. He should have burned it when he had the chance. "It's only a matter of time before he hurts someone again," John says. "Kills someone, maybe. Do you want that on your conscience?"
She tucks her purse under her arm and grips the book more tightly. "You have no idea what I have on my conscience." She steps back, ready to disappear again. He reaches out to grab her -- her, the purse, the book, something, because this has gone on long enough, damn it, and it's his own damn fault for not destroying it months ago -- and as she tries to push him back the book falls from her hands, slipping free from the silk around it. She ducks to catch it, and John takes advantage of her distraction. But as his hands touch her arms it's like the ground underneath bucks up against him, like vertigo, and he finds himself clutching her for support. He's overwhelmed by knowledge he shouldn't have, names and faces and things he can't name, and the woman he's holding onto like the rope that ties him to the world. Who the hell are these people, he wonders, memories that aren’t his pushing against him. War, though, he understands war: a gun in his hand, desperation in the back of his throat, lies and truth and whatever he needs to get the job done.
Her eyes are wide. "Alex?"
"Yes," he says, and no, John thinks, but there's triumph flowing in his veins instead of blood, and a voice in his head telling him just once, this one thing, so cold. He has an arm wrapped around her and his other hand in her hair -- there's the thrill of triumph, of power, again -- his mouth on hers and she's kissing him back like she knows him, like he's the one she wants. He hasn't felt that for twenty years, not since Mary, and it's sweeping him away, the voice saying you want this too, you understand, let me, let me do this. And God, she's pressed against him like they're one body, and his hands know the feel of her. He wants more and it's pain to pull away, to break the kiss and let the whole world slip between them.
"How?" she asks, breathless, her face full of color now.
"I don't know."
"I don't care," she says, and then she's kissing him again, pulling him backward and he's lost in the feel of her body, pulling at her shirt before they're even in her room, her skin smooth under his hands. He can feel her ribs, sense how tired she's been from the way she relaxes as the door shuts behind her. His fingers fumble with the buttons on her shirt: she chokes out a laugh and he smiles.
"Thought this would be easier," he says. God damn you John thinks, can't even grit his teeth and tense his muscles against the thing in his head, and he wants to panic, damn it, but his body won't. His eyes close, and he feels something shift. "When this is over -- listen, Marita," and the name is strange and familiar as his own on his lips, "Listen. You have to let me go. Do what he tells you and let me go." And in his mind, I know, I understand, and a memory of cold concrete, burning eyes and a sour taste in the back of his throat. John doesn't know what it means, until sees eyes gone black in the other's memories. It leaves in oil, not smoke, but he's sure he knows, disregards the argument in his mind, looks harder for what he needs. But the mind within his shifts again, away, back to the present. Nothing there for John.
He opens his eyes, and there's her face, stark grief and acceptance underneath it. Something in John weakens and he thinks, now! If he pushes -- and he can sense exactly where, exactly how -- the other, Alex, he'd be gone. John's body would be his own again. He draws a breath, himself, gathers his strength, and--
Longing, sorrow, fucking bad luck and just one more moment. He doesn't know where he begins and Alex ends, and God he misses Mary. John takes another breath. Alex -- he searches himself -- Alex is waiting, not fighting him. The woman Marita, she's waiting too, she hasn't pushed John away.
He knows what he needs to do. You don't give in to a ghost, you put it down, lay it to rest, salt and fire and whatever else you need to do. That's his business, damn it. But he knows what lies behind the calm mask on Marita's face, can't help thinking, if I could see her, if I could have one more night with Mary. God, what law wouldn't he break for that?
He bends his head, feels Alex well up within him, kisses her again. After that it's the texture of her skin against his, the heat of her mouth. His hands and eyes trace changes on a body he's never seen before, his mouth laughs at jokes he doesn't understand. The memories he glimpses distract him until he's overwhelmed by the here-and-now: she rises above him, her eyes flutter closed, his hands run over her breasts, her nipples. He can't stop touching her, can't seem to get enough of it. And underneath the physical, bone deep, the knowledge, this is all there is, this bed, this body, this night, this is home. And God, it's worth it, to feel this again, this tenderness; his body is a small price to pay. The pressure builds inside him, the rhythm takes over him and Alex both, all three of them caught up in it, blood and sex and greed and love. He clutches her tight, pulling her down to him: he doesn't know, doesn't care what name he gasps at the end. He dozes off with her head on his chest, his hand resting on her hair.
John wakes up just before dawn, as she gets out of the bed. He rubs at his eyes, looks away from her body, suddenly conscious of what he's done. He pulls his clothes on while she's in the bathroom. She comes out fully dressed, but her skin is pink from the shower; he stares, can't help thinking of the feel of it under his palm, tells himself to get himself under control.
Her voice is almost even. "What do we do?"
"It's the book," he says. "Unless you have something else of his." She shakes her head. "We'll burn it."
"Oh," she says. It's on the dresser where they left it when they stumbled into the room; she picks it up, her hands running over the cover again. He wants to say, I'm sorry, to tell her there's some other way, but there isn't.
He checks it out with Dean's modified walkman before they get into the car, the book and the machine on the back seat because God only knows what's on him. But it makes its noise so he drives them away a few minutes, down a side-road out of sight of the motel and diner. She watches him clear the brush away, scatter salt around; he hesitates, the gas-can in his hand, looks at her a moment. She shakes her head and he thinks, idiot, it's just a book. It burns fast.
When it's done, she thanks him.
Dean's awake when he gets back to the room, probably heard the engine. "Where'd you go?" he asks.
"Got rid of a ghost."
"That so?" He doesn't look convinced. "You should have come get me."
"I didn't need the help," John says. "It was an easy job, just a straightforward salt and burn."
He trails Sammy into the bookstore, watching his son wander from shelf to shelf. He looks like he belongs here, John thinks, no different from any of those college kids; he doesn't know whether to be angry or proud of him. It's like the whole world disappears when Sam opens a book, which is a hell of a good thing for John; it's all too obvious that he doesn't belong here, too old to be a student, too rough to be a teacher, too poor to be local. He's thinking he should head back outside and wait there when Sam lifts his head puts the book back, and John has to duck around the shelves to keep out of his way.
He's eye to eye with a bunch of books with white spines and French titles down the backs, and hell yeah, he's getting out of this place. But then his eye falls two shelves down to the Russian section, and there it is, right at the front. He knows the cover, but gets out his journal anyway to double check the letters he copied down in case they mattered.
John thinks of the security at the door and slips the book into his coat pocket. He might see the woman again, somewhere on the road.
All recognizable characters and elements are the property of their respective creators. I make no claim to ownership of or profit from previously copyrighted materials. Original elements are my own. Many thanks to S. E. Parsons and Zara Hemla for beta-reading. Title from W. H. Auden.