November 2006

Thanks to Hal for beta.

A day in the life, because everyone's got to write that motel fic.

American Gothic

by Kest

Memphis was two hundred miles behind them before it was too dark to see the road. Even then the sky was broad enough and bright in dusk that Dean would have left the headlights off if they hadn't been passing cars on the way, and if vehicle violations weren't way down on his list of actions worth pissing off a cop. The scenery wasn't much, but it was better than two lights shining down the pavement and a road that wasn't going anywhere but straight.

Metallica was in the tapedeck and Sam hadn't said a word about it. He hadn't said anything the last hundred miles. In a mood, maybe, though he looked okay to Dean. A long scratch sloped down the side of Sam's neck, some dried blood and a little swelling, but it didn't look bad. Dean flexed his wrist on the wheel, rolled his shoulders and winced. He'd pulled a muscle where the Oni had thrown him against the furnace pipes, but he'd take it and the bruises just to get out of that fucking city with its five hundred-year-old expatriate ogre, and for the satisfaction of knowing the fucker wouldn't be tossing so much as a football anymore. Not without a head.

"There's a town coming up."


"We passed a sign."

"I saw the sign." Dean eased up on the gas, but only because he'd pushed it past eighty and it was the end of the month. Counties had their quotas to fill. "So what? We can make at least another hundred miles, get past Louisville."

"I just thought. You know, we could stop."

A glance told him that Sam might be talking but his attention was lodged out there, with the trees and telephone poles ticking off miles like a midwestern clock. "Some reason I should know about?"

"Hey, I just wanted to stop, get some sleep. We don't have to."

"Jesus." A red flare of irritation burned bright in Dean's head at this passive-aggressive bullshit, but it was Sam and Sam didn't go in for pissing contests. Dean didn't want to stop, he wanted to get past Louisville. Through Cincinnati before rush hour kicked in tomorrow morning. They weren't on a job and Ash hadn't called in any leads on the demon, but roads were made for logging miles and stopping before nine was like hobbling in for the early bird plate of meatloaf and pie.

When the exit came up he took it, and refused to return Sam's look.

"I said we didn't have to."

"Shit, I'm tired, too, okay? I wasn't exactly roasting marshmallows and playing spin the bottle back there."

"There's an image."

"Yeah, thanks." They were coming up on the town itself, and Dean eased off the gas. Amazing how alike these towns were, and how uniquely fucked up beneath the surface. Made him feel not so alone in the world. They passed a gas station, a Piggly Wiggly, and two MacDonald's before he saw a green vacancy sign outside a Cracker Barrel, motel in the back -- two stories, the doors of the rooms painted sea-green, like something you'd find down in Florida or Arizona, and about thirty years from its last touch up.

"I'll get the room," Sam said, when Dean pulled in next to the office.

"You got money?"

Sam dug for his wallet. "A twenty. This." He held out a credit card.

Dean took it from him. Sam Berkowitz, expiration six oh-eight. "You ever use it?"

"Just once, at the hospital when you were, uh -- "

"Yeah, all right. But use this one instead." Dean took a card from his wallet, fresh from the P.O. box in Tulsa when they passed through a week ago. "Hospital collection agencies are fucking pit bulls. And turn your collar up."


"You've got a...." Dean gestured to Sam's neck.

"Oh. Right." Sam pulled the hood of his sweatshirt around his neck and got out of the car.

Dean left the motor running. He could see Sam through the office window, an overgrown kid with too-long hair scamming for a motel room with an ease that would have made Dad proud. Scratch that. Dad would have made him stay in the car, told him everybody lived like this.

They should be heading south. January was the season for the Carolinas. Georgia. Dig out some of that weird-ass shit in Savannah. Sam said north so it was north, but it was going to be fucking cold in another week and he didn't think Sam had any more clue where they were heading than he did.

When Sam came back he had a key and a newspaper. "Second floor," he said to Dean. "Other side."

Dean didn't pull out immediately. "You hungry?"

Sam looked up from the paper and followed Dean's eyes to the large Cracker Barrel sign. "Not really. Are you?"

Dean shrugged. Breakfast was ten hours ago, the only thing since a Power bar Sam had found in the glove compartment. "I could eat."

"Have you looked in the mirror?"

Dean glanced in the rearview mirror and saw nothing noteworthy. "What?"

"Dean, we just sawed an ogre's head off with a Bowie and sat in a car for four hours. We look like shit."

"So Cracker Barrel's too good for us now?"

"I think the cafeteria at the state penitentiary would kick our asses out."

"We'll shower first," Dean said, as if that settled it.

Around the motel was a dark broad empty parking lot, edged by a line of trees through which Dean could see lights and the concrete hulk of another building. The security lights were only half-juiced, the bright orange Cracker Barrel sign hidden from sight. Dark enough to keep anyone from seeing what he didn't want them to see once he got their stuff from the trunk, but second floor was just asking to get cornered with no back door.

"It was what the manager gave me," Sam said, when Dean pointed it out.

"Tell me you at least got an end room."

"Sure, if eighteen is an end room. Dean, I didn't put in a room request."

Eighteen was one spot from the end, so Dean let it go. The room was a typical one, two beds with comforters that matched the green of the doors, and the fucking ugliest painting Dean had ever seen over one of the beds. Two little girls in stiff white dresses playing on a swing. He dumped Sam's stuff under it and put his bag down on the other bed. Fuck if he was going to have that staring down at him all night.

"What gives?" he said to Sam, nodding at the newspaper.

"Nothing," Sam said, then stopped. Dean always imagined it was a carry over from Stanford, that practice of cutting off answers that strayed too close to revealing one ounce of his essentially freakish nature. "Just thought I'd check it out."

"Anything we need to look into?"

Sam dropped the newspaper on the table next to the TV. "Nothing that's a job."

"Sure, okay," Dean said, just as glad to drop it. He found his toiletry bag in the duffel and dug through wrinkled layers of unfresh shirts and jeans to find a pair of clean ones. "The manager say anything about laundry?"

"What?" Jesus, Sam was out of it. Maybe there was more to that scratch on his neck than he thought. "Oh yeah -- a couple of machines downstairs. We have to get the key from the front desk."

"Good, because I don't mind telling you, my shit stinks."

A smile drifted over Sam's face. "Yeah, I'd noticed."

"You're not exactly sweating tulips these days, either."

The bathroom was small and not clean, but Dean didn't care as long as the water was hot and the towels had some reasonable fluff to them. Satisfying himself on both counts, he let the water run and stripped off his shirt. He peered over his shoulder at the mirror. Faint indentations and signs of early bruising from slamming into the pipes, but no broken skin. At least the shower wasn't going to make it hurt more than it already did.

He'd never tackled an Oni before, but from now on it belonged on the meaner branches of the preternatural family tree. He knew Sam wanted them to evaluate the morality of it now, judging each being's worthiness of life or death according to a standard that in his opinion had no place in the supernatural world. But long teeth, drool, and other disgusting hygienic habits were as good a barometer of evil as any. By that measure it was just asking for its head to be sawed off.

The clean shirt and jeans were damp by the time he turned the water off, but they didn't smell like ogre blood. He wiped a patch of the mirror clean with a corner of the towel, thought about shaving, decided it could wait until morning.

"All yours," he said, when he came out of the bathroom. Sam had the TV turned to some lawyer drama. Life lived in another world, with suits and ties and power lunches, nine-to-five days and commuter traffic. He suppressed the lame comment that sprang immediately to mind. Sam might be persistent in believing that the world of TV lawyers had relevance to their world, but Dean didn't want to test how deeply that belief ran.

He picked up the remote, flipped through channels to settle on a movie he'd already seen before, but it had J Lo in it so it could have been the Saddle Club and he'd watch it.

He could hear the shower over the TV, like rain pounding on vinyl siding, the only indication he wasn't alone in the room; that and Sam's bag on the other bed. He picked up the newspaper and skimmed the front page. Sam was looking for jobs the hard way. Trawling through local papers for anything that stood out amid chamber of commerce meetings and photographs of fall foliage, as if searching for a previously unrevealed pattern to put their resources behind. Not the stacks of data Dad had collected or Sam's visions, but something else stringing them from city to city with a driving and cryptic force. Only Dean didn't put much stock in intuition.

Sam came out of the shower as the movie was ending, hair dripping everywhere. "Here," Dean said, and tossed him the bottle of iodine he'd pulled from his bag. "You should clean up that cut."

Sam grimaced at the bottle. "This shit stings. I remember when Dad made us use it."

"I know. Put it on."

"Whatever," Sam said, but he took it back with him to the bathroom. "Fuck," Dean heard through the door, followed by a string of more muffled obscenities. Dean smiled. He was almost cheerful by the time Sam came out of the bathroom and tossed the bottle back to him, the left side of his neck a smear of dark purple.

"Next stop I'm picking up Neosporin," Sam said, as he got dressed. "Why do we still use that shit?"

"Because it works. And a family's gotta have its traditions, Sammy." He turned off the TV, grabbed his coat, and threw Sam his sweatshirt. "You ready? Because I'm hungry."

"Yeah, now that I look like Barney." But Sam pulled his sweatshirt over his head and followed Dean out onto the second floor balcony, locking the door behind them.

Already the nights were freaking cold, cold like knives down his neck and lungs, getting in everywhere and making Dean long for hot and muggy nights in Miami. Good times, Satanists and all. They were going to hit snow farther north, and he didn't have chains for the tires, though they could probably rig something together if they had to.

The cold clarity of the night was supplanted by the overwhelming smell of old cheese once they stepped through the door of the Cracker Barrel. Dean blinked. Revealed by the bright lights of the store, he and Sam looked closer to the things they hunted than real flesh. Creatures of the undead come to haunt the local granny gathering. Dean didn't care. He loved this place. Rows of shelves filled with shit no one could possibly want, yet there was always someone in line buying organic maple syrup from New Hampshire and handmade door knockers, glaring at people like him and Sam for disrupting their country chic experience.

The restaurant on the other side of the store was deserted. Dean checked his watch. Apparently eight-twenty at the Cracker Barrel was like happy hour at the morgue, only less animated. "Guess folks turn in early here."

"I don't think we picked the liveliest hang-out in the region."

Dean, distracted by the image of a morgue filled with bodies jettisoning from their lockers to rise and wreak havoc on the living, possibly while drinking margaritas, didn't answer. The hostess was reassuringly fleshy, however, and led them to a table by the window with the uncaring and unimpressed air of the living. When the waitress came by Sam ordered the soup. Dean asked for a burger.

"So where are we going, Sammy?"

Sam had hunched in his chair with that peg-hopping game they used to play when they were kids, absorbed in it with a level of focus Dean felt only while driving or hunting, the final peg grating on him the way unconsecrated bones grated on Dean.

Sam didn't pretend not to know what Dean meant. "I don't know," he said. "North."

"You gotta give me a better answer."

"What do you want, Dean? I'm going on instinct. You can ignore that if you want. Just turn the car around and go south. Why the hell are you listening to me, anyway?"

Dean brought the flat of his hand down on the table. The noise startled them both. Sam's hands curled around the peg board as if to protect it, fingers touching on the other side then sliding away. "It's a fucking question, Sam," Dean said. "We'll go where you think we should go. But you gotta give me a better answer."

Sam ducked into his sweatshirt, only on Sam it was a sign of confrontation, not retreat. "You don't want to know why we're going north," he said, and Dean heard the beginning notes of a younger brother's punk attitude and certainty of being right. "You want to know why you should listen to me."

Dean got up and left the table. He hated it when Sam tried to turn things around on him, and hated even more when Sam got it wrong. For a kid smart enough to go to Stanford, Sam could be a fucking moron.

He almost walked out of the restaurant, but he wasn't twelve so he headed for the bathroom instead. Locking the door behind him, he ran water in the sink and over his face. The walls were dark, the lights weakly fluorescent, and the face that stared back at him in the mirror was that of an anemic ghost.

Dad would have told Dean to shut the fuck up already. Not in words but a look that said as much. But whatever Dad had faced over the years, Dean bet he'd never lived with this kind of unrelenting fear that squatted in your head like a vagrant until you forgot it was there.

When he returned Sam was halfway through his soup. Sam put his spoon down. Dean ignored him in favor of his burger. It was already cold, the meat tasteless and congealed, but he bit into it like it was a Porterhouse.

"How's the burger?" Sam finally ventured. Fucking fearless, his brother.

"Great," Dean said. "Fantastic." He picked off the bun as if to show off its succulence. "This is what you call grade-A quality farmed beef."

Sam leaned back in his chair. "I think you tore a new hole in the ozone with that sarcasm."

"I prefer the irony that comes with being an asshole."

"Yeah," Sam agreed.

Through the window Dean could see the motel squatting like an obedient dog in the shadow of the restaurant, and beyond it a concrete landscape built to pull people in and get them out again as quickly as possible. He couldn't be the only one who called that home.

The heater in the room was dead when they returned, so Dean attacked it with a screwdriver and a few descriptive words of its mother, grateful for the opportunity.

Sam had changed into sweats and sat with his knees up on the bed, checking the voice mail on his phone. "Anything?" Dean asked. The heater rumbled back to life reluctantly; Dean hit the side of it with the screwdriver handle and the growl shifted to a high-pitched whine.

Sam shook his head. "A call from Ellen, but not about the demon. I think she thinks she's being subtle in checking up on us."

"She means well," Dean said, not sure why he was defending her when that protective shit drove him insane. A couple of adjustments and the heater shifted into a quieter gear, the air blowing from it not hot but not cold, either. He stood and stretched, the pulled muscle broadcasting a cranky reminder of its presence.

There were no more clean shirts in his duffel. Dean kept the tee-shirt he had on and exchanged his jeans for a pair of sweatpants that smelled like the last motel they stayed in, which hadn't been five star. But they were warm and worn, and it would be a while before the heat kicked in. He turned on the TV and commandeered the remote.

Sam had put his phone aside and was busy yanking out the sheet and comforter from where they were tucked in at the ends of the bed. A six-four nightmare for the cleaning crew, but at least he wasn't bitching about bed size for once.

"You want me to turn this off?"

Sam wrapped himself in the resulting mess of bedcovers in a customized method Dean was finding increasingly familiar. "The motel could be overrun by shtrigas and I'd sleep through it."

"None of that kind of talk," Dean said. But he muted the TV before flipping through the channels. Prime time dramas were just hitting their stride. He couldn't believe fucking ER was still running. He was too wired for sleep, leftover adrenaline from the Oni still in his blood. If the manager was still up he could get the key to the laundry room, get it done now so they could leave first thing in the morning.

The light from the TV flickered sharply over Sam's dead-to-the-world form, a movement too quick for the eye to catch in the way that spirits moved over the physical plane. Spirits, Dean could handle. He didn't know what to do with other people.

He turned the TV off, grabbed his jacket and their bags, and pulled the door closed behind him.

The manager was still up, propped up on a battered leather chair behind the counter in front of a thirteen inch black and white. He looked Dean up and down, took in the bags slung over Dean's shoulder. Punk kid, Dean could hear him thinking. "It takes quarters."

"Change machine?"


Dean pulled the ones he'd gotten back from the waitress from his wallet. "So you got change back there?"

The manager eyed him some more as if judging how far he could take this. Go for it, Dean thought. Then the manager reached for a drawer beneath the counter and pulled out a stack of quarters, exchanging them for Dean's bills without further comment and handing over a key anchored to a wooden block the size of a billy club. No one was walking away with this by mistake. "First floor, around back," he said, and turned back to the TV.

The laundry room was surprisingly clean. Dean dumped the bags on one of the plastic chairs lined against the wall and doled out a couple of quarters for a small cardboard box of Tide. He couldn't tell what of Sam's stuff was clean, so he tossed it all in with his own clothes and the detergent.

The washer droned on. Dean leaned back in one of the chairs and closed his eyes. He'd had worse beds. Better ones, too. He'd had worse and better nights. He'd know once they hit Cincinnati where the next few days would fit in that spectrum. East or further north; a blind man following one who squinted down a landscape of unknown shape.

The laundry room door swung open and Dean's fingers closed around the .45 tucked in his jacket pocket before he saw it was Sam.

"Jesus, I thought I'd have to roll your ass out of bed at noon tomorrow. Why are you up?"

Sam closed the door. He looked around, chose a chair near the door. Ran a hand through his hair and over his face. "I slept great for an hour there." He stared at the running washer as if its mechanical hum conveyed cosmic truth. "You know I hate it when you wash my clothes."

"Too bad," Dean said. He hooked the chair next to him with his foot, pulled it over to prop up his feet. "I think I can handle a few tee-shirts. I'll even spring for fabric softener."

Sam didn't answer, just fixated on the clothes that whirled through the round glass window of the washer like a paint-splashed tidal pool. Dean had seen that look in Dad's eyes. It had hollowed him out, turned him into the man he'd been. "I'd tell you if I could. If I knew where we were going."

"Hey, you don't see me running."

Sam looked at him and for a second was seventeen again, not a memory or trick of light but as if the last four years had been an unbroken line and not the gap Dean knew nothing about. If he were a better person he'd tell Sam to get the fuck out. Go to five hundred interviews, save the salt for bland soup and the occasional bowl of popcorn and get out while there was still hope for one of them. That he wasn't a better person had long since been established.

"Go to bed, Sam."

"In a minute." Sam stood and stretched. "You have my bag?"

Dean would have tossed it to him, but his back had stiffened up and he wasn't sure he could get out of this chair, even. "Yeah, it's here."

Sam rooted through a pile of folders, a pair of running shoes, and an address book Dean had leafed through once when Sam had gone on a coffee run, but between the pages were photographs of people he didn't know and places that were too sunny and sane to co-exist in his world.

Sam pulled out a bookmarked paperback and sat down as if planning to stick around for a while. Dean didn't mind. It reminded him of when they were kids, fighting over who got to put the quarters in. He closed his eyes and heard the pages turn.

"Jesus, Sam, tell me it's a sex book at least."

Sam didn't look up. "Sure, it's a sex book."

Probably some fucking American classic. He hoped it was.