Chapter 1: Arise
Summer always made Dean restless. A holdover from the old days, when Dad used to move them around, avoiding deep winter when they could. Sometimes—a lot of times—he got the urge to hop in his Baby and drive away. He didn’t care where, just far. The whole world would shrink down to Dean, his car, and an endless horizon. But he could never quite eke out the effort it would take to actually leave Kansas. He had the little house he rented, he had his steady job at the mechanic’s, and Lawrence was his home. In name, at least. Regardless he had worn himself a groove in this town, an easy track to slide along day in, day out. So it remained an itch he couldn’t scratch.
It was nearing the end of July and pushing 100 degrees, and all the garage doors were open at the auto shop for some kind of air flow. Dean didn’t let it bother him; on his break he simply shucked his coveralls, washed his hands, and went for a walk. He had a few bucks in his wallet and figured that maybe something other than the paltry sandwiches he made himself for lunch would be novel enough to calm the niggling voice telling him to go, go, go. The outdoors didn’t help, though, because the scent of summer in America was the same the country over: car exhaust sitting low in the heat, burnt cigarettes and hot asphalt adding to the fug. The cheap perfume of the girls as they walk by, all dressed in their summer clothes, mingling with their sweat. Every now and then a quick breeze would carry with it a hint of fresh leaves or cut grass, maybe from the median splitting a four-lane road. A brief respite from hot metal and dirty sidewalk cement.
After walking a couple of blocks sweat was dripping from his own neck, darkening his simple gray shirt. He lifted the hem to wipe his face; no way Sammy was dealing with this shit in New England.
Deciding retreat was the better part of valor, he altered course from the deli that had been his original destination and turned a corner to walk toward a strip mall where he knew there was an ice cream shop. When he reached the mall, darting across the heavy midday traffic, he sought refuge against the building, where there was a narrow strip of shade. A family passed him who’d just bought some ice cream themselves; Dean was so distracted by the multicolored cups they were holding, practically overflowing with crushed candy and whipped cream, that he nearly walked into a door that opened. Reflexively he caught it before it smashed his face in. Cool air was blasting from inside—comparatively cool, and at any rate—but it wasn’t full of ice cream. It was full of books.
Moth to the flame, Dean stepped in. He let the door swing shut behind him.
The books were clearly used, but somehow it made the store more cozy and unassuming. The shelves were tall, dark, and practically to the ceiling, and there was no discernible order to them at first glance. The front desk with a tiny outdated register was unmanned, but a dehumidifier was humming loudly behind it. Suddenly losing himself in this dim, quiet place was all the adventure Dean needed. Maybe if he turned the first corner, he’d never come out again.
Heat and hunger forgotten, Dean slipped behind the first stack. It held a bunch of what looked to be mysteries and thrillers, the usual oversold things like Patterson and Cussler, but he ran his fingers along them anyway. When was the last time he read a book? His routine usually involved reality TV or Dr. Sexy reruns as he ate dinner on the couch. A book might be nice. Nothing too involved, just something…that would take him away for a while. To a completely different place.
He wound his way further into the shelves, his boots heavy on the creaky wooden floor. There were nearly new Harlequin romances that lined up neatly, all tiny paperbacks of similar size; cookbooks by the dozen shouting all the new diet fads in loud colors and fonts; an entire aisle of history books, most having to do with WWII; biographies of celebrities that no one would remember in a year; new books straight from Barnes and Noble, and old hardcovers with faded gold lettering—could have been from the 1950s or the 1850s equally. Dean took his time making his way through the maze-like bookcases, filled with…something. An emotion he couldn’t name. But he liked it. He liked feeling something different. He liked that though the store was small, he could pretend that it went on forever, always twisting and winding. “Labyrinthine,” he murmured to himself, slowly, savoring, just so he could taste it on his lips. And then there, past the stack with rows upon rows of tiny slivers of plays, in the furthest corner, half-hidden, was the poetry.
He was caught between delight and terror. He ached.
Dean hadn’t written poetry in years. Hadn’t read it in even longer.
Upon a glance the collections looked to be in some kind of alphabetical order, so he studiously avoided the top shelf. He started at eye level, running his fingers slowly across the spines, half of them with the bright yellow USED stickers KU favored. Must be close enough to campus some students thought they’d get better luck selling their books here. Sammy used to complain about that all the time, back when he was in college.
Dean scanned past Emerson and Erdrich, Ferlinghetti and García Lorca, until he paused on Allen Ginsberg. He tried to summon up a little anger, even some resentment, but he couldn’t. Ginsberg was important to him, no matter what else Dean had gone through. The thick book containing his complete works, bright orange and catching, was as familiar to him as the Carver Edlund books he and Sammy had read a hundred times in their youth. But next to it was a book that just said Howl, and it wasn’t the tiny black and white City Lights paperback. It was much taller and twice as thick. He tapped his fingers against the several USED stickers, one on top of the other, and a little ridiculously, felt bad that the book had been abandoned so many times. But maybe it was a poor edition?
Curiosity finally won out against his reticence. He pulled the book off the shelf and took in its grayscale cover. HOWL, it read. Original draft facsimile, transcript, and various versions, fully annotated by author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts, and bibliography. Facsimile? What did that even mean? He fanned his thumb across the pages to do a quick flip through, and abruptly stopped. Then turned a page. Again. Again. It was Howl but it was…there were different drafts. Several drafts. All drafts? Each part, printed from a typewriter but scribbled all over by Ginsberg himself and of course Dean had always known—well, Dr. Moseley had insisted—that even the greats needed a lot of tries to create their masterpieces. But seeing the evidence of it…
Dean has felt so much shame over the years for writing and publishing poetry. It didn’t matter that it was under a nom de plume. It didn’t matter that only four people in the world knew who Jack Allen really was, beside himself. He could never get the words right, and no matter how many times Charlie or the Doc would insist he just needed to go over things again when he wasn’t happy, well, so what? What was the point of doing it at all if he couldn’t get anything right? The biggest joke was that these fancy journals published him anyway, not realizing he wasn’t like them. He wasn’t some elite sitting in his little Robert Frost cabin in the woods and teaching students literature. He was a dumb Midwestern hick with a GED and a few bucks to his name.
But he stood there, in that little used bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, and he read through the drafts, one right after the other, floored each time at the changes Ginsberg made, the route he took to get there, the way he built and tore down and shook up the words like a kaleidoscope. A small voice piped up in his head, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Sam when he was at his most annoyingly reasonable, that said, Maybe you just didn’t know how to edit. Maybe you never let Dr. Moseley teach you, even though she asked. Maybe you just didn’t listen.
Even if that was true…even if that was true, what did it matter now? He hadn’t picked up a pen in years. Oh god, just put it away. Put it away.
But now that the door had been opened, he couldn’t quite get it to close again. Footsteps sounded across the store, followed by a large sigh as someone sat in a creaking chair. Before he could talk himself out of it, Dean snapped the book shut and brought it to the front desk, where a man was click-clacking away at an old laptop, wearing a bathrobe over sleepwear and looking distinctly hungover.
“Cash only,” the man grunted, scratching his beard. He tapped the backspace button and held it.
“Uh, sure,” said Dean. There was a little sticker on the front cover that said $1, so he fished a few coins out of his pocket and placed them on the desk.
The man glanced at the money, then the book, and nodded. “Have a nice day. Come again.” He went back to typing.
“Yeah. Thanks,” Dean muttered and hurried away. His break was almost over and besides, he had to shove this in his locker before anyone noticed.
That night, instead of taking his quick plate of spaghetti to the couch, he sat down at the small kitchen table and opened the Howl facsimile again, and examined each draft more slowly. Then he read all the extra materials, the articles and letters Ginsberg had written about his process and his influences, discussion of the obscenity trial that nearly stopped it from being printed, and most of all, first person accounts of its premiere. Ginsberg had only had the first part written then. But he’d been brave. He stood up at the front of the room and read his deepest thoughts, no holds barred, and the crowd…went into ecstasy. They felt him. They understood him. They clapped and cheered and shouted, egging him on, begging him to go on, because the words resonated in the room, in their souls.
Dean knew that feeling. He remembered it. It rose up in him now, causing his eyes to water. He thought that childish little part of himself had been scrubbed out, but it was there, a tiny seed suddenly bursting a shoot, deep in his chest---
Am I mad that I should cherish that which bears but bitter fruit?
I will pluck it from my bosom, though my heart be at the root.
He slapped his hand to his chest, felt his heart beating wildly against his ribcage, the bone all too solid. A terrible vise of bone.
Do I dare? the wretched organ asked. Do I dare?
He thought of Sam, living with Eileen almost 1500 miles away, and their three year old Jack who he’d barely seen a handful of times. Thought of the invitation to live in their guest room, watch their kid a couple times a week to help save on daycare. So his nephew could grow up knowing him. So he could be near the only family he had left.
Dean thought about how, for a dozen years now, Dr. Moseley had taught at some fancy little liberal arts college just an hour away from them.
He thought about how Charlie moved around every couple years anyway, no job holding her interest long enough, no one tying her down well enough that her own restlessness didn’t compel her to leave before long.
Who else was he beholden to? How much longer was he going to live in the shitty little house his father had died in? When was the last time he’d even felt something so strongly, that now to even recognize that he had emotion was like a waking limb, pins and needles?
It was so much better to be numb.
Courage, poor stupid heart of stone.
He picked up the phone.
No sooner had Dean turned off the Impala, her rumble cut short, than Sam and Eileen’s door burst open and a little boy came barreling out. “Uncle Dean!” Jack shouted, tottering as fast as he could on his little legs, which was pretty damn fast. Dean couldn’t believe how big the kid had gotten; skype just didn’t prepare him. But he remembered when Sam was not quite so giant, and it was easy as breathing to catch the kid in his hands, to lift and twirl him.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, smiling as Jack squealed in delight. Sam and Eileen both worked with social services, Sam as a lawyer, and Eileen as a social worker. They saw too many kids get chewed up by the system to not want to adopt out of fostercare, and it melted Dean just a little more to see evidence of how happy and loved Jack was. He pulled Jack back down into a hug, felt his little fingers digging into his jacket as it was enthusiastically returned, and sent a tiny prayer of thanks into the universe. Jack would never have to scrape and scrabble like Sam and Dean had, grow up in an orphanage like Eileen, be foisted from family to family like Charlie. He was in their family now.
“Dean!” Sam loped from the front porch with Eileen, who plucked Jack from Dean’s arms so that the moose could smother him with his.
“Hey, Sammy,” he said, and squeezed extra tight.
Sam squeezed even harder. “Glad you’re here.”
He slapped Sam a couple times on the back before pulling away so that Eileen could read his lips. “Are you sure? Eileen might see the light and realize she picked the wrong brother.” His ASL was not great, but he added in a sign here and there as he spoke. He’s never practiced as much as he meant to. He grinned, swallowing down his shame, his inner voice recriminating him, how Eileen deserved a far better brother-in-law. It was going to be baptism by fire now, but he was no stranger to that. And he probably couldn’t find better teachers than Sam and Eileen.
“Fat chance,” said Eileen. “We’re going to have so many date nights now that you’re here to babysit.” She handed Jack off to Sam and opened her arms.
“I see how it is.” Dean accepted the hug.
“Let’s get you inside,” she said, now signing as well as speaking for his benefit. “We’ll help you carry in your things.”
“Don’t got much,” he answered. He popped the trunk while Sam opened the back door of the Impala, showed Jack the little army men stuck in one of the doors. Dean only had a duffle packed, and one box. Duffle had clothes. Box had a few pictures, but was mostly books.
“That’s it?” Eileen asked.
“All I need,” he assured her, watching Jack as he babbled at Sam how cool the car is.
A couple hours later had Jack grinning wide, chocolate all over his face, fingers sticky with caramel.
“That’s a special treat,” Sam reminded his son for the third time. “Uncle Dean will not be giving you chocolate every day.”
Jack signed in response since his mouth was full.
“He likes what?” Dean asked.
Sam sighed. “Nougat.”
“Right on, buddy,” said Dean, holding his hand out for a five, then immediately regretting it when it got smeared with what seemed like half the candy bar. He stared at his hand in consternation.
Without missing a beat, Sam pushed a stack of napkins toward him. Ah yes, Dean remembered those days. With kids you always had to be prepared.
“Jack! Bath time!” Eileen yelled from the other room.
Jack pushed himself down from the chair, leaving a trail of goo on the table, and happily tottered off to find his mom.
“He must like baths too, huh?”
“Beats me,” said Sam, running a hand through his hair. “For three months he threw a tantrum every time, and then a week ago it was like nothing was wrong.”
“Heh, yeah, you went through a phase like that,” chuckled Dean. He finally gave up on the napkins, which were mostly leaving white bits of themselves behind, and went to the sink to wash his hands.
When he didn’t get a response, he turned with the towel and dried his hands looking at his brother. Sam was leaning his temple on his fist, elbow on the table, and giving Dean a look that was far too…far away. Dean raised his eyebrows in prompt.
“You’ll be happy here, won’t you, Dean? We’d really like the help to cut down on daycare costs, but if you don’t want to—?”
“Sam,” he cut him off. “Jack and I will figure it out. You and Eileen do you and Eileen, okay?”
“Okay,” said Sam, like he didn’t quite believe, but he was willing to roll with it. “Feel free to stay in our house long as you like. Seriously. But I was wondering…”
Dean folded the towel, hung it up, straightened it. “Sometime this century, Sam.”
“What changed your mind? We’ve been asking you up here for a year, but suddenly…?”
Dean turned back around and leaned against the counter, staring at the kitchen linoleum. Cream colored squares, again and again and again. “Needed a change of scenery, I guess.” He didn’t add that it hadn’t been difficult to leave Kansas at all. Sam always was his North, a little bit. It felt right heading toward him, to be with him. Didn’t mention how his heart had started beating again.
Sam sat up, eyes wide. “Are you—Is Jack Allen—?”
Jesus, Dean should have known. Sam always could read him way too easily. Poetry had everything to do with it, but…he had nothing new for Jack Allen. Maybe never would. “I’ve always thought it was a little weird you ended up calling your kid Jack.”
“We told you a million times that was already his name.” Dean gave him a dry look. Sam shrugged sheepishly. “But his file might have caught my eye because of it?”
Dean scoffed and crossed his arms, wanting to end the conversation, but not quite able to bring himself to walk away.
“It was a little like having a kid named after you.”
He flicked his eyes back toward his brother, saw the sincerity shining from them. “Used to talk about naming a kid after Dad,” Dean muttered.
Sam didn’t take the bait, the mature asshole. He just stood up and started cleaning the table. “Daycare is paid for the next couple weeks,” he said. “In case you wanted to spend time learning your way around town. Seeing the sights. You know. The scenery. Forecast looks nice.”
He had the subtlety of an anvil, but the point was made. Dean would have a while to get up his courage. And good weather to drive about an hour out of town.
Both Sam and Eileen’s small city and the tiny town of Maple Hills, home of the eponymous college, were nestled in a valley between two lesser mountain ranges. The roads that snaked between them were quintessential New England: curvy, tree-lined, and with almost no signage for the poor lost souls following them. Of course after all the moving around he did as a kid Dean wasn’t a complete stranger to the area, and no stranger at all to being lost. Roads he could handle. The map in his pocket was for something else.
Sam had been right about the forecast; the sky was clear but for a few clouds, and the wind light. The trees were tall and still green in the late summer, crowding either side of the road and dipping over it in places, a natural canopy. Every now and then houses could be glimpsed between them, small, paint peeling, many of them in deep disrepair. Dean stuck to the county roads and left the highway for people in a hurry, enjoying the curves, the rises and falls with all the riders taking their bikes out for air; they revved their engines and tipped their helmets at the sight of a gorgeous classic like Baby, and Dean waved in acknowledgment, elbow sitting on the frame of his open window. Most of the groups passed him well over the speed limit, hugging the bends, really leaning into it, leather stretching across their backs and legs.
His arrival in Maple Hills almost came as a surprise; one moment there was the endless road, and the next the trees opened up to the old mill town, quaint and New England to the core. The tiny town center had the obligatory little white church with its steeple, a small coffee shop, a diner, a bookstore. It was nice to see the utter lack of major brands, though Dean had passed those on the outskirts. It was probably a decent living when your main clientele was loyal locals and poor college students wanting something close and cheap and good. There weren’t many people out and about despite the nice weather, pleasantly warm but not too hot. Orientation must not be until later in August.
Baby was a loud car, though, and she still turned a few heads as he steered her over the bridge spanning a small waterfall where the river split the town. Across the river it was almost abruptly campus, noticeable by the wide open spaces and grand ivy-covered brick buildings, rolling green grass and venerable trees dotting the gaps between them. He parked at the first opportunity and pulled out the little campus map he’d sneakily printed off Sam’s computer. The English building, Shurley Hall, was smackdab in the middle of campus, it looked like.
Dean sighed and closed his eyes, curling his fingers tight around the steering wheel. You’re already here, he reminded himself. Just man up and fucking do it.
After another minute, he turned off the car, climbed out of it, and slammed the door in one big rush. He made sure the Impala was well and locked, then walked quickly in the right direction. He folded the map and tucked it back inside his pocket and held his head high, instinctively projecting the I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing look he’d perfected walking around new places all over the country.
The front was needless; there were a couple people with a badminton net set up on another building’s lawn, far off, but no one walking around. Maybe whatever kids were here for summer classes were sleeping off last night’s party, or something. Despite having visited Sam at Stanford a few times, he still wasn’t entirely sure what college kids did all day.
Shurley Hall was not the biggest building on campus, but it was in the oldest style. He caught sight of it as he crested a hill, upon which sat another chapel, this one old and solid and stone. Original to the founding of the college, Dean guessed. He passed under its shadow and worked his way down into the small valley behind it, where Shurley Hall sat. It was a lot taller than it looked from a distance—the ceiling several feet higher than normal, so despite its three stories the building just went up, and up, and up, a monolith in the middle of the green valley floor. Between the lush, dark green ivy and the white pillars flanking the main entrance, it looked like a postcard.
Dean was hit with a wave of intense…"Unbelonging,” he tried, stopped in his tracks. “Out-of-placeness.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as he looked up, his right hand crinkling the map where he’d also jotted down the summer office hours of one Dr. Missouri Moseley. Tenured and now head of the English department at one of America’s premiere private colleges, and still the woman didn’t take any time off.
He tried to remember her as he’d first known her, in a dingy Sioux Falls summer class for idiots like him who couldn’t pass English, and how not out of place she’d made him feel. He counted all the cards she’d sent him in the mail over the years, like somehow she knew that it was the only nice thing he ever found in his mailbox, amid the bills and advertisements. No, no way she’d become some snooty old professor.
Clinging fervently to this thought, he pulled the large double wooden doors open. The floors were hardwood, shining with damp—a woman with long blonde hair bunched at the back of her neck and large red headphones was mopping, back turned to him. A helpful sign pointed the opposite direction toward the stairs. The floors were tall enough there was a landing before you took the second half of the staircase, and each landing had large windows fanning out from the corner of the building. He took the steps two at a time until he reached the third floor.
The hallway was quiet. He walked down the length of it slowly. A couple doors were open, leading to peeks into classrooms filled with maybe twenty desks apiece, large windows just like the ones on the landings lining the walls. At the other end the doors were closed, labeled with professors’ names but one, the last one, was open.
Dean wiped his hands on his jeans and knocked on the frame.
“Come in,” said Dr. Moseley, finishing whatever she was writing with a flourish. Then she looked up. “Dean Winchester!”
“What’s up, Doc?” he quipped, lifting his arms a little.
She stood and came around her desk. Dean was even taller than her than he remembered, and she no longer wore her hair in braids, but kept her tight curls in a short updo. She was older, too, but she wore it well, and most of all she was still recognizable, her smile as welcoming, her hug full of that tough love she felt so deeply for all her students.
“It’s so good to see you, Dean,” she said.
“You too, Dr. Moseley. But it’s not my fault you left to get yourself this fancy gig.”
“Hmph,” she said. “And you’ve known me half your life, now. I think you can call me Missouri.”
“Yes ma’am,” he grinned.
She gave his shoulder a light smack with the back of her hand and shook her head. “Have a seat.” Instead of going back behind her desk, she sat in one of the two chairs in front of it. He took the other one, conscious of his knees poking out of his ratty jeans. They were so comfortable, and he so rarely had to make an effort, he’d forgotten. Some impression he was making.
“Tell me how you are, Dean. I heard from Charlie your father passed?”
When he looked up he saw no morbid curiosity in her eyes, nor censure, only a soft compassion. “Yeah. A couple years now.”
Missouri put her hand on his where it lay on the armrest. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
He shrugged. “It’s fine.” She took the hint and didn’t push. He let his eyes wander over her bookshelves, chockfull and covered in picture frames and tchotchkes and books, books, books. His gaze snagged on one of the picture frames, an expensive-looking portrait of a smiling teenage girl. “That can’t be Patience,” he said.
Missouri brightened and turned to look at her granddaughter, too. “That’s her. She’s starting college this year, can you believe it?”
“No way. Here?”
“Yes. It’s a long way from Georgia, but she’s been here a few times to visit and she’s always wanted to come. Though her father would have preferred her somewhere closer.”
“She was practically a baby the last time I saw her.”
“Well I’m here to tell you children grow up fast, but grandchildren even faster.”
“I kinda get it, you know? Like I thought Sammy grew up fast, but you know he adopted a couple years ago? Jack was so small but now he’s walking and bilingual and has preferences and everything. He loves nougat.”
Missouri laughed. “Be careful or next time you turn around, he’ll be a full grown man.”
“Don’t I know it.”
The small talk petered out. He wasn’t great at it all the time, but he’d seen her shoot the shit with Bobby or Rufus for hours, and easily command classrooms of high schoolers besides. He avoided her gaze, letting the silence linger.
“Dean,” she said gently, at length, “I’m very happy for a social visit. Is that what this is?”
He shook his head, but true to form, she did not let him take the easy way out. Wasn’t her style. Every moment could turn into a teachable moment: she would lead you to the water, but was never one to make you drink.
“I, uh, I live in the area now. So I can be close to Sam and Jack and Eileen.”
“And I thought…I thought maybe…” He sighed and ran his hand down his face. Man up. “I came across the facsimile to Howl recently. And I hadn’t read the poem for a long time, you know? Haven’t read any poetry in a long time but, uh, it had me thinking. That—That maybe Jack Allen wasn’t done.” The hard part over, he faced her head on, finally ready to accept what he’d see, maybe an echo of Sam’s excitement, or big hopeful puppy eyes.
Instead she fixed him with a very knowing look. “Finally get it through your head that to every art there’s also a craft?”
Dean laughed, half in disbelief, and half because he didn’t know what else to do. “Yeah, but don’t—I didn’t say I was ready to learn it, or able to learn it—”
“But I think I’m ready to read more. So I thought maybe you could help me? I know you’re really busy, but you’re always pretty good at pointing me in the direction. That’s all I need.”
Missouri sat back in her chair and folded her hands, and stared into him like she could read something rattling around in his skull. “I do have an idea. It will get you thinking and talking about poetry again, with no pressure to write any.”
“Take a class.”
“Um, what? Here?”
She gave him what he’d always secretly thought of as her exasperated mom look. “Where else, Dean?”
“First of all, I would never get into a place like this, if I could even afford it.”
“You can audit a class. It will cost money but not nearly as much as if you were actually a student enrolled and paying full tuition. Townies do it all the time.”
“Even if that’s true—”
“Look at me!” He gestured up and down, from his scuffed boots and bare knees to his worn shirt, and very adult face. “I can’t sit in a class with a bunch of rich eighteen-year-olds, that’d be creepy. And weird. And they’d murder me for not wearing Birkenstocks or tying a white cable knit sweater over my shoulders.”
She scoffed. “Dean Winchester, when I graduated with my doctorate I already had a grandchild. Was it creepy and weird to finally get the degree I’d always wanted, even if it meant I had to wait until my own child was grown and supporting himself?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then I don’t see the difference.”
“The difference is you’re smart and you belong in this world, okay? This was Sam’s world, too, and Eileen’s, but it was never mine.”
“Dean, we can have a discussion about cost prohibitive education another time. But if we’re purely speaking on merit, there is no one stopping you from being here but yourself. There’s no separate world where you do or don’t belong—I’m sure if you asked your brother about it, he’d agree with me. I didn’t have a single problem teaching you before, especially when it was a topic that inspired you. I’d say poetry’s a pretty safe bet.” She gave him a significant look.
Dean crossed his arms. “Maybe you’re just a good teacher. Couldn’t you just you know, coach me? I could come to your office hours once a month, or something.”
“Or,” she said, “you can come up twice a week, for two hours, sit in a classroom full of other people, and be guided along by a new teacher.”
Dean thought a moment.
“No,” he said.
“Don’t take that tone with me.” Her voice brooked no argument. “Twice a week in a real classroom. Is that a commitment you are able to make?”
He shrugged petulantly.
“Good. The class I have in mind is a 300 level, so you’re going to have upperclassmen. Yes, most if not all will be a decade younger than you, but a sight more mature than 18-year-olds, you can trust me on that.”
“The course is on English Language Poetry of the 20th Century. That way you get some poets and styles you’re familiar with to start you out, but a much wider range than you’re used to reading, which will help you play and explore.”
“But you’re not teaching it,” he said.
“No. But Dr. Novak is a good professor and he knows his stuff. Dean.” She leaned forward, forcing him to swallow and meet her gaze. “You need multiple perspectives. You need to see poetry from a beginner’s lens and an expert’s lens. Learn from your classmates as well as your teacher. The discussion will help just as much as the reading list. I think you know that.”
He took a deep breath and tipped his head back. Was it worth it? And not just the money, but the effort? Was this just another road he was chasing, endless, leading to nowhere? What if reading Howl had been a fluke, a last living twitch, or an echo from the past when feeling deeply was all he could do? Could reading more poetry, new poetry, talking and writing about it…could that wake him up?
Did Dean want to be woken up?
Do I dare?
“Exactly how much money are we talking?”
Missouri smiled, clearly content to have gotten her way. She stood, and Dean stood too. “I’ll find out.” She walked around her desk, and reached down to write herself a sticky note. “But you also have to meet with Dr. Novak first, discuss what he expects from an auditing student, and make sure you’re both on the same page. No signing contracts yet. So stop looking like I’m sending you to the gallows.”
“And you won’t tell him who I am?”
Framed by a large set of three windows, she leaned on her hands and stared down a moment. Dean knew she’d never seen the reason for his reclusiveness, or at least not agreed with his reasons. But finally she looked up. “I’ve kept your secret all these years. I won’t break your trust now. I promise.”
They nodded at each other, and Dean drove home.
He got an email from Missouri the next day, and with it an estimate of a few hundred dollars. He’d never spent that much on anything except for his car, and rent. He was by no means rolling in it, but the auto shop had paid okay, and he’d had no one but himself to spend money on for the last couple of years. And now Sam and Eileen’s generosity—a small bedroom next to Jack’s—meant that rent was taken care of. Dean could afford it, even if he didn’t go back to work until January when the semester was done. He hemmed and hawed all day in the quiet house, with his brother and sister at work, and Jack at daycare.
Dean felt himself on the edge of a precipice, or a cracked door. There was still time to close it. And maybe he should.
When Sam rolled in with Jack in tow, he let himself be distracted. His brother went to change out of his monkey suit while Jack told him about his whole day, then demanded that Dean read from the Star Wars Little Golden Books he’d bought him for last Christmas. When Sam came downstairs in old jeans and worn flannel (and a soft smile at the sight of his older brother reading to his son, which Dean pretended not to see), he started on dinner. Still, Dean said nothing.
Then Eileen came bustling in looking worn down over a tough case, and suddenly Dean found himself with Jack sitting on his shoulders as he took over for Sam in the kitchen.
“Again!” said Jack.
Dean put another lime half in the lemon press and squeezed the juice into the bowl while Jack giggled at the sound. It was almost hard to hear him so happy, and remembering the drawn look on Eileen’s face, and knowing there was a kid right now out there suffering despite all she was doing to help. It made Dean’s own problems, his own hang-ups stupid and small in comparison.
“Down you come, buddy,” Dean said and, fake roaring as a show of strength, he lifted Jack up and over his head, then plopped him down on the counter. “Not again.”
“Again,” Jack pouted. “Use the juicer.”
“Nope. No more juice. But you want to see something funny?”
“Yeah!” he shouted, excited again.
“Cool. Check this out.” He opened the press and peeled out the crushed lime.
“Cooool,” Jack repeated.
Dean snorted. “Not yet, bud. Lick it.” He lifted the fruit to Jack’s mouth.
He grabbed it from Dean and licked without hesitation, bless him. Immediately Jack screwed his face up at the tartness.
Dean laughed, remembering afternoons making lemonade at the Singers’ house and feeding Sam lemon wedges to bite on while Karen and Dean laughed, and Bobby rolled his eyes and hid a smile behind his hand.
In the nature of children, because Dean laughed Jack laughed, too. Then Dean licked the other half of the lime and exaggerated his own reaction. “Uggghhh,” he groaned.
Jack laughed harder and licked his again. “Uggghhh!” he echoed.
They went on like this, winding each other up and laughing, until Dean had to be quick and stop him from rubbing his eyes, as Jack unknowingly reached his hands toward his face. “All right, time to clean up.”
“No,” he said again, but was perfectly amiable as Dean helped him wash his hands.
Dean tossed the lime halves into the compost bin at the back of the kitchen—his brother’s time in California had turned him into a total hippy, but his house, his rules—and poured the juice into some sour cream, making a little crema for the tacos.
Jack pulled the whisk out of the big utensil jar by the sink and started playing with it. Dean had just been using a fork but, “Wanna help?” he asked. He scooched the bowl over and Jack needed no further prompting, splashing the whisk right in. “Whoa, buddy.” Gently he guided Jack’s hand in at least some approximation of a whisking motion.
“Love you,” said Jack, out of nowhere. Dean’s breath caught. “Love tacos,” he added.
Dean released his breath on a huff of laughter. “Yeah, tacos are great,” he agreed, hating himself more than a little for struggling to say the rest. But Jack was just a kid and damned if he was going to pass on his issues to his nephew. “Love you too.”
“And I love momma and daddy.”
“Me too.” He let Jack keep whisking, even though it wasn’t really necessary. “Should I go to school, Jack?” he asked, not expecting much of an answer.
Jack didn’t miss a beat. “Yes. School is good,” he said sagely. “You can play with trucks.”
“I do like trucks.”
“Dinosaurs drive them.”
“They sure do. Thanks, Jack,” he said, and grabbed a paper towel to wipe the sour cream off the kid’s face.
After dinner Eileen took her turn with Jack while Sam got some work done at the kitchen table. Dean washed the dishes, replaying the conversation he’d had with Missouri in his head. I’m sure if you asked your brother about it, he’d agree with me.
“Beer?” Dean offered, when he was done.
Sam looked up from his papers, blinking out of a haze. “Yeah. Sure.”
Dean opened the fridge and grabbed a couple bottles, popping their caps off with one of his old rings. He set Sam’s down within easy reach, then circled the table to sling himself down sideways across from him, stretching his legs out. He took a long drink of his own beer, and watched as Sam read through more of his work. Dean didn’t really understand why someone would knowingly walk into a job that practically required you to live and breathe it at the expense of most other things. But then, Sammy had always been one to study hard, do all his homework, and ask for more, if the teacher was willing to give it. That’s what Dean had meant, when he told Missouri that Sam was made for a different world than him. Sam loved the work, understood it, thrived on it. Why would she tell him to ask Sam about it, when it was so damn obvious?
“Do anything interesting today?” asked Sam. “You were pretty quiet at dinner.” He set one stack of papers aside and took a long slug from his beer bottle.
“Went down to Maple Hills.”
Sam’s attention sharpened at that. “Doesn’t Dr. Moseley teach there?”
“Yep,” he answered, popping the end of the word. He shifted in his chair to face his brother, drawing his legs in under the table. “She thought I might want to, I don’t know. Take a class.”
Sam brightened, sitting up straight, whatever lawyerly problem his brain had been working on lifted from his shoulders. “You want to go back to school? That’s great!”
“No, hell no. Just one class. Auditing.”
“Oh. That’s good too. For…?” Sam’s face did some gymnastics.
Dean rolled his eyes. “Poetry. You can say it.”
“Like a workshop?”
“No,” Dean mumbled. “Just some literature class with some professor she recommended.”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“What’s there to be excited about?” Dean lifted his beer, elbows on the table, and stared into it. “A thirty-two-year-old undergrad. Pathetic.”
“Come on, Dean,” said Sam, like he was being overdramatic.
“Don’t pretend it’s not weird,” Dean snapped. “It’s not just the age thing. I’ve never belonged in college class, not now, and not ever. I’m not cut out for it. College is your world. Eileen’s. Not mine.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Sam, in his bitchy little brother voice. “Let’s set aside the fact that you have published collections of poetry which makes you more than qualified to talk about literature from a higher level. We come from the same background. What makes me belong there and not you?”
“It’s not where we came from. It’s who we are. You’re a genius and I’m not.”
“That’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Bobby and Rufus talk about their glory days. You think people get into college based on IQs?”
“Isn’t that what the SAT is, or whatever?”
Sam snorted and swigged his beer, shoving all his papers and folders aside. He slumped back in his chair, shaking his head. “The SAT tests how good you are at taking tests, and not much else, honestly. Dean, I got into a good school because that was my priority for years. I made a conscious decision to aim for one, figured out what I needed to get there, and then I continued making the decisions I needed to make. I may have been a mathlete and it was a good challenge but I wasn’t in it for fun.”
“Yeah, because being a genius is a conscious decision.”
“I’m not a genius.”
“Yeah you are.”
Sam gave him a sharp smile. “I almost flunked out of grade school.”
That stopped Dean cold. He wracked his brains, trying to remember this happening, but couldn’t. Sammy always used to come home to Dean, waving his good grades proudly as he walked in the door, smacking Dean’s hand away as he ruffled his hair and told him good job. But he’d smile, puff out his chest, be happy. “You did not.”
“Heh,” breathed Sam. He ran a hand through his hair and looked over at the arch that led into the family room. A children’s show could faintly be heard playing on the TV. “Let’s see. Our education was already spotty because of the way Dad moved us around, I could never make any friends, and just when Sioux Falls was looking like somewhere we could stay, my brother was dropping out and splitting his time between Sioux Falls and Lawrence to take care of our sick father who didn’t deserve it, and you really think school would have been my priority unless I made it my priority?”
Dean felt his stomach dropping out from under him with every word, his world rewriting itself, his old instinct to protect Sam at any cost rearing its head. He squeezed the beer bottle in his hand. “Why didn’t—why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve helped you, I would’ve—”
“What? Would have what, Dean? Dad was already your burden. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be another.” He swallowed some beer, half-defiant, half-resigned.
“You’re not a burden,” Dean said sharply.
Sam shook his head. “I didn’t see the point anyway. School was just something I had to get through like every other kid. I just had to hang on long enough to drop out and go with you.”
“Jesus.” What a shitty big brother Dean had been. How had he not noticed? “And the Singers?”
“Hid it from them, too.” Sam shrugged. “But then…a teacher saw me. Mr. Wyatt, eighth grade English.” He smiled briefly. “We had to write about our lives, but what was there to write about? Instead I wrote how we were monster hunters who went around the country, like we used to pretend when reading the Carver Edlund books, remember?”
“Yeah,” Dean croaked. He cleared his throat. “I remember.”
“Right, so. He pulled me aside. Thought I was going to get told off, but he said he liked it. Asked what I wanted.” Sam sat forward, curling himself above the table. “I didn’t say it in so many words, but I think he figured out I just wanted to escape my lot in life.” He laughed a little. “Must have been obvious, thinking back on it now. Anyway, he made a pretty compelling case for higher education as an avenue out.” Sam looked around at his and Eileen’s modest, but nice, safe home. “He wasn’t wrong.”
“So you…don’t…like studying?”
“I like it if it’s something that interests me. That’s the same for anybody, though. These days, no matter what the subject, I’m really, really good at it. From practice. And I work hard at my job and Eileen works hard at her job because that’s how we keep what we’ve earned. The point is…if you have the opportunity, education is a powerful tool. But to get out of it what you need, you have to know what you want.” He eyed Dean earnestly, as if he could read his desires on his face.
Between the revelation he’d just had, seeing Missouri again, and uprooting himself from Lawrence, Dean could barely tell up from down anymore. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Well,” said Sam, with that note of caution that Dean hated. He didn’t need the fucking kid gloves. “You moved up here for a reason, didn’t you? Maybe it’s to figure out what you want. And if Dr. Moseley thinks taking this class will help you, isn’t that a chance worth taking?”
Dean said nothing. Just stared at his beer.
“At least take some time to think about it. Please?” Sam’s eyes grew three damn sizes. Damn puppy look. Little bastard had that figured out from a very young age.
It was as effective as ever. Dean sighed. “Okay, Sammy.”
His brother grinned in victory. “It’s Sam.” He kicked Dean under the table. “Jerk.”
Chapter 2: Juvenilia
Dean thought about it.
He watched Signing Time videos with Jack, who each day was becoming more and more of a hilarious little dude. He learned how to make the perfect Irish coffee from Eileen, whose whiskey knowledge probably rivaled Bobby’s. He took Baby out for frequent drives, getting a feel for the town and the terrain. He hung out with Sam, and couldn’t believe how much it hurt to realize how little boyishness he had left in him, the roundness in his face now in clean adult lines. Dean basked in his presence, starved for it after years of growing up in each other’s pockets, then long years stretched painful without him. Re-learning his brother was like worrying a wound he never knew he had. In night, lying in bed, sleep far away, he considered texting Charlie for advice. Didn’t.
And what kind of life did he lead now, that he couldn’t even bring himself to talk to his best friend?
The summer Dean wrote his first poem he was sixteen and forced to spend several hours a day the whole summer in remedial English with the other delinquents, and the odd overachiever looking to knock out of high school early.
Nothing was going right. His dad had been gone most of the school year, leaving Dean and his little brother Sam for longer and longer stretches of time. Colorado one day, Virginia the next. Two weeks before Christmas he was off to the Texas oil fields, where he absolutely would not take his boys. He dropped them off at the Singers’, and said adios.
Sam and Dean adored the Singers, at least; between Bobby’s scrapyard and Karen’s job as an elementary school teacher they didn’t have much, but they were always generous with the Winchester boys. The four of them were able to scrape together something like a normal holiday, and in January Dean got a birthday pie for the first time in several years. But all of that was tainted by what came soon after: Karen’s doctor informed them her cancer, the very thing that had prevented her from having her own children, had returned. Chemo needed to start up again right away. Dean stepped up at the scrapyard, doing what he could so Bobby could spend more of his time supporting Karen.
School had never seemed less important, not that the effort ever was worth much when they rarely stuck around for more than a few months. Who gives a shit about worksheets when your family’s on the line? Besides, Dean hadn’t made any friends in the past year, the weird kid with holes in his pants and soles peeling from his shoes, who hasn’t hit his growth spurt, drowning in the leather jacket whose shoulders were far too broad. (Sometimes, when he stuck his nose in the collar and breathed deep, he could catch a hint of his dad’s aftershave.)
In short, he was lucky that English was the only class he failed.
He might not have even bothered with summer school, might have dropped out altogether if Sam and Bobby hadn’t gotten on his ass, or if he hadn’t seen the devastated look on Karen’s face: like it was worse news than her own diagnosis, or like his failure as a student was hers as a teacher.
So he scrubbed his face that first morning, put on a ratty band t-shirt and worn jeans, hopped into the clunker of a car Bobby had helped him fix up, and strolled in a little before 8am to find a teacher he didn’t recognize from the past school year. She smiled at him and said an even “Good morning,” and that’s how Dean met Missouri Moseley.
He wasn’t fooled by that smile, though, and was resigned as he hunkered down at the back of the room, because Dean knew the type. Her eyes were sharp behind that smile, and when the bell rang and she stood to introduce herself as Dr. Moseley, a silent sigh rippled through the room, because the other schmucks knew as well as Dean that in the case of this teacher, this class was going to be no summer school skate.
“What are you doing back slumming it with us, Moseley?” called one of the kids, Krissy, Dean thought. He was pretty sure she had a deadbeat dad problem like he and Sam did. “Aren’t you over at USD now, or something?”
“It might surprise you to know, Miss Chambers, that the university also takes a break during the summer,” Dr. Moseley responded dryly. “And I thought I’d come see how y’all were doing.”
After the half-sarcastic chorus of “aw”s that she got in response, Dean realized that all over again he was the odd one out, because she was clearly a former teacher and they all knew who she was. Perfect.
As if she could read his thoughts, Dr. Moseley set her gaze on him. “I thought I had a couple new names on my roster. You must be Dean Winchester.”
“Yup. Dean. That’s me,” he said, flashing a cocky smile to cover his blush. Thankfully the only people in the class concerned with what others thought of them were the goodie two shoes type, and so he heard none of the insults he’d gotten used to hearing over the past year. A droop-shouldered girl with lank red hair didn’t even bother looking up.
“And you must be Celeste?” asked the teacher.
“Charlie,” the redhead corrected immediately, jumping on the end of the question.
“Charlie, then. It’s good to meet you both. Now I’m going to tell you all a little bit about how I’m going to run this class. Every morning you will spend a half an hour at the beginning of class writing in your notebooks.”
A loud groan went up among the students. “About what,” someone grumbled.
“Whatever you like,” she said. “I don’t care. Write about the movie you watched last night, or the video game you’re playing, or what you saw on your walk to school this morning. Or you can talk about your hopes and dreams. Your worries. I’m happy to read anything you have to say.”
“Wait,” complained another kid, “you’re actually going to read it?”
She raised her eyebrows and fixed him with a stare. “Yes I am. How else do you expect me to know you did the work?”
“Sounds like a stupid college assignment to me,” said Krissy. “Some of us aren’t college material.”
“Speak for yourself,” snapped Josephine. Definitely one of the ones getting her credits out of the way early, then.
Dr. Moseley held up a hand. “If you don’t go to college that will be a decision you make for other reasons, but it won’t be because you’re not capable.”
Dean snorted, a little louder than he meant to.
The teacher turned her sharp gaze onto him. “That goes for all of you. Now sophomore English is American Literature in this district, so we’ll spend most of today with an overview. But first—notebooks out.”
Grudgingly the students grabbed notebooks from their backpacks and slapped them onto their desks. Dean hadn’t bothered buying a new one for the class, simply reusing his most recent one from the last school year, a blue spiral worn white at the edges from being banged around for so long, as opposed to any actual usage. Only the first couple pages had anything written on them, and even then, there were mostly doodles. To buy a little time he carefully ripped them out and crumbled them into balls. Then he dropped his head into his hand and tapped his pencil. Surreptitiously he glanced around at the people nearby. About half were writing furiously, and others were putting down a few words before pausing, thinking hard, and putting down a few more. The redhead was slowly moving her pen in arcs that spoke distinctly of drawing, not writing.
God, a half hour of this? Was there anything in Dean’s life he could talk about for half an hour, and to a stranger, no less?
A glance out the window proved that the day was sunny and cloud-free. If his summer had gone as planned, his free time outside work would have been spent on the Impala. It was Dad’s car, and after Mom died it became their home. Dad bounced from job to job hopping their family from town to town, and sunk into drunkenness while the car sunk into disrepair. That’s how they met Bobby and Karen in the first place; the scrapyard was the closest to them when they needed a part the most and, as Karen would say, John and Bobby spoke fluent car to each other. They shared a similar appreciation for both form and function, they discovered, and after that the Singers became a regular stop on their cross-country trips.
But as time went on, John did less and less maintenance, and Dean could only do so much. Before Dad had left them last summer, to Dean’s horror he’d sold it to Bobby in exchange for a used but much newer truck. And now how was Dean ever supposed to get it back from Bobby if he was stuck here and not learning anything actually useful?
After an interminable couple of hours talking about Anne Bradstreet and Nathaniel Hawthorne and fucking Puritans, lunch finally rolled around. When he got to the commons he took one look and turned on his heel. It was probably less than half full, seeing as it was during the summer, but something about the noise bouncing off of the walls, the laughter and the shouting, struck him the wrong way.
He sighed and wandered outside toward the bleachers. Ash and Aaron had already made a home for themselves beneath them, and looked relaxed and ready, like the rest of the day, the entire week could wash on by and it would be all the same to them. Dean hesitated. They’d let him bum the odd hit before during the course of the year, and he could really use something to dull him. In a different way from English being dull.
On the other hand, Dr. Moseley gave the impression that not much got past her, and the disappointment that Bobby and Karen would feel…and it was definitely not an example he wanted to set for Sam.
He stood in the bleachers’ shadows warring with himself until he noticed Charlie sitting on top of them, looking even more hunched over, if that was possible. No real decision was made: his feet were moving and then he was hopping up step by step all the way to the top to join her. She couldn’t have missed his approach, but she didn’t spare a glance at him.
Dean sat a respectful distance away, only just close enough they might still be construed as sitting together. The metal was warm and sticky under the afternoon sun. “Hey,” he said.
Her red hair was hanging in her face, but he could just see an eye through the limp strands. Apparently coming to the conclusion he meant no harm, she answered “Hey,” but nothing else.
Dean shrugged and dug into his ratty old backpack for the sandwich he’d made himself that morning. Ham and cheese, nothing fancy. He heard a crunch and looked over at Charlie. She was eating oreos, but from one of those small packs with just a few cookies they sell at checkouts and gas stations. He knew from sorry experience that between the oreos and the 20oz Mountain Dew sitting at her feet, she’d have energy for an hour, then crash. No way that was going to see her through the rest of the day in good shape. She was nibbling instead of taking real bites, too. Making them last.
Dean looked down at his sandwich, lumpy and squished, but far more filling. “Man, I should have brought dessert. I’ll trade you half my sandwich for half your cookies.” Sammy liked his sandwiches cut diagonally, and so Dean had done the same to his own lunch that morning without thinking, and now he was grateful. He peeled the plastic wrap from the top without touching the food, and held it out to her in offering.
She looked at it for a moment, then looked up at him. He did his best to keep his expression as guileless as possible, so she felt no pressure. Or shame.
At last she shrugged and offered her cookie packet. “Knock yourself out.” The goods exchanged, they both wolfed down their sandwich half, looking at the field spread before them and the poor schmucks in summer gym running paltry laps around the edges.
“As boring as the rest of our day’s gonna be,” said Dean, “at least we’re not down there.”
“I’ll toast to that,” Charlie said, and solemnly lifted her pop bottle in honor of the suffering students below.
The summer tripped along. In class they slogged through a half hour of writing every day, then trudged through the discussions of The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick. Dean and Charlie hadn’t quite become friends, but had reached an amiable understanding in which half her small gas station fare was traded for half of Dean’s sandwich or leftovers (and if Dean was being more generous in the food he packed himself, well, no one had to know).
It wasn’t until Dr. Moseley assigned Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that he paid a little more attention in class. Ostensibly he and Sam were named after their maternal grandparents, but the much thumbed-through copy of the novel with Mary Campbell’s name written in the upper corner of the title page proved that his mother had a fondness for the name Dean regardless of her mother Deanna. He hadn’t read it for some years. Something always held him back; whether it was self-preservation or fear, he didn’t rightly know. He considered not reading it now either, but there was really nowhere to hide in a summer school class with Missouri Moseley. In the end he didn’t bother grabbing the school-provided copy, instead unearthing his mother’s book from the small box in the corner of the room Sam and Dean shared at the Singers’. He only got as far as the first page, though. Seeing his mother’s name written in a messy hand—had she been Dean’s age at the time?—overwhelmed him as swiftly and powerfully as a summer storm. He shoved the book in his backpack and figured he could get away with one day’s ignorance.
The next morning, it was the opinions vacillating between dislike and indifference that finally tipped the scales. It made him angry to hear them talk that way about his mother’s treasured book, and even angrier that he didn’t know what to say to prove them wrong. At lunch break he finished off the handful of cheetos that were Charlie’s contribution to his meal, licked his fingers scrupulously clean, and reached into his bag for the book. He sighed, tracing the edges of the decades-old edition, black with blocky white text, and a small square of an abstract cityscape of reds and blues. The edges were all worn white, the pages brown and dog-eared. It didn’t have a school stamp, so he wondered if she had bought it herself, maybe used. Maybe hidden from her parents? It was literature for rebels, right? And now look. It was in a school curriculum.
“Where’s that copy from?” asked Charlie.
Dean looked up in surprise. They did such a good job of minding their own business, rarely talking more than it took to exchange food and complain about homework, that Dean hadn’t really expected to be noticed. Now her light eyes were bright with interest in her thin face, and no hint of ridicule. He couldn’t bring himself to brush her off.
Dean bit his lip. “It was my mom’s. Her favorite.”
“Oh,” she said, her eyes going wide for a moment before she looked down at the gym kids playing a surprisingly intense round of kickball in the summer heat. Their shouts seemed far away. When she glanced back at Dean she gave him half a smile. “My mom’s favorite book was The Hobbit.”
Past tense, too. He smiled back at her, small, and they shared a moment of understanding. Dean cleared his throat. “The Hobbit, that was written by the same guy as Lord of the Rings, right?”
“J.R.R. Tolkien,” she answered brightly. “You haven’t read it?”
“Nah,” he shrugged. “I keep meaning to because Led Zeppelin references it a lot. But it’s pretty long.”
“The Hobbit is shorter, and it takes place first, so if you start there maybe you’ll like it?”
“And I don’t know a lot about Led Zeppelin, though, you wear a lot of shirts for them so you must really like them?”
Dean had the sneaking suspicion that when Charlie felt comfortable she was a bit of a talker. It was kinda fun hearing her open up. “Yeah, they’re awesome. You should track down their albums sometime.”
“I will,” she said. “Tolkien’s one of my favorites too so that’s really cool that a famous band references him, I had no idea. What about you, is Kerouac one of your favorites?”
Dean looked back at his worn copy of On the Road, so long untouched, and thought of the snide comments of their classmates. He shrugged, and braced himself for prying questions.
Instead of pestering him, though, Charlie dug through her threadbare satchel for her school-issued copy. “I haven’t started it yet because I’ve read some things people have said about Kerouac…but if your mom loved it, must be worth reading, right? Since we’re both behind, want to keep track and help each other catch up?”
Of a sudden Dean was overcome by a wave of immense gratitude for Charlie. They barely knew each other, but her empathy and kindness about this little thing, that from the outside must look so trivial—it gave him the final push he needed not having to go it alone. He swallowed the swell of emotion. “O-okay.”
Her smile widened, and for the first time Dean saw she was capable of being sunny. “Cool. Shall we?”
They opened their book covers together and fell into a companionable silence as they jumped headfirst into Jack Kerouac’s untamed prose.
They found themselves reading the next day’s pages together every lunch period over the week. One day when it was raining, they sat together in an empty hallway, a dead end in a far corner of the school, legs stretched long in front of them on the industrial carpet. Rain pounded at the window above their heads.
“Ugh!” groaned Charlie.
“Hm? What?” said Dean, surfacing from the book.
“I’m pretty sure this guy had no idea that women are fully rounded people.”
“He likes girls.”
“Dean,” she said, exasperated. “Name me one female character he paints with as much poetry and understanding as he does any of his friends. Who are all dudes.”
He narrowed his eyes, about to point out that “friends” doesn’t exclude girls, when his mental rolodex flipped through all the characters and came up empty. “Oh,” he said, looking down at the book with something like betrayal. “He is kinda…dismissive.”
He looked back at her, half-torn between apologizing and getting defensive, because the guy had his issues but Dean was still enjoying the book. His mom’s book. “You don’t like it, then?”
The indignation deflated from her. “Uh…now might not be a good time to ask, when I mostly just want to give him a piece of my mind. But, uh…maybe it would help if you told me what you like about it?”
He knew she was trying to spare his feelings, which was ridiculous because her criticism was spot on, but also this book really felt like it was speaking directly to his soul, and what did that say about him?
Charlie elbowed him. “Honest question. Tell me.”
“I can’t, you know, I don’t know my way round words like he does. He has a way of writing I’ve never read before, what did Doc call it?”
“Stream of consciousness.”
“Right. It’s so full of color, like it feels so rich, and when he describes being on the road…how it’s spiritual, sometimes like pilgrimage and prayer, sometimes like everyone you pass is a ghost, or that you’re the ghost, how it’s like you’re searching for something or how you’re home at the same time. It’s just…it’s the truest thing I’ve ever read.”
He chanced a look at Charlie, thinking maybe she’d be rolling her eyes, but she looked like she was listening. Like really listening. “You know about being on the road?”
Dean shrugged, flipping his book’s pages repeatedly with his thumb, thwip thwip. “Mom died when I was pretty young,” he said quietly. “My dad, uh, took it hard. We started moving around from place to place, wherever he could get a job. Sometimes I don’t even think it was that, though, you know? Like he was searching for something. And me and my little brother were along for the ride.”
“You have a brother?”
“Yeah. Sammy. Twelve years old and already a genius,” he couldn’t help but brag.
“Twelve, huh? What’s he getting up to while you’re here?”
“Soccer, sometimes. Mostly he’s helping out the Singers, though, because—” He cut himself off, suddenly mindful of oversharing. “Family friends, who we’re staying with. Good people.”
After a beat, uncertain, Charlie asked, “Not your dad?”
Dean lifted a shoulder. “Nah. He’s in Texas. I think.” He didn’t look at her. Didn’t want to see the pity.
But all she said was, “I’m glad you’ve got your brother.”
Dean did look up then. It wasn’t just what she said, but because of some kind of pain that was lurking behind the words. She’d discarded her book and was hunched over, legs folded, picking at her old red converse where the fabric was detaching from the sole. She took a sharp breath in. “My parents are dead.”
The words thumped against his chest like a weight, squeezing his ribs tight. He ached for her. Didn’t know what to say except, “No annoying little brothers, huh?” Because he knew ‘sorry’ was in no way gonna cut it.
“Nope,” she said. “No other family either. This is my fifth foster home since then.”
Dean was swept with a wave of anger, and could only just barely keep his mouth shut about the food she was probably shoplifting from the gas station, which would break their implicit agreement. Who the hell signs up to be foster parents and doesn’t even feed the damn kid? Sure, Dean went without sometimes, but he moved the world to make sure Sammy stayed fed whenever Dad came up empty. Fed his dad, too, for that matter. And Bobby and Karen didn’t have much, but they did their best and never made excuses. Dean couldn’t imagine not having his dad, his brother, and the Singers in his life.
He and Charlie still didn’t know each other, not really, but somehow they had shared some of the darkest shadows in their hearts to each other, and even if Dean never saw her again, he knew for that alone he would remember her forever.
Since he didn’t have the words, not to express all the anger, or the wonder, or the permanent little spot she’d just won herself in his heart, and there was no way to comfort a grieving child aside from just being there, he took out the last container in his backpack, which he’d been saving himself as a reward for getting through another week of summer school. “Do you, um…”
Charlie hurriedly wiped away a tear.
Dean dutifully ignored it. “Karen made this. Mrs. Singer. Who we’re living with. Never lasts long in our house, so I saved a piece before it disappeared. You like apple pie?”
A tentative smile stretched the corners of her mouth, ever so slightly. “Yeah.”
“Awesome,” he said, and dug through his bag again. A life on the road meant you never know when or where you’re going to end up eating, so he’d long ago made the habit of grabbing plastic silverware packets from food joints. He handed one to Charlie and opened another for himself. Without another word they cracked open the old tupperware, and Charlie ate half of Dean’s pie without knowing what it cost him—though he hoped that, maybe, she got the gist.
The next week they finished the book and Dr. Moseley led the wrap-up discussion. She wasn’t like any other teacher Dean had ever had in that she never stood there and told you how to interpret something, that there was one correct way to read something, and that was it. She’d guide them, point them toward certain details, ask how this line or that fit into what someone was saying, but never dictated from on high.
Neither Dean nor Charlie said anything in class unless called upon. Even then, they didn’t say all that much. But it was almost more than it was worth when Ed started going off about Jack Kerouac, and going on road trips.
“Those were the days, man,” he said. “When a guy could just hop in a car and do whatever he wanted. A car, a destination, and a girl, in that order.”
“So true,” said Harry, his buddy. “And now where are we? Gotta go to school, get a degree, but someone expresses himself, paints a few di—penises on the bathroom wall, and suddenly I’m the bad guy?”
Is that really all there was to it? Dean wondered. Nothing of the journey, just…delinquency? He’d had his fair share of teachers and principals look down their noses at him. When they saw his ill-fitting clothes, his leather jacket, his rock shirts, his cocky smile—is this funhouse mirror version Ed and Harry described all they saw? Is that all the world would ever see of him?
The class tittered, most in agreement, only a couple people quiet, bored out of their minds. He swallowed and looked down at his book, his mother’s well worn copy, and wondered if it was a lie, if he’d just misunderstood, or even if he’d completely misremembered his own mother.
“You’re wrong,” said Charlie. Dean snapped his head up, and so did everyone else at the command in her voice, she who’d only ever mumbled answers when called upon.
Ed and Harry looked at each other and scoffed. “What do you know about it?” they asked.
“I’ve read the whole book, for one,” she retorted. “And if you’d maybe paid attention instead of reading it to justify the way you guys strut around, then yeah, he’s got mommy issues out the wazoo and has zero idea how to treat women like human beings, but he’s really not the worst we’ve read in this class, you know? He’s treating this as a” —she peeked at Dean— “spiritual journey, to better himself, better understand himself. The entire thing is framed as a secular pilgrimage, not to mention the frank aftermath of the worst aspects of the lifestyle in Dean’s inability to even talk at the end. I mean, do you really think that’s a ringing endorsement for dick drawing?”
“Sorry, Dr. Moseley,” she said, but not at all meekly. “I’m just saying that the book is a journey about making some honest sense of life. Looking for meaning outside your own little world. Maybe you should try it.”
Ed and Harry sneered, but in that way that couldn’t quite hide the fact they were uncomfortable and didn’t have a comeback. After a moment of silence, Dr. Moseley said, “That’s an impassioned response. Can you share a passage to support your position?”
Unfazed by the request, Charlie glanced at her notes and called out a page as if…as if she’d been looking for all those things Dean had told her about. Like she’d remembered what he’d said about ghosts and pilgrims and even though she didn’t like the book she put the effort in. For his sake. And just now, defending him in class though she usually said nothing…?
It was so long since he’d bothered making friends, but maybe he’d gone and made a friend without knowing it.
When the final bell rang and everyone leapt from their chairs without so much as a glance at their teacher—and usually Dean would be right with them—he dawdled because Charlie did. She shoved her many pens into her threadworn bag covered in the types of patches you get from gumball machines in restaurant lobbies for a quarter. Dean walked casually out the door, hands in pockets, and leaned on the lockers across the hall. Through the door he saw Dr. Moseley look up from her desk to smile at Charlie. “You made some great points today,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to speak up a little more, hm?”
Charlie ducked her head, lanky hair hiding her blush. “Thanks,” she mumbled, but still had a pleased air about her as she left the room.
“Hey,” Dean said.
She stopped and raised her eyebrows in question. He nodded his head down the hallway; she shrugged in agreement and they walked to the exit together. The post-summer school rush was already almost dispersed, and by the time they reached the sidewalk outside there were only a few groups of kids scattered across the parking lot, straddling bikes and circled around the trunks of people’s cars.
“Well,” said Charlie, who walked home, “see you next week.”
“Yeah, um, unless…”
She raised her eyebrows.
He screwed up his courage. It would all be so much easier if he just wanted to kiss her. But it wasn’t like that. He didn’t want to pull her into the science closet and make out. He just wanted a friend. Why was that so hard? Why did it feel so much more vulnerable? “Thank you. For what you said in there.”
“Those assholes deserved it. You should have heard the way they were arguing about Maggie earlier, it was gross.”
“Heh, I bet.” He buried his hands in his pockets again and looked across the parking lot, unseeing. “Look, uh. I’m making dinner tonight. Spaghetti and meatballs, if you’re interested.”
She immediately looked stricken, like she was battling how to let him down easy.
He saved her the trouble, trying to squash the hurt rising up inside him. “Cool, no dinner. A ride home?” Her eyes grew wider. “Or not. Sorry.” He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and strode toward the clunker he was borrowing from Bobby, well across the lot. You’re so fucking stupid.
“Dean! Wait!” Charlie jogged up and grabbed his elbow. He stopped and let her turn him around. “I like you, but just as a friend, okay?”
“Yeah, Charlie, that’s cool.”
“No, I mean, there’s no chance I’ll be changing my mind.”
She heaved an irritated sigh and squared her shoulders, fire sparking in her eyes. “I’m a lesbian.”
“Um,” said Dean. His experience with gay people didn’t really go past an odd couple here or there late night at a diner, or that one time he snuck into a bar without realizing it was a drag performance night. No one had ever come out to him before. Was there a protocol? “Congratulations?”
“Oh,” she said, hackles lowering. “Thanks.” Then a lightbulb went off. “Oh god. You weren’t even asking me out.”
“Oh,” he echoed, their exchange suddenly making a lot more sense. “Nope. I just thought maybe you wanted to hang out since it’s the weekend. You could meet the Singers and my little brother. I think you’d like him.”
“I’m sure I will! Sorry, I just…I haven’t made a new friend in a long time, and I thought of course he doesn’t actually like me for me.”
“You named yourself after Ray Bradbury, of course I like you for you.” They laughed and smiled a little awkwardly at each other. “I’m, uh, I’m not swimming in friends either, you know?”
She spread her arms. “Well I love spaghetti! But…I won’t be intruding?”
“Not a chance.”
His prediction was right. Charlie and Sam took a shine to each other, and she recommended him the Harry Potter books, an unfinished ongoing series, which Sammy immediately made a note to find at the library. Bobby and Karen were more than happy to set another place at the table. Karen joined in on the book conversation while Bobby and Dean finished up dinner. It was a cheerful meal after Charlie got over her initial shyness, Dean’s little family coaxing out that sunny disposition she had hiding inside. She looked even happier when Sam challenged her to a game on the used Nintendo 64 Bobby and Karen had scrounged up for him and Dean at Christmas. While she was occupied Dean jumped at the chance to tell Bobby he could take care of the scrapyard over the weekend, even though he was supposed to be the one to take Karen to chemo. It was an argument Dean usually won when it came up. He was willing to do a lot, but the hospital…being surrounded by the evidence that his aunt in all but blood might be dying…he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.
When Dean finally drove Charlie home later that night, she curled her fingers around the car door handle, but hesitated. “My mom didn’t die right away in the car crash.”
The clunker wheezed as it idled, like Dean’s brain tripping over the abrupt topic change. “What?”
Charlie bit her lip, staring unseeing at the dash. “She was in a coma for two months before insurance stopped paying and I was sent away to foster care. I used to go to the hospital, would sneak away to visit her whenever I could. Even though I didn’t have anything to say. I’d read her The Hobbit.” She gave him a quick smile, eyes shining. “It was really, really hard. Some of the worst moments of my life. But I don’t regret a single second of it.” Then she looked him fully in the face. “Once she was gone, I would have done anything to have more time.”
She’d overheard the discussion, then, about who was going to accompany Karen to her chemotherapy session the next day. He swallowed and nodded.
“Goodnight, Dean. See you Monday.”
“Night,” he croaked, and waited until she was safely inside.
The next morning Dean was the last to wake up, having tossed and turned all night, Charlie’s words running circles in his head. She was right—he hated the hospital, but when he examined the memories of his mother dying, his only regret was that he couldn’t have done more. If Karen—if the worst—if he didn’t do his part, he’d regret it forever.
Over breakfast he casually cleared his throat. “I was thinking about the backlog, Bobby. You’re probably right. If you’re okay with it Karen, I’ll keep you company today?”
He shyly peeked at her as he busied himself with his toast. She was smiling bright enough to lift the pallor from her face. “I’d like that.”
An hour later found Karen hooked up to her chemo. Sure, the hospital had the pleasant odor of warm death sprayed over with lysol, but he did his best to ignore it. Both of them settled down with a book. She was reading a slim volume called Wit, and Dean was rereading On the Road. They were content to sit and read until Dean noticed that when Karen finished, she just started all over again.
“Um, do you wanna switch?” Dean asked, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled between them. He wiggled his book in invitation.
“Thank you, Dean, but this is the headspace I’m in right now.”
“What do you mean?”
She lowered the book and gave him a thoughtful look. “Have you heard of this?”
He studied the cover more closely; there was a middle-aged woman on the front cover, wearing a hospital gown and a baseball cap. And now that he was looking, he realized the title was actually spelled W;t. “Not a clue.”
“They don’t read plays in high school English anymore, huh?”
“Shakespeare. Death of a Salesman. Pretty sure I've read The Crucible three times in three different states.”
Karen chuckled and smiled down at the cover. “This play won a Pulitzer, and the playwright’s a teacher, an elementary school teacher like me. And Vivian, the main character, is a college professor specializing in metaphysical poetry.”
“What the hell is that?”
“A type of poetry from the 1600s. John Donne was the most famous practitioner…Hm, let’s see. You know the Metallica song, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’?”
“Sure, based on a Hemingway book. Had to read that for a class once. Well. I was supposed to read that…”
She thwapped his arm gently with the book in reprimand. She didn’t hide her amusement, though. “Do your homework, Dean. Anyway, Hemingway got his title from John Donne’s prose. He’s pretty easy to find if you know where to look.”
“Okay, cool. So what’s up with this Vivian? What’s the story about?”
“Her name is Professor Vivian Bearing, and she has stage four metastatic ovarian cancer.”
Dean felt his eyes grow wide. Why would someone suffering from a disease want to read about an even worse diagnosis of it?
Before he could stutter out a response, Karen giggled a bit and squeezed his hand. “It’s alright. I like how she talks about it. She’s all about words, and poetry. The story is about the interplay between science and art, words that keep the uninitiated at bay, and the use of poetry as philosophy. The centerpiece is a poem by John Donne, ‘Death Be Not Proud.’ Do you know it?”
“Must have missed that between Florida and Oregon.”
She smiled at his humor, then leaned toward him, holding out a certain page of the book. Dean scooched over, and they put their heads together. She pointed to the poem.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
“What do you get from it?” Karen asked.
Dean shrugged, but almost like a vision he saw Dr. Moseley’s unimpressed face, the way she knew you could do better. The way she made it safe to think out loud, and talk about things. Besides, Karen was the one who was actually sick. Dean could give her the courtesy of thinking about the nature of death with her. He leaned back in and reread it. “I mean, saying that death will die sounds like religious eternal life stuff. Seems pretty confident.”
“Well he was a preacher,” Karen acknowledged. “But what if you read this bit of dialogue about it?”
He looked where her finger was pointing, the brittle nail tapping near the bottom of the page.
Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
Dean blinked. “Never really thought of punctuation as being important before.”
“Of course it is. Writing is about communicating your idea, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been getting grammar shoved down my throat my entire life, and not one person has ever said to me that the difference between a semicolon and a comma is a breath between life and death.”
“You know,” Karen said, half sighing as she settled back in her chair, “I use a lot of poetry teaching elementary school. Dr. Seuss. Shel Silverstein. Chicka chicka boom boom.” They shared a grin. “There’s something about poetry that people respond to, whether they understand the mechanics or not. Fairy tales use poetics, too. Not just when they have poetry, but in the prose itself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what’s the difference between a red rose, and a red, red rose?”
“I—” Dean stopped. He had literally never wondered this before. It just was. “It’s—deeper? A richer color?”
“I think so too. An important use of repetition.” She paused, closed the book, and offered it to him. “Still up for that switch?”
Dean considered it. Plays and poetry had never really caught his interest before, but like it was on a loop his brain said Red, red rose. Red, red rose. Death shall be no more— And he handed over his Kerouac.
An hour later, Karen kindly said nothing as tears poured down his face, and Vivian walked bravely into the light, conquering death the only way we can.
But she did hold his hand.
The play was never far from his thoughts the rest of the weekend. Because they’d moved around so much as kids, neither he nor Sam had had many people, and so when they weren’t doing something together, they were reading. Neither of them were particularly picky, but they’d developed favorites over the years: Sam, adventure tales with the greatest heroes like Galahad, and more recently grim murder mysteries with high body counts. For Dean, it was fantasy and dystopia and horror. And On the Road. But this was different. It was weird not to be able to stop thinking about it. Was there something more to all this, that filled him with the same awe as Vivian Bearing when she first learned the word ‘soporific?’
He thought of the music he liked. He loved a good rock song, about music and women and beer but what he really loved…Was Led Zeppelin poetry? And it wasn’t weird for a guy to be into poetry, was it? If the rock gods wrote lyrics, if it was good enough for Plant and Bowie and Queen, was it good enough for him?
That Monday when he got to school, Charlie was already in her seat. She looked up at him and smiled.
“Hey. Good weekend?” asked Dean.
She shrugged. “Finished a book. You?”
“Me too. A play, actually. Karen lent it to me. We were reading together at the hospital.”
Her face brightened considerably, and he knew she understood. “How is she?”
“About the same. Doing what she can.”
That’s all they had time for before Dr. Moseley handed back their daily writing notebooks. He sighed as he looked down at the blank page, his mind just as empty. Well, not empty, empty, but empty of words. Just feelings, images. The smell of the hospital, Karen’s pale face, Bobby stroking his beard, the aged, knowing look in Sammy’s eyes. Charlie’s tears. His mother’s hair.
Death, capital D.
“Pencils should be moving,” said Moseley mildly.
Death ain’t proud, he wrote. But he’s got power.
Wearing a dark suit and a darker glower
He drives a bone white cadillac
That should be dead for lack of gas.
He asks me if I want a ride.
I got nowhere to be. I hop inside.
When the red sun hits high noon
We pull over and park at a greasy spoon.
He eats fried pickles and I down a shake
And we both praise the fresh apple pie they bake
Still I don’t ask where my mother’s gone
Or wonder how soon it is I’ll be along.
“It ain’t easy being me,” he said,
“Shuttling across the souls of the dead,
Pulling them up from their dying bed,
And half of ‘em don’t even want to be led.
Even though you’re a young man
I figure you just might understand:
They say I’m in charge but it’s all a sham.
This ain’t personal and there ain’t no plan.”
So sons and wives and fathers die,
We cry our tears and ask god why,
But Death himself he makes no fuss,
Just wipes us off his shoulder, dust to dust.
Dean chewed his bottom lip and looked up at the clock. To his surprise it had taken almost the entire allotted writing time to get all that down. Still, there were a couple minutes left, but those thoughts, their attendant emotions, had somehow settled inside him…or were maybe released, and the words went with them. So he spent the rest of the time drawing the old Cadillac, like one he’d seen in Bobby’s scrapyard once.
After handing it in he put it out of his mind like he always did, his drivel shut away with the creak of cheap paper sliding along the spirals. When the notebooks were handed back the next day he just wanted to make sure he got the checkmark which declared he got credit—he was already suffering the indignity of summer school; he may as well get a decent grade out of it. But with some surprise and no little trepidation he saw that in addition to a big red checkmark, Dr. Moseley had written This is excellent, Dean. Please see me.
“See me?” he whispered incredulously. If it was excellent then why was he in trouble? With the scritch-scratch of pencils surrounding him he knew he had to write something, and so he defaulted back to his monster-inspired ramblings (maybe he hadn’t gotten over Carver Edlund yet, sue him) and a play-by-play description of Sam’s last soccer game.
At their ten minute morning break, he told Charlie he was going to be a sec and edged up to Dr. Moseley’s desk. “You wanted to see me?”
She smiled like she could smell his fear from across the room. “You’re not in trouble. Have a seat.”
Dean parked his butt on the front and center desk, and crossed his arms.
The doc raised her eyebrows but got up from her chair and circled the teacher’s desk, leaning against it so they were level. “I very much liked your poem. Do you write poetry often?”
Dean shook his head.
“You have a decent ear for it. Ever been in a writing class, done a workshop?”
“I’m in summer school for English,” said Dean. “Pretty sure that speaks for itself.”
“Don’t give me that. I really do read these things, you know,” she said, patting the stack of notebooks on her desk. “I don’t know why you failed last year but it has nothing to do with your understanding of the material. Are you interested in writing?”
Dean gave half a shrug, squeezed his arms tighter. “Karen, um, family friend. She showed me a poem this weekend and I couldn’t get it out of my head. That’s all.”
“Was it ‘Death Be Not Proud’?”
“You know it?”
She smiled gently. “I do. You know I got that ‘doctor’ in front of my name for studying poetry.”
“Oh yes. So know that when I tell you your poem is good, I do have a credential or two to back it up.”
Dean snorted. “You can’t possibly think that I’m anywhere as good as Shakespeare or whoever.”
“You want honesty?” He nodded. “Alright then. Your meter needs work and you have a tense shift halfway through the piece. The idea isn’t as developed in the words as I’m sure it is in your head. But. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a couple nice images, decent rhymes, and a strong voice. That’s true too. Your prose is good, Dean, I do have fun reading your monster stories. But your poem really shines. If you practice you could develop quite a skill.”
“What does it matter?” Dean said. “You either have it or you don’t, right? You told us that Kerouac wrote On the Road in one sitting.”
“He wrote the first draft in one sitting, and he was full of drugs. I don’t recommend it.” She eyed him until he nodded. “What we read for class is highly edited and half the length.”
“Art has a craft to it, just like working on cars.” She gestured toward the Led Zeppelin shirt he was wearing. “Do you think Jimmy Page learned to play guitar in a day?”
“Okay, so you have to practice, but I’m not gonna stand here and believe Jimmy Page didn’t have innate talent. I’m not a writer. I don’t have it in me.”
“I say you do. Who says you don’t?” He didn’t have an answer, just looked away. A group of kids strolled past the window on the way to the parking lot, maybe. The Doc nodded to herself. “Now I can’t offer you extra credit without giving the same opportunity to the rest of the class, so this won’t have any bearing on your grade. But I’d like for you to humor me.” She went back behind the desk and rummaged in her large bag. She drew out two small books, thin and only a few inches high. They had similar black and white covers. “I got the impression from your essay that you really liked On the Road, is that right?”
“Yeah it’s…it’s one of my favorite books.”
“Good. Well he and his friends were part of the Beat Generation. So was Allen Ginsberg—remember how Sal Paradise in the book was a stand in for Kerouac himself, and Dean Moriarty was really his best friend Neal Cassady?—Ginsberg was Carlo Marx in On the Road. He wrote poetry.” She handed him the books. One was titled Howl and the other, Kaddish. “His lines come off as very natural in his work. Conversational, stream of consciousness. But he didn’t finish his poems in a day. Sometimes it took him weeks. Even months.”
“Months? For a dumb poem?”
“Just try it. If you like it, after we read Ralph Ellison I might squeeze in some poetry and see if we can get the whole class writing. Then you can get in some practice. And if you don’t like it, what’s the harm?”
He looked down at the books. They were small enough to fit in the inner pocket of his jacket. “Yes ma’am,” he mumbled, and joined Charlie out in the hall.
He hadn’t known it then, but with the power of hindsight Dean realized that at that moment, Missouri Moseley had chosen to see him, just as Mr. Wyatt had chosen to see Sam. The result was different, perhaps, but no less life-changing. Not right away, of course. Dean’s sure Sam probably attacked his homework that same night. But Dean…
For a few days, he didn’t touch the books. There was the actual homework to half-ass, his real work helping Bobby at the yard, helping keep up the house, chipping away at the Impala, and of course finding some quality time for Sammy. But nevertheless he found himself putzing around the scrapyard that weekend. He’d taken to carrying the books around with him, slim and short enough to fit in his baggy jeans. The more he walked, the more he felt their weight tugging at his belt. When he couldn’t ignore it a second longer, he climbed into an abandoned car—the broken windows allowed for a nice cross breeze in the heat—and pulled out the one called Howl. “For Carl Solomon,” it read.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
Dean was hooked immediately because it was a howl, it was! Relentless and passionate and loud and honest in a way he’d rarely experienced. He didn’t even notice that he was reading a poem that was several pages long. He just hadn’t known you could use words like that in poetry. In the fifties, no less. Wasn’t it supposed to be all about high ideals and flowery language written so that you couldn’t understand? But this poem, he understood: mania and music and drugs and the demon Moloch, but also…solidarity with friends. The sanctity of the downtrodden. The Footnote with its orgasmic, nirvanic litany holy, holy, holy—
Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!
—the poem ripped something open inside of him, drew out his veins, and pulled the tangled strands south, planting them in the fertile soil of his first home, rooted in his family history and for the first time…
He understood what a poem could do. Really do.
Eagerly Dean devoured the rest of the collection: “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and then, in the pinking dusky sky, “Many Loves,” in which Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady—Dean was named after Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty, ladies’ man which every red-blooded American male envied—shared a bed. Oh god, they were together on a small cot. I lay there trembling, Allen wrote, and felt his great arm like a king’s. And Allen wrote, I began to tremble, he pulled me closer with his arm, and hugged me long and close. And he wrote sexual tenderness, and pressing his cock to my thigh and mine to his and my hand at his waist trembling and ass of lone delight, ass of mankind. He wrote dowry of Mind and Angels, Ass of hero, Neal Cassady.
Dean closed his eyes, trembling himself, skin rippling into bumps.
hero and brother and boy of my dreams
He’d never come across anything in which a man described another man like that. Was it possible? Could men really be more to each other than harsh impersonal touches in hidden allies and dirty pool hall bathrooms—all he’d witnessed in his years of travel, and sneaking around places he shouldn’t have been while his dad drunk himself into a stupor? And was it alright that sometimes, even though Dean really liked girls…he felt…that sometimes he felt…like how Allen must have felt when he wrote this poem? Did the real Neal Cassady like women and men both?
Was Dean really not alone?
He reread the poem, mouthed the words, tasted them, until the South Dakota summer sun disappeared behind the horizon of rusting cars, and he was called inside for dinner.
Rufus Turner and his wife Gwen had made dinner at the Singers’ that night, which had allowed Dean his brief time alone. But he barely tasted the food, mind overrun with the long phrases—and tender caresses—of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Thankfully, no one could bring out Bobby’s loud side like Rufus could, and the meal was an otherwise raucous and joyful affair. He finally got a reprieve when dinner was done, and Gwen and Karen went to talk in the study, and Sam went back to his homework while Bobby and Rufus did the dishes.
Dean slipped out onto the back porch and onto one of the old wooden chairs. He pulled out both the poetry books and bit his lip, staring down at them. Howl. Kaddish. He didn’t know if he could handle opening the former again, knowing he’d go right back to “Many Loves.” But he wasn’t quite brave enough to open the latter, either. What new unspoken truths would this one speak into being?
The back door creaked open and Dean jumped, but wasn’t quick enough to hide the books. He must have been sitting out there longer than he’d thought, because Bobby and Rufus were done cleaning up.
“Kaddish!” Rufus noticed. “A goy like you even know what that means?”
“Uh, nope,” Dean admitted.
Rufus settled down in the chair next to Dean, and Bobby in the one next to that, both with beers in their hands. “It’s a Jewish prayer praising God,” said Rufus. “Though in that case,” he nodded toward the book, “it’s specifically about praying in mourning.”
Dean’s eye went wide. “You know Allen Ginsberg?”
“You hear that, Bobby? Do I know Allen Ginsberg,” he muttered into his beer before taking a swig.
Bobby chuckled. “He’s a pretty famous poet, Dean.”
“A famous Jewish poet,” Rufus corrected. “Though he owed a lot to black artists. Jazz musicians. Langston Hughes.”
“Who’s Langston Hughes?” asked Dean.
“Boy, you’re talking to me about knowing Allen Ginsberg and you’ve never heard of Langston Hughes, one of the greatest poets this country ever produced? Harlem Renaissance? Nothing?”
“Bobby, you’ve got Hughes in your collection?”
“I’ve got him,” said Bobby.
“Good,” said Rufus. “If you’re reading Ginsberg, you’d better read Hughes.”
“Yes, sir,” said Dean.
“While you’re at it,” said Bobby, waving away a mosquito, “you should read some haiku.”
“Uh,” said Dean, who didn’t have a single clue what those silly short poems they made you write in elementary school had to do with the very long lines of Allen Ginsberg. “Why?”
“Eastern poetics had a big influence on Ginsberg. He even did his own English versions of some of the Japanese masters, like Matsuo Bashō.” Bobby cleared his throat, spoke a few words in Japanese, and then recited gruffly: “The old pond. The frog jumped in…Kerplunk.”
Dean sat, stupefied. Crickets chirped out among the heaps of old cars.
Rufus roared with laughter, slapping his knee. “Poem by a great master!”
“It loses something in translation!”
“You wouldn’t know real culture if it bit you in the ass,” said Rufus.
“It’s not just the words of the haiku,” Bobby groused, “but the idea behind it, the stillness and the sudden breaking of it—”
And the argument was up and running. Dean wondered at it, two grumpy old men in South Dakota—flannel-wearing, gun-toting, red meat-loving men, neither of whom went to college—bickering about what constituted good poetry. Did everybody read poetry? Was this some secret that Dean had, until now, been ignorant of?
If Ginsberg could write it, and Bobby and Rufus read it, and Dr. Moseley insist that Dean give it a chance…maybe he should listen to what they had to say. At least for tonight.
Dean had listened then, and kept listening. He supposed in that way, Bobby and Rufus had been his teachers, too. And Karen. He’d almost forgotten all the people it had taken to start him writing in earnest. Of course, Missouri was the only person who’d known at first, reading the daily notebooks for class. And she’d coached him even when summer school was over, emailing his poems back and forth. When he got good enough Charlie helped him maintain his anonymity by making sure his work never got connected back to him, computer whiz that she was; he still couldn’t quite get over the embarrassment of just how personal his poetry was and wasn’t brave enough like Ginsberg to slap his name on it for all to see. Instead, Dean used his. And Kerouac's.
And Sam…there was never going to be any real hiding it from Sam. Dean didn’t let his little brother read from his notebooks ever, but Sammy had been proud all the same, practically got more excited than Dean when he got his first poem published in a journal at eighteen.
It had been nice, being able to share that with Sam. It had kept them connected in a way little else did, when Dean was spending his time in Kansas caring for Dad while Sam finished up school in Sioux Falls. Though not connected enough, he thought grimly, kicking the sheets off the bed. When Karen went back into remission he'd moved to Lawrence almost full time and the brothers' relationship suffered. He turned onto his side and scrunched his pillow into a ball before flopping back down on it. When was the last time he’d made his brother proud? There’d been a faint echo of it, he realized, when Sam thought Dean was going back to school.
Eventually that thought faded away too, leaving nothing but the bare unvarnished truth, as only a poet could know it: that rediscovering poetry had been his goal in coming here all along. Just because he didn’t like the way Missouri and Sam thought he should go about it didn’t give him an excuse to chicken out.
He sighed and plucked up his phone, tapping out a quick email to Missouri to set up a time for Dean to meet with this Novak guy. Only when it was sent could Dean find his way to sleep.
Chapter 3: Dr. Novak
A couple days later Dean found himself parking Baby in a closer parking lot and walking back toward Shurley Hall. The campus was just as sparse as last time, a distant group of kids laughing and talking as they crossed the opposite side of the quad. He climbed the hill with the old chapel and back down again, made the long trek to the front door of the English building, and returned to the third floor. This time Missouri was standing at the other end of the hallway, talking to a man with dark hair and broad shoulders. They were a very nice set of shoulders, Dean couldn’t help but notice, covered in a crisp white dress shirt, the fit slim down the lines of his back, leading to an equally nice ass in dark pants.
The expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face—You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side—
When Missouri noticed Dean walking toward them she smiled. “Dean,” she greeted. “I’d like you to meet Dr. Castiel Novak.”
The man turned as she said it, and wow. Dean had been picturing some fusty old professor with a white beard in a tweed jacket and elbow patches. This guy was only a few years older than Dean himself, was almost his height, and was clean shaven but for a bit of stubble which Dean probably liked a little too much. And his eyes—he had blue, blue eyes.
Dean was very glad he’d worn a nice flannel today, and made sure there were no holes in his jeans.
“Mr. Winchester,” Dr. Novak said, holding out his hand as Dean walked up. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Pleasure’s mine,” Dean answered and what? He’s pretty sure he’s never said that before in his entire life. “And, uh, just Dean.”
Novak smiled, and Dean really must have been staring at the stubble because how the hell did he miss this guy’s mouth? “Then call me Castiel, or Cas. Please.”
“Yeah, sure. Cas.” Was that something that happened in college, students and professors on a first name basis? On the other hand, it would probably be uncomfortable addressing someone so close to his age formally enough to warrant Doctor. Unbidden, his brain filled with the image of Cas and Missouri passing each other in the hallway and nodding all Dr. Sexy style, saying “Doctor,” “Doctor.” He choked down a hysterical giggle.
“You need me, I’ll be in my office,” said Missouri.
“Thank you,” said Cas.
“Thanks, Missouri,” Dean added.
“Mmhm.” She waved over her shoulder and disappeared, closing her office door pointedly behind her.
“Well. Shall we?” Cas gestured to his office next door.
“Sure,” said Dean, and followed him in.
Cas's office was smaller than Missouri’s. As it wasn’t in the corner, it had only two windows on the one outside wall. It was still really nice, with plenty of shelves taking up the rest of all possible wall space. They were filled with books, neatly organized, but there was a noticeable lack of personal items. There were a few plants in small pots scattered throughout the office, and a single orchid on his desk, opposite from the computer. Next to the orchid’s stem was a stick with a spring on the end, upon which perched a cartoonish bumblebee. Without thinking, Dean tapped the bee and watched it wiggle back and forth.
“From a friend,” said Cas. Dean jerked his hand back, but the professor didn’t seem angry. He was smiling fondly down at the bee, and there was something so…disarming about seeing a grown-ass man turn sweet and gooey over something so silly.
Dean sat down abruptly. He needed to nip this instant attraction shit right in the bud. One, because Dean was the absolute worst at forming coherent sentences around dudes he found attractive. He’d never really gotten the hang of it like he had with women. Two, if Dean was going to do this, be a student, then no matter what their ages were, Castiel was in a position of authority over him. More than that, he needed to be able to actually listen to what Cas had to say. A quick roll in the sack was not what he was here for.
Even if it had been a longer than he’d like to admit.
“So,” Cas started, sitting down behind his desk. “Missouri tells me that you’re an old student of hers. She speaks very highly of you.”
Dean snorted. “Yeah, that’s me. When you aren’t stoned for half of summer school, it’s not hard to be one of the better students.”
Cas hummed. “She warned me about you. No need to undersell yourself.”
“I’m mostly looking to not oversell myself. You should know what you’re getting into if you agree to teach me.”
“Alright,” he said agreeably. Cas sat up straight in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. “What am I getting into?” He had his full attention on Dean, and it was a bit disconcerting. It was nothing like being under Missouri’s appraisal, who made the swift judgments of a keen mind and killer mom. Cas’s face was open, guileless, and utterly focused.
“Uh.” Dean felt pinned, couldn’t look away. He cleared his throat. “I’ve never taken a college class before. Never even graduated high school.”
Cas tilted his head in silent question.
“Have my GED though.”
“Okay, that’s good. I don’t foresee a problem thus far.”
“I pretty much haven’t written a paper since I was seventeen, so if you’re gonna want me to write those you can’t expect it to be genius A+ quality, okay?”
“Audit doesn’t require letter grades. Would you like one?”
Dean barked a laugh. “Hell no. Definitely not.”
One corner of Cas’s mouth quirked up. “My only concern, then, is the subject matter.”
“What, poetry? Think I can’t read?” Of course Castiel there with his fancy name and his fancy doctorate would think that he couldn’t handle reading a little poetry. His hands curled into fists behind the desk where Cas couldn’t see.
“No, you misunderstand me, Dean,” Cas said. “I’m not worried about your ability to read or understand the poetry. But many of these students are planning to pursue English as their major, and at this point in their college careers use much of the specialized vocabulary for it. How confident are you when it comes to participating in discussions?”
“Like what kind of vocabulary?”
“Styles, forms. Sonnet, sestina, terza rima?”
“Some of that, sure.” He’s written in a few forms, but it was more about hearing the rhythm in his head than actually knowing whether academics had a name for it or not.
“How about poetic elements? Chiasmus, anaphora?”
Dean wracked his brains, but those were not familiar at all. Shame crept up his throat, and he willed the blood from his face before it could color. “Nah. It’s, uh, all Greek to me.” He flashed what he hoped was a convincingly devil-may-care smile.
Cas laughed under his breath, his deep voice a rumble in his chest that reminded Dean of Baby. “It is, in fact, Greek. Here.” Cas pushed away from his desk, chair rolling across the hardwood, and opened the drawer of a small filing cabinet. “I always have these on hand,” he said, flipping through the files. “Aha!” Cas brought out a stapled packet of several pages and pushed it across the desk to Dean. “It’s a quick glossary of poetic terms.”
“Thought my vocab quiz days were behind me,” Dean muttered, scanning the first page. Apparently anaphora was the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of lines or stanzas. A little unnecessary to have a separate word for a specific kind of repetition, if you asked him.
“I’ve no intention of quizzing you on it,” Cas assured him. “Just a suggestion, to help you feel on even footing with your classmates. I’ll be honest, Dean,” he continued. The use of his name had Dean looking up from the papers. “I wouldn’t normally let someone with no academic experience take a 300 level class, auditing or not. We aren’t just going to be reading and reacting, but studying the craft of the poetry, pulling it apart piece by piece to see both why and how it elicits those reactions. It takes lots of practice and a solid foundation. Missouri assures me your foundation is sound.”
Cas paused there, clearly waiting for him to fill in the gaps. Dean was hardly going to tell him that his last collection had been shortlisted for the National Book Award. Or rather, that he was Jack Allen, and Jack Allen had been shortlisted. Then again, he had no idea how Jack Allen played in academic circles. Could be considered a hack, for all he knew. Dean simply raised his eyebrows, dared the professor to finish his thought.
They stared at each other, playing chicken for a moment longer.
At length Cas blinked, and opened up an accordion folder lying on his desk. “With Missouri’s recommendation, I’m happy to have you in class. Even though you won’t be receiving a grade, I will still expect the same effort from you as I expect from my other students.” He pulled out another smaller packet, and gave that to Dean, too. “I’ll give you a copy of my syllabus as it stands now, just to give you an idea. You may miss no more than two classes. We meet Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for an hour and a half. You’ll be expected to contribute to discussion at least once every class period. You will be writing at least one to two short explications for each poetic movement, depending on what the reading assignment is. There will be a paper at the end of each unit, which—” He held up a finger when Dean opened his mouth to protest. “—you will also write. If I feel it is below a passing grade, you will meet with me one on one like any other student, after which you will have the option to rewrite the paper.”
Dean flipped through the syllabus, saw flashes of unit names, from Modernism and World War I all the way to The Beginning of a New Century. The papers big and small were listed among what looked like pages and pages of reading. “It’s a lot of work,” he said.
“It is,” Cas agreed. Dean looked up in surprise; in his experience, a teacher’s response was always some form of suck it up and quit whining. Cas must have read something of that in his expression, because he explained. “The course is at a level that is considered rigorous. People don’t generally take it if they have no interest in working on the subject. So ask yourself, Dean: what is that you want to get out of this class? And are you willing to put in the work to get it?”
Dean wanted to fob off the question, tell him it was just because Missouri said so, but something about the way Castiel presented it so simply and honestly stopped Dean from being glib. “I know how to work,” he said at last. “But why do you want to work so hard with me if I’m just auditing? Don’t you have to worry about the real students?”
“If you’re in my class, you’re my student.”
It seemed like a weird line to draw in the sand for a man that apparently knew 50 different words for repetition, but what the hell. “What the hell,” he said. “I’m in.”
“Good.” Cas held out his hand, and Dean shook it bemusedly. “You’ll find my email address on the syllabus. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Otherwise I’ll see you again in two weeks.”
Cas’s hand was warm. Dean very deliberately didn’t let the shake linger. “Sure. See you, Cas.”
Dean did not email Dr. Novak, Cas of the high cheekbones and deep, sexy voice. He did go to the registrar, however, and pay to audit the class. Kid behind the desk could only have been nineteen at most, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Townie?” she asked.
“Yep,” he answered, since it was easiest. And that was that.
Until he got home, of course. Over dinner he tried to throw out the information as casually as possible, but of course Sam flipped his shit, Eileen was giggling to see her husband so happy, and Jack eventually understood that Dean was going back to school.
“With me?” he asked excitedly.
“No,” said Sam gleefully. “School for big kids.”
“Ohhh,” said Jack, the three-year-old completely oblivious to the murderous glare Dean had turned on his brother. “With big trucks.”
“Sure, kid,” Dean sighed.
When the two weeks were up, though, he was wishing he were back at the auto shop playing around with big trucks. Dean was so close to backing out, every encouraging thing Sam and Eileen said to him over breakfast making him lose his appetite more and more. When they left for work—taking Jack with them, since he would be going to daycare on Dean’s school days—he flopped onto the couch and turned on the TV, though he didn’t watch it. A dozen times he woke up his phone, thumb hovering over Charlie’s name in his contacts. But after what he’d said to her when he quit poetry, the hypocrisy of what he was doing now was too much to bear. He considered staying home all afternoon instead, because watching telenovelas and taking naps would probably be a better use of his time. What was Dean going to even do in a college class? Who the hell did he think he was?
In the end, though, his practicality won out. He’d spent the money, and damned if he was going to waste it.
Since the drive over to Maple Hills was probably going to be the best part of his day, he rummaged through his box of cassettes and popped Zepp’s Physical Graffiti into the player. His commute was going to be about an album long each way, and that suited Dean just fine.
When he arrived in town, it was several times as crowded as he remembered it. People were popping in and out of shops in the town center and taking selfies on the bridge over the little waterfall, and the sidewalks were full of pedestrians: college kids, most of whom didn’t bother looking before crossing the fucking street. At least Baby got a few whistles of appreciation along the way.
He was finally able to park his car (in the lot with the cheapest parking pass holy shit) and he grit his teeth as he pulled his bag out of the car with him. He’d drawn the line at a backpack, so Sam had lent him one of his old messenger bags from law school. All it had in it was a notebook, a pencil, the poetics guide, and the syllabus Cas had given him.
The campus was now as he had imagined it: full of students. The sidewalks were just as full here as they’d been in the town proper, but the grass was also teeming with kids sitting around, walking, laughing. He traversed the quad quick as he could, then up the hill and around the chapel, and down again toward Shurley Hall. He felt prickling on the back of his neck. He didn’t know if the kids really were looking at him for being so out of place, or if it was just paranoia. At least there were a few adults about, a couple that Dean noticed. Professors, presumably.
Thankfully, he’d timed his arrival just right. Cas’s poetry class was on the second floor of Shurley, and the door was wide open: the last class held there was long gone, and only a couple people had shown up for the next one. The afternoon August sun was blazing in through the tall windows that lined the far wall, so Dean aimed for the back corner behind the windows, half in shadow. He was ten minutes early, so he slung his bag to the floor, sunk into his chair, and settled in to wait.
Though he kept his eyes mostly trained on the windows, he clocked everyone who came in. There were a dozen kids in all, mostly girls, but a handful of guys walked in too. A few were flying solo like him and dicking around on their phones as they waited, but most of the people were clearly well acquainted, chatting about so-and-so and the party this weekend, as far as Dean could tell. With a couple minutes to spare Cas walked in, wearing black slacks and a nice blue button down that brought out his eyes, even from Dean’s distance. His dark hair was wild with that just rolled out of bed look, but the confidence he projected made it look stylish. Cas caught Dean’s eye before he could look away, giving him a small smile, before he set his own bag on the front desk. He smiled at the group of girls clustered front and center, said “Hello.”
“Hi, Castiel,” they said, and one of them tittered.
Dean couldn’t blame her.
Not long after, the clock ticked to 3pm and Dean had to suffer the indignity of roll call for the first time in about fifteen years. The students all turned when he gruffly acknowledged his name, but he saw more curiosity than judgment, so that was something, at least. Then, just as Cas was handing out the official syllabus, one last kid walked into the room. He looked to be a lot shorter than Dean, but pretty tough with his short-cropped black hair and muscles shown off by his t-shirt.
“Ah,” said Cas. “You must be Kevin Tran.”
“Yeah. Sorry, professor.”
“Castiel is fine. Please find a seat.”
The kid did a quick assessment of the few empty desks, and to Dean’s surprise, he settled on the one right next to him in the back row.
“It’s nice to see everyone made it, then,” Cas continued, and in the mouth of any other teacher it would be snide, but somehow the guy just radiated sincerity, and Dean found himself taking him at his word. When he glanced at that Kevin kid beside him, he didn’t seem to be taking any kind of offense either. “I’m sure you’ve already gone through several syllabi in the last couple of days,” acknowledged Cas. “So I’ll make this quick, but please listen up.”
As promised he only did the highlights, just a little more involved than when he’d talked to Dean about it. He mostly let Cas’s low, steady voice wash over him as the sunlight inched across the classroom wall. A half hour of the class was gone by the time Castiel had the students agree to read the syllabus more thoroughly as part of their homework, and then he bade them put everything away.
“We’re going to talk,” he said. He unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves one by one. There was nothing inherently teasing in the gesture, it was pretty perfunctory in the warm room, but Dean’s eyes caught on his forearms, surprisingly strong-looking for an academic. He’s pretty sure he heard a girl sigh. Honestly Dean wouldn’t be surprised if one of them had declared their love for Cas on their eyelids, Indiana Jones style.
“What do you think of when you think of poetry?” Castiel asked the room.
There was silence for a few seconds; the clock on the classroom wall ticked them off one by one.
“Rhyme?” someone ventured.
Cas smiled. “I think that’s the place most of us go, at first. What else?”
“Shakespeare,” another offered.
“All the great poets, yes. What else?”
There was a murmur of agreement across the class at that one. “Good,” said Castiel. “All true. But what more?”
“I think about why I like it,” said Kevin Tran, confident and loud enough for everyone to hear him clearly.
“Ah.” Cas pinned him with the full weight of his attention, which was considerable. “And why do you like it?”
“Because it means something to me.”
Castiel nodded. “What does it mean to you?”
“It…” Kevin fiddled with a pen as he thought. “It expresses emotions and truths in a way you can understand them, on a gut level. Not an intellectual one, you know?”
God, that was it. That was it. Dean looked at Kevin with new respect.
“Thank you, Kevin. Has anyone else experienced this when reading poetry?”
Dean felt that residual middle school feeling of desperately not wanting to be the odd one out, as he’d always been when they moved around, but swift on its heels was the realization that he was too old for that shit. And he was in the back of the room anyway, where only Kevin and Castiel could see him. He raised his hand, just enough to be noticed. Only a few other people did. Cas let his eyes flit to each of his students to assess their reaction. He gave Dean a fleeting smile. Or maybe he imagined it.
“There is no right or wrong relationship to poetry,” Castiel said, his voice settling back into lecture mode, “but everyone must reckon with it in some way or another. It’s not just a subject for boring academics like me, nor is it, as some say, only the purview of angsty teens who have no taste.” A chuckle swept through the class, Dean joining in a little ruefully. No shit he’d been an angsty as fuck teen when he’d started writing poetry. “I want you all to do me a favor. Think of all the oldest literature you can, the oldest of the old, of any culture. Then shout it out.”
“The Bible,” said someone immediately.
Cas held up his hand to stop the barrage. “All good examples. What do they have in common?”
“They’re poetry,” Dean said, shocked into sharing the answer. Seriously, how had he gone through 11 and a half years of school and never freaking noticed that? He wasn’t even aware that he’d said it loud enough for Castiel to hear until the professor responded.
“Exactly. Can anyone venture a guess as to why?”
Dean pressed his lips shut, not that the answer was on the tip of his tongue this time. Thankfully a girl spoke up pretty quickly. “They come from the oral tradition. It was easier to remember long stories if they followed rhyme or meter.”
“Wonderful, Billie, yes. And some cultures still keep that tradition alive, though it is mostly lost in our society today. But it is not gone.
“I want you all to think back with me to the beginning of life on this earth. Of the fish wriggling onto the sand, and the tiny mammal growing and growing, of noises becoming speech, of meals becoming a time of community, and society. Of sitting around the bonfire and telling stories. Much of the earliest writing found by archaeologists is about commerce, but that is ignoring intangible art, and the visual arts. Cave paintings and statue fragments tell us how the earliest peoples saw the world, but before even that humans were weaving poetry with their words, sharing their history, their imagination, their dreams. Poetry has taken many forms over the years but at its essence, poetry is the lifeblood of the human spirit, the quickening of its soul. It is writ as deeply in our DNA as the length of our bones, the color of our eyes. We turn to it, either spoken or through song, when we feel the most: at weddings and funerals, communing with our gods, driving in a car singing ‘Bohemain Rhapsody’ with our friends” —the class laughed— “and yes, when our bodies suffer the turmoil of adolescence. We give each other greeting cards with neat words to express gratitude, sympathy, congratulations. And, when we can’t find the words ourselves, we turn to the great poets among us, past and present, and we know our pain is shared, and thereby lessened.
“We are all poets,” Cas continued after a brief pause. “But there are some who answer when they hear the call, and answer, and answer. We’ll be studying a fraction of this unique group over the course of the semester, but as we go through and break down their work to discover what they have to teach us, I don’t want any of you to forget that our arguments should be more than academic. Poetry might not have the practical implications of, say, chemistry at first glance, but I beg of you to consider: has it not also enriched lives? Even saved them?”
Dean at last looked away from Castiel, unable, unwilling to take the chance that any vulnerability show. Because that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Why Dean couldn’t eradicate poetry from himself completely? That it had saved him, and changed him utterly?
“Your homework for tonight,” Cas said, switching gears, “besides the syllabus, is to pick a poem that means something to you. And I mean specifically to you. We’ll go easy for the first time and only have you write half a page talking about why it’s important to you. Not literature. Not history. Not culture: to you. Then we’ll share them aloud. That’s all for today, then. See you Thursday.”
Kevin was up and gone almost immediately, the others not far behind, but Dean trailed behind the last of the other students, mind churning with everything Castiel had said. To him, poetry was sitting in a dingy room and scribbling on paper. But Cas had made it seem…cosmic.
He startled and whipped around halfway out the door, only to find that he and Castiel were the last people in the room. Dean had immediately clocked that Cas was handsome, but now, after that lesson, with the sun shining straight through the window at his back and wrapping him in its rays like a mandorla, his looks had transformed into some kind of unearthly beauty. Cas was so far out of his league that he was on another plane of existence, and somehow it calmed Dean, drew him back from the precipice of his crush. Cas was intimidating as hell, but that, Dean could deal with.
“I’m glad you came,” Cas said.
“Yeah,” Dean nodded, surprised he meant it. “Me too.”
Over the next two days, Dean angsted over what poem to pick. Sure, Howl had really gotten Dean into poetry, but that was a common one to talk about, right? He should pick something no one else is going to pick. There was “Death Be Not Proud,” the one he riffed off of when actually writing his first poem, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell a room of twenty-year-olds and some hotshot professor that he sometimes suffered from delusions of being a writer.
“You must really want to impress this guy,” said Sam. He was going over some papers for work, but doing it on the floor so that Jack could try “braiding” his hair.
Dean scoffed at this completely erroneous assumption. “It’s not about impressing him, Sam, it’s about letting him know Missouri didn’t stick out her neck for me for no reason.”
“You could bring one of your poems.”
“Shaddup!” echoed Jack.
“What should we remember about ‘shut up,’ Jack?” asked Sam, long-suffering.
“Not at school,” the kid answered dutifully. Dean winced in sympathy as Jack enthusiastically tugged on Sam’s hair, which his brother took with only half a grimace, and not a sound.
“How about the poetry you listen to everyday? I’d say that’s you all over,” Sam said, not looking up from his papers.
“The hell are you talking about?”
“Oh so your favorite song isn’t ‘Ramble On’?”
“That’s a song, not a poem.”
Sam gave him an unimpressed look, which in and of itself was unimpressive, given he had several elastic bands in his hair and at least three of Eileen’s scrunchies.
Nevertheless it was eloquent. “Yeah, yeah. Guess no one else is gonna choose a song,” Dean sighed.
On Thursday Dean came in with his sheet of lyrics and a small paragraph on why he enjoyed the words. He had steered away from a lot of the emotional stuff: traveling around the country with Dad and Sam, Charlie introducing him to all things Tolkien, his mother’s old record collection.
He found himself profoundly regretting his decision, cursing Sam to hell and back in his head, when Castiel announced that they were all going to take turns reading their chosen poem aloud and talking about it as a group. They were forced to move their desks into a circle—my god, were they in second grade?—and went clockwise around the room. Castiel was sitting at the head of the circle. They started to his left and then slowly, excruciatingly worked their way around to Dean, who with his back desk was at the foot of the circle, directly across from the professor.
Dean cleared his throat. “I chose a song.” He looked up at Cas, and when he made no protest, Dean continued. “It loses something without the music, but here it is:
“Leaves are falling all around,
It’s time I was on my way…”
He read the lyrics as confidently as he could, awkwardly skipping over the repeats of the refrain.
The class did not seem very enthused.
“Gollum,” asked one of the girls, April. “Isn’t that the creepy thing from the Lord of the Rings movies?”
“Er, yes,” said Dean.
“That’s the thing about pop songs these days,” she said. “Too many pop references.”
Did she seriously not know anything about Led Zeppelin? “It’s a rock song from the sixties.”
“Was the book even out then?” another kid asked.
Kevin rolled his eyes, and thank fuck because then Dean didn’t have to. “Obviously.”
“Well I think it shows a lack of maturity,” said April. “They’re writing about fairy stories. What about real life?”
Dean sat there stunned while the discussion devolved into debate about what constitutes real literature, and whether poets should be concerned about writing “pop poetry” as opposed to “real poetry” that referenced “real literature.” He wished Charlie were here so she could be suitably outraged. And then remembered that he hadn’t told her about trying out the class, because he was too chickenshit. Stupid.
Eventually Castiel steered the conversation to the next person, who had chosen some Sylvia Plath, but his guilt and embarrassment carried him through the rest of class. He shoved the large packet of the poems Cas had selected for the early 20th century and shoved it in to his bag without bothering to look at it. This time, when class was over, he made sure not to be caught by his professor before leaving.
The walk across campus to get back to the Impala was still just as awkward as last Tuesday. However he adapted the strategy of the students and cut across the green instead of skirting the edges using the sidewalk. The green was dotted with Adirondack chairs painted in solid colors, mostly red or white. Many were unoccupied, given that people were headed elsewhere after their classes had let out, but Dean was surprised to walk by one occupied by Kevin. His backpack was slumped on the ground next to his chair, but the packet of poems was in his lap. As Dean neared, Kevin rubbed his face, bumping his sunglasses, then let himself fall ungracefully against the back of the chair.
It looked a little too much like he’d been wiping away tears for Dean to continue on in good conscience. He stopped walking, but Kevin didn’t acknowledge him. Maybe his eyes were closed behind the glasses?
“Hey. Uh, Kevin?”
No response. What was Kevin’s last name, again? Dean eyed his Star Wars shirt, which had Han splashed across the front. Good taste.
“Kevin Solo,” he tried. “You okay?”
Slowly, Kevin lifted his sunglasses so Dean could get the full effect of his glare. Sure enough, they were red and puffy. “What’s it to you?”
Dean shrugged, and perched on the edge of the empty chair next to him. “What, I catch some kid having a hard time, I’m supposed to ignore it?”
“Kid?” Kevin scoffed. “How old do you think I am?”
“To be honest,” Dean admitted, “once I hit thirty everyone younger than me looks kind of the same.”
“Cool.” A shriek came from the other side of the quad, and they both watched as a girl chased around a boy who was holding something of hers in the air, while their friends laughed. “Uh, what’s your story?”
“What’s yours?” Kevin shot back.
“Nothing to see here,” said Dean, giving him half a grin. “Just some guy with a GED dipping his toe back in the academic pool while he’s got the chance.”
“Oh yeah?” said Kevin. “Sounds nice.” Though he didn’t sound particularly enthused.
Dean nodded at the packet still sitting on his lap. “That for poetry class?”
At this his face lost some of the haughty veneer. Kevin lifted the packet to look at the page it was opened to, then dropped it back down, closing his eyes. “Yeah. You look at it yet?”
“Nope. Are they that bad?”
Kevin laughed under his breath, harshly, with an edge. “They’re that good.” Without looking, he snatched up the packet and slammed it against Dean’s arm. “You heard of this guy?” he asked.
Dean plucked the papers from his hand and scanned the page. The header read:
Looked Japanese by the name, but he couldn’t recall Bobby ever talking about him. Then again, this class was about English-language poetry, right? So he wouldn’t have been writing in Japanese. “Never heard of him,” said Dean.
“Neither have I.”
Dean didn’t know what to say to that. His silence at last prompted Kevin to open his eyes again. He sat up in the chair to snatch the packet back. He read the page again himself, shaking his head.
“You know I went to pretty good schools. Was in advanced placement in high school. Had Imagism shoved down my throat more than once.”
“You know, early shit from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and whatever.”
“But this guy?” Kevin waved the packet around. “The bio Novak wrote up about him? Born in Japan but immigrated to America. Was a huge influence not only by publishing his own poetry, but by discussing Japanese literary aesthetics with Brits, and other Americans. Like Imagism might never have happened without him. He’s the first really important Asian American poet and I was in advanced placement! I spent two years at Harvard! And have I ever heard of him before? No.” He angrily dropped the poems on top of his bag and thumped back into a sprawl on the chair, but a couple tears escaped again. With a jerky movement he wiped them away and crossed his arms.
“It does sound like a good thing, then,” said Dean quietly.
“Yeah,” said Kevin, subdued. He sniffled. “I’m just relieved, I guess.”
“That I made the right choice to come back to school.” He shrugged. “That’s my story. I worked so hard I burned myself out and had a mental breakdown.”
“Yikes,” said Dean. “Sorry.”
“I’m over it. Mostly.” He lolled his head along the chair to face Dean more fully. “Picked a smaller, less prestigious school. But compromised with my mother and still picked a good one. Would maybe have preferred something a little closer to home, but whatever. I know now I might actually learn something worthwhile here.”
“Yeah that’s…that’s what I hope, too.” The post-class rush was gone, and the green was mostly clear, though there looked to be a couple people sunbathing in the Adirondack chairs some fifty feet away. Dean adjusted his bag on his shoulder and cleared his throat. Kevin had flipped his sunglasses back down over his face again. “Where’s home?” he asked.
Kevin smiled. “Michigan. You?”
“Kansas. Well. By way of South Dakota.”
“Nice,” said Kevin, drawing out the word. “You have no idea how much of a minority Midwesterners are on this campus. You get a smattering of students from the big population states like Texas and California, definitely a lot of people from New York City, but around here?” He snorted. “They’re mostly from Just Outside of Boston.”
“O-kay,” said Dean. “Does that mean something?”
This time Kevin ticked his sunglasses down and gave him a significant look over the top of them. “It means they’re from really fucking rich New England suburbs. Don’t let them get to you,” he added, flicking the glasses back up and resettling in the chair. “They were pretty harsh on you today, about making bad references and pontificating about what they think’s real literature. In case you weren’t clear, it’s atmospheric stories about lobster fishermen in Maine who have estranged relationships with their children as a metaphor for the emptiness of the American Dream,” he snickered.
“Maybe they’re right,” said Dean, thinking of his own poetry, so heavily influenced by bands like Led Zeppelin, and riffing a lot off of other poems, though he always tried to make them his own. He could at least rest easy that his poetry would never appear in one of Castiel Novak’s packets. “It probably shows a lack of creativity, or originality, or something.”
“The fuck it does,” dismissed Kevin easily. “That attitude’s just a holdover from when Harold Bloom was talking about the ‘Anxiety of Influence’ that poets suffer, striving to create original pieces above all else but unable to escape the horror that they’re too influenced by what came before.”
“Never heard of him, either,” said Dean. He was beginning to see what Cas was talking about when he worried that Dean wouldn’t be up to snuff in the things higher-level students would inevitably talk about in discussion.
But Kevin didn’t seem to care. “That is actually refreshing,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not a modern argument. Jonathan Lethem, though? Him you should look up. Go online and look for his ‘Ecstasy of Influence.’ Then maybe the next time someone’s an asshole about poetical allusions you’ll consider a counterattack.”
At that moment Dean’s phone buzzed. He dug it out from his pocket and saw that Eileen had sent him a photo of Jack putting a bunch of dinosaurs all over a toy firetruck.
He says the truck had to go to the shop
Apparently dinosaurs work there too
Like uncle dean, he says
Dean was overcome with a wave of warmth for his little nephew. He didn’t know why the idea of his being important enough in Jack’s life that he’s entered into his play stories like his momma and daddy was so significant to him, but it sure meant something. It reminded him, too, that if he didn’t start driving back now he’d be late for dinner. It was kind of amazing he now had dinners in his life that he could be late for. He glanced over at Kevin, who looked relaxed, arms folded behind his head. “Thanks, Kevin,” he said, standing. “See you Tuesday.”
Kevin waved him off, and Dean headed off.
For the drive home he put Zepp II in the tape deck.
For the next few classes, they focused on a different poetic movement from the early 20th century: there was WWI, Realism and Naturalism, Imagism, Harlem Renaissance, Modernism. There were some poets he vaguely remembered from high school, like Wilfred Owen, and others he’d picked up from libraries or used bookstores over the years, or were gifted to him by Charlie or Missouri. But most of them, like Noguchi, were poets he’d never read.
And he was reading like never before, too. Partially this was because Cas liked to neatly split the elements of a poem into separate categories which he made them recite whenever they took a deep dive into a particular piece: typographical, sonic, sensory, ideational, and—putting them all together—fusional. It was also because of Cas’s insistence that poetry must be read out loud. He took turns calling on people to take up the torch and bravely sputter out the verse from their packets or the projector screen. For so long Dean had thought his propensity to mutter the words as he read or wrote poems to help him get a better feel for it was because he was kind of dumb. Cas declared it was essential. And honestly, hearing Cas read the poems instead of the kids was the best of all: he infused them with an ease, a conversational quality that nevertheless didn’t lose the rhyme or rhythm the poet had crafted.
But mostly, Dean was reading and looking at poetry differently because of the way Cas talked about everything surrounding it. The way he painted a picture of the society of the time, in the different countries, the wars and the politics, the madhouses and the rich estates, the poets’ personal struggles and triumphs. And no matter how interesting it was, sometimes Dean heard nothing but the cadence of his voice, saw nothing but the shine of passion in his eyes, and the adorable way his tie sometimes came loose and hung backwards down his chest…Or the gorgeous days when he didn’t wear a tie, and left the top couple buttons of his shirt undone in the warmth of early fall. Dean caught himself dreaming, then. Just a little bit. It was nice, in a way, having something—someone to dream about. Maybe Dean was a little Hot for Teacher, but that was alright, with the whole classroom between them.
It made it a little easier to bear when the class did eventually come around to discussion of Modernism and the same students who had insulted Led Zeppelin for referencing Tolkien were singing the praises of poems that required fluency in five languages and the goddamn Encyclopedia Britannica to understand. Because it was so original and it wasn’t derivative.
“And when Eliot wrote ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’,” Lydia was saying, “that’s one of the greatest lines ever written in the English language.”
“It’s a good line, but what about Tennyson?” asked Dean, unable to keep quiet any longer. He’d read Lethem’s essay as Kevin had suggested, and he dearly wished he could ask his classmates to do the same. The man had crafted the entire damn thing using other people’s words—had called it ‘a plagiarism’ himself—but in the process had created something entirely new, and defended the process all the while. “‘My heart is a handful of dust’?”
“Coincidence,” scoffed Todd.
“What, he can quote half an Eastern religion but he’s not quoting Tennyson?”
“Do you think,” Cas interjected, as he often did when it looked like tensions were going to run too high, “that makes the poem less original if he is?”
Dean tried to read his intention, but Cas had a frustratingly good poker face when he wanted to. He corrected facts when they came up but rarely stated his opinion; just stood there leaning back with his hands on the front desk, legs in front of him and crossed at the ankle. Hot, but cold. On days like this—on days like the second class, when the students walked all over “Ramble On”—it kind of pissed Dean off. He didn’t have any idea where he stood with him in the class. “No,” he bit out. “But I think maybe we should think about it the other way around.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Cas.
Great. Good sign. Dean plowed on anyway: in for a penny. “In the end, the way his poetry works? Isn’t it more original because of all the quotes and allusions?”
Another student jumped on the idea immediately; not discussing or considering, just dismissing it out of hand and moving on. Kevin gave a short sigh beside him. But Cas cocked his head, studying Dean for a moment or two before blinking and looking at the current speaker.
Now what was that about?
Chapter 4: Dinner at Missouri's
Castiel loved his quiet life in Maple Hills. It was nothing like the quiet of his childhood home, which was born from fearful obedience. It was the quiet of a life finally settling onto the track it needed to be: he had the satisfaction of a secure job now that a college had at last agreed to tenure him (Missouri had a lot to do with that, he was sure), a cozy little apartment above the coffee shop in the town center, enough literature to keep his mind active and his soul free, and best of all, colleagues he respected and friends he cherished. No, there didn’t seem to be romance or family in his future any time soon—a small town did tend to put a damper on prospects, even one so beautiful as Maple Hills—but he much preferred his solitude to the possibility of settling for the wrong person. Not when he knew so intimately what it was like growing up with people who stayed together for all the wrong reasons.
Besides, he always had a great deal of grading to do during the school year. And while it wasn’t as cozy as his apartment, Castiel liked his office, too: the shelves filled with books, the little plants he bought from the flower shop in town, Claire’s bee, the way he could turn around in his chair and look out his windows onto campus, and the old stone chapel sitting on top of the hill. It was a good thing, because his lower level classes were always too full. His own fault, of course. Students would beg him to authorize overrides when the courses were filled to capacity, and if they wanted his instruction badly enough to bother, who was he to say no? Castiel was sure this was a factor in other colleges refusing him tenure, but he couldn’t regret it.
Nevertheless it was a relief when he could walk into an upper level class, usually only populated by those with a very strong interest in the subject. His 20th century class was already his favorite this semester. The discussion was always lively, even though some students were a little slower than others at sloughing off the narrow ways of looking at literature they’d learned in grade school. They were all very bright and brought good perspectives. And then there was Dean.
Taciturn, unexpected, and clearly intelligent, now that he was speaking up a little more during class. (Tall, mysterious, and very handsome, his mind supplied. He brushed the thought away.) Dean’s response papers were improving by leaps and bounds, but Castiel was still no closer to figuring out where he’d come from, and why he’d ended up here. Missouri wasn’t being very forthcoming no matter how he asked questions, when usually she was very talkative indeed. It only made Castiel want to know more.
At least the class’s first real papers were finally in, for which the students had to pick any poet from the era of the first unit whether they’d discussed them or not, and Castiel could glean whatever he could from the writing of them. Most of the ones he’d read so far were a bit clunky, probably from being out of practice over the summer. But a couple were very well written, if not somewhere on the road to groundbreaking in thought, and that Kevin Tran had an interesting explication of a couple of Noguchi’s poems. But now, finally, Dean Winchester’s. While Castiel always tried to grade as objectively as possible, he couldn’t help but be very, very curious. It had taken all of his willpower not to shuffle through the stack and read his first. It was titled: WWI and Tolkien.
It was a terribly vague title, and Tolkien—was he from that era? Castiel had never gotten around to reading him.
Tolkien wrote some great literature in his time, it began, rather pointedly, Castiel thought. But he didn’t just write prose. He wrote good poetry, too. Ah. A rebuttal to their first week of class. Castiel had no feelings for the author either way, except for acknowledging his popularity after the movies came out (hadn’t gotten around to seeing the movies, for that matter). But he did wonder, given the defensive tone of the paper, if he hadn’t maybe let the debate about what constituted “real literature” get a little out of hand that day. He did his best never to take sides in class discussion where it wasn’t necessary, but in this case his judgment had fallen short. Castiel felt guilty. It was probably already so hard for Dean to carve out his own space in the classroom.
As Dean’s paper went on, with very colloquial phrasing and entirely too many run-on sentences, he did quote some poetry that Castiel found very beautiful. Tolkien had an excellent handle of all the poetic elements, and given the evidence he was convinced of Dean’s argument that he was a master of his craft. There was no denying that Dean also made an impassioned defense of where the poetry showed up in the modern day, and Castiel was reminded of Dean’s comment about Eliot, we should think about it the other way around, and he dropped his pen.
God, he was a fool. For as long as he’d been writing articles about Jack Allen, he’d spent a lot of time defending his favorite poet from criticism, particularly about all the popular references in his work. They were far more lowbrow than lasting sources like the Bible, or Shakespeare. A pompous colleague of his, a Scot named Fergus Crowley who was well revered in his position at Harvard, was a major proponent of the argument that it lessened any impact Jack Allen would have in the future. But Castiel’s rebuttal was always about how it would stand the test of time despite those references.
Why had he never defended Jack Allen in a way that said his poetry would live on because of them?
If Castiel could argue that rock music references gave the poems depth…and if those songs had references to literature like Lord of the Rings in them as Dean had pointed out about Led Zeppelin in their second class…that would in turn lend Allen’s poems a further layer of depth.
Wait. Maybe there are Tolkien references too, that he’d missed? He would have remembered if another person had mentioned them in an article about Jack Allen. He’d know, because he’d read all of the scholarship about him at least twice. But still, there wasn't much of it…Tolkien’s characters became subversive figures in the sixties, said Dean’s paper. Just like rock musicians are often considered subversive figures. Allen himself, if his poetry is as autobiographical as Castiel believed, was a man on the margins of society, too. Had Castiel been living inside his academic bubble for too long?
He was halfway through trying to figure out if the school library carried a copy of Lord of the Rings on their poorly designed mobile site when his phone nearly vibrated out of his hand. Jody’s name flashed on the screen. He opened the call. “Hello?”
“Hey, Cas, got a minute?” Jody, head of campus security, sounded like she was outside, as there was some drunken hooting in the background. No doubt some students getting an early start to the weekend. The campus wasn’t dry, so Jody and her staff had to keep a weather eye out for underage and binge drinking.
“Yes. What do you need?”
“Just saw Max from Gay Club. He said you were going to kick off this year’s Queer Heroes campaign?”
Castiel held in his sigh through long practice. Gay Club was the nickname for the college’s LGBTQIA Alliance, and no matter what he did, the name had stuck for years now. Seeing as it was a student-run organization, his suggestions didn’t hold much clout anyway. Jody didn’t mind it, and her wife (and county sheriff), Donna, thought it was funny. The kids always took it up with glee whenever they joined, learning it from the upperclassmen. “Yes. They’ve asked me to do a presentation on queer history in poetry.” The Queer Heroes campaign had been started last year by Max and Siobhan, in which they solicited professors to put together presentations reinstating the overlooked queer identities of famous historical figures. It was also open to the public.
“Good, let me know when there’s a date and Donna and I will try to make it. She also wanted me to ask if you’re going to be at Missouri’s tomorrow night. All the girls are going to be there, too. I think she wants Patience to meet them.” ‘The girls’ meant the three young women that she and her wife had fostered as late teenagers. All of them had stuck around Maple Hills after they turned eighteen: Alex was studying for a nursing degree in the next town over while working as the receptionist at the college clinic, and Claire and Kaia were both working on the MHC custodial staff while they figured out where they wanted to go in life. Jody and Donna were wonderful, and supported them even though it was taking them a while to heal and understand themselves. Goodness knows Castiel hadn’t had it figured out in his early twenties either.
He was very fond of Claire, in particular, as she was the one usually in charge of cleaning up Shurley—and often lifted books from the professors’ offices. Since she returned them, however, no one said anything. He suspected she just did it to him and Missouri anyway. It would be good to see her at dinner and coax out her thoughts about Vonnegut’s short stories, the latest blank space on his shelf. He eyed the spot, smiling. “Yes, I’ll be there,” he said.
If he was going to be slacking tomorrow night, he was going to have to finish his grading now. Reluctantly, he set his new Jack Allen article ideas aside and got back to Dean’s paper.
The next night Missouri called to ask if he could pick up a couple more groceries on the way to her house, which he was of course happy to do. So he kept his jeans on but at least switched to a nice button up instead of a t-shirt. Then he packed some more grading in his bag, just in case, and went down the outdoor back stairwell, descending into the delicious smells of coffee and baked goods from the early evening coffee shop rush. The stairs dropped him off on the bank of the small river running through the town, a couple buildings upstream of the waterfall. He took a moment to appreciate the soothing noise and water turned golden in the late sun, and the sound of laughter as students crossed the old brick bridge, headed into town for some weekend jaunt.
The corner store was only a block away, and he was able to make quick work of Missouri’s list: a 4-pack of chicken breasts, another bag of potatoes, a couple more blocks of sharp Vermont cheddar. Missouri’s house wasn’t more than a fifteen minute walk from there, so it was no trouble carrying the goods with him, his satchel slung across his shoulder. He climbed up and down the sidewalks and breathed in the last of the year’s flowers, admiring the trees that were just starting to blush into their fall colors.
Missouri’s house was a large one, painted a very pale purple, almost mauve. Her yard was nicely landscaped but not in that precise way of magazines and the neighborhoods of Castiel’s youth. There was still room for character there, and growth, and delightfully bushy bushes. Cas made quick work of the brick walk up to the front door. He knocked but turned the handle right away, knowing it would be open.
Sure enough, “Hello, Castiel!” Missouri called from the back of the house.
Cas set down his bags in the foyer and untied his sneakers, setting them neatly on the mats placed there for the purpose. There was a wide staircase leading upstairs to the right, and a sunken living room to the left with matching blue and white furniture. Lined with bookcases, of course, like any good home for a Doctor of English. But he walked past them to the kitchen and dining room, where anyone who visited Missouri Moseley spent most of their time.
The kitchen was enormous. She’d gotten it redone a few years prior, and the appliances still gleamed in their newness, the cupboards and cabinets a warm golden brown, and all the counters, including the large island with bar stools, were beautifully finished in quartz. The room was part of an open plan with the dining room, the shining jewel of the home; it was practically half a sunroom with the far wall being floor to ceiling windows complete with French doors that looked out onto the garden. Castiel loved Missouri’s garden, with its tiny winding path, and little bird feeders and fountains tucked throughout. He wanted to have his own garden someday. In fact, he’s fairly certain it was after he’d gone off on a tangent about pollination during one of Missouri’s dinners that inspired Claire to buy his little bee (she claimed she found it in the trash, but he was in the local flower shop enough to know where it really came from).
“Thanks, honey,” said Missouri when he set his bags on the island. She looked absolutely in her element and was already dressed for hosting, a silver and topaz brooch glittering on her breast. “I’m just about to get started.”
“Would you like help?” he asked, as he always did, even though he knew the answer.
She didn’t disappoint. “If I need help burning the house down, I’ll let you know.” They shared a chuckle. Then she nodded her head toward the dining room table. “I’m sure Patience would appreciate some company.”
Castiel had met Patience periodically over the few years he’d been teaching at Maple Hills College, and she’d always struck him as being just as bright—and perhaps more importantly, kind—as her grandmother. It was still surprising to see that she had spread out her things over half the enormous table, doing homework on a Saturday night. Ruefully he recognized his own freshman year in her work ethic…and maybe he hadn’t quite grown out of it, considering the grading he’d brought with him. “How are you, Patience?”
She looked up from her notes and smiled. “Hi, Cas. I’m good.”
“How have your first few weeks been?” He set his satchel on the table and opened it, figuring he may as well claim the other half for himself.
“Busy. And I thought high school was work.” She didn’t seem put out about it, though. “I joined the rugby team. And the rowing team.”
“Ah,” said Cas. That explained why she was doing homework now, and why Missouri was worried about her granddaughter making time for friends, if she had to be at rowing practice at 4am every weekday morning. Oh to have the energy of the young. “And your classes?”
“I really like my psych class. Dr. Barnes is awesome. I’m thinking I might go into it.”
“You have some time yet,” Missouri said from the kitchen. She was peeling potatoes. “Give yourself a semester before you commit.”
Patience rolled her eyes. “You sound like Dad.”
“I never said anything about Political Science, honey,” she said.
“No, but it’s not like you don’t want me to get more into poetry.” She turned back to Cas and leaned in conspiratorially. “See, she likes the artsy, soul-searching part of the human psyche. Me? I’m more into the science of it.”
Castiel hummed in thought at this statement, laying out his many pens in all the colors of the rainbow. Red was so aggressive on the page. He liked grading in greens and oranges, blues and purples. “Art and science do have a lot in common, at the core of it,” he said.
“How so?” asked Patience, curious.
“You need determination, imagination, the willingness to spend years honing your craft.”
“Still teaching after hours?” came a bright voice. “It’s the weekend!” Donna had arrived, with Jody and Alex in tow. She was carrying two large white boxes which were likely holding untold riches for dessert, and Jody had a couple bottles of wine tucked in her arms. Donna found some free space on the counter to set the boxes and hugged Missouri. “Good to see ya,” she said.
“You know academics can’t stop talking shop,” Missouri teased. She hugged Jody and Alex in turn. “Where are your other wayward daughters?”
“You know them,” said Jody, in that fond long-suffering tone she’d perfected since becoming a foster mom. “Ever since Claire and Kaia got their own place, they operate on Claire and Kaia time. Need some help?”
“Yes, Jody, if you wouldn’t mind?”
Cas smiled and shook his head.
Alex wandered over to the table. Patience sat up straight and gave an awkward wave. “Hi.”
“Hey, yourself. I’m Alex,” she said. “I work over at the clinic.”
Cas gracefully bowed out of the conversation, letting the girls get to know each other. He settled into reading his next paper, only looking up when Donna pat him on the shoulder and handed him a glass of white wine, his preference, and Alex a glass of red. The conversation got louder when she joined it, her exuberance lubricating the bumbling getting-to-know-you stage Alex and Patience were working their way through. Cas briefly wished that he’d had Donna as a friend back in his own college days, though his brother Gabriel and cousin Balthazar had done their bit to help him socialize, he supposed. But they weren’t always around when he could’ve used a tough friend to stand up for him before he’d quite learned how to do it himself. Donna may be naturally blonde and sunny, but she also knew how to use it as a screen before she snuck up on you and delivered the—metaphorical—killing blow, much to many a perp’s chagrin.
Jody, though, with her unapologetically short, graying hair and no-nonsense demeanor wore her well-earned toughness like a badge. Much to many an underage-drinking college student’s chagrin. “This is more food than usual,” she said, working on cleaning and breading the chicken across from Missouri and her potatoes.
“I invited some last minute additions,” answered Missouri, her sweet voice layered with a hint of excitement that caused Castiel to look up.
“Who is it?” he asked.
She smiled to herself as she cut the potatoes into chunks and dropped them into a large pot full of water. “You’ll see.”
No sooner did she say it than the doorbell rang.
“IT’S OPEN,” she shouted over her shoulder.
Castiel leaned back in his chair and peered down the hallway to the other side of the house. The knob turned and the front door opened a couple tentative inches. “Missouri?” A man’s voice. Castiel knew that voice…
“Come on in, Dean,” she answered.
Dean? Not Dean Winchester?
But it was. Castiel watched, frozen, as Dean walked in, followed by a woman with long hair and a man even taller than Dean’s considerable height. He was bending over almost a comical amount to hold the hand of a little boy. They were all casually dressed, jeans and flannels, and sturdy boots they set about taking off.
Missouri washed her hands, and still holding a towel she went over to greet them, converging together in the middle of the hallway. “I’m so glad you all could make it,” she said. “Sam, it’s been too long.” She hugged the tall man.
“Sorry, Missouri. You know how life is.” He hugged her back.
“And this can’t be Jack!” she exclaimed, clearly for the little boy’s benefit. “My how you’ve grown!”
The little boy puffed out his chest. “I’m with the big kids at school! Not in the baby room.”
“Good on you,” Missouri approved. She signed something to the woman before they hugged, too, and she ushered the three of them ahead of her into the kitchen, Dean a silent shadow at her back. “Everyone, this is Sam and Eileen Winchester, and their son Jack. They live in the area. And this” —she reached behind and tugged Dean by the arm to the front— “is Sam’s older brother Dean, who recently moved here. Winchesters, this is Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum, one of their daughters Alex, and my granddaughter Patience. Dean, you know Dr. Novak.”
“Uh, heya, Cas,” said Dean, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Hello, Dean,” he answered on autopilot. He was still frozen at seeing the student he’d been thinking so much of in the past couple of days right in front of him, as if he’d conjured him there.
“I hope you regulars don’t mind that I invited my old friends. I knew the brothers Winchester when they were still boys, back when we all lived in South Dakota. Wine?” Missouri offered them as an aside. They nodded. She took three more wine glasses from one of her cupboards. “I thought you all might have a few things in common.”
“Yes, I know you!” said Donna. She got up from the dining table and stood in front of Eileen, planting her hands on her hips in satisfaction. “We’ve run into each other once or twice on the job. How are ya?”
Eileen smiled. “It’s good to see you under happier circumstances, Sheriff.”
“Oh no, just Donna, please. She’s a case worker for kids, Jodes,” she added to her wife.
“No kidding,” said Jody, taking interest. Apparently Sam was somehow involved in the social system too, because the two couples immediately fell into conversation. Dean sidled further into the kitchen, taking Jody’s place as Missouri’s helper. He didn’t look over to the dining table. Castiel tamped down his disappointment.
Castiel, Alex, and Patience looked down to find that Jack had wandered over. He was wearing a pale blue shirt with a teddy bear on it declaring I WUV HUGS. He grinned up at them, fearless. A precocious child, clearly.
“Hello,” said Castiel.
“I like you,” Jack beamed. He signed when he spoke. Then he turned to Alex. “Do you like dogs?”
“Yes I do,” said Alex. “Sorry, but I don’t know how to sign. Is that okay?”
“It’s oookay,” said Jack. “Momma says sign with new people. They might like signs. I’m three. Do you like Moana?”
Alex stifled a giggle behind her hand. “She’s cool.”
“Cool,” echoed Jack, still beaming. He tottered past Alex toward Patience, and started trying to climb onto the chair next to her.
Her eyes grew wide, and she turned to Castiel and Alex in panic. “I’m an only child!” she whisper-shouted. “What do I do?”
Alex laughed for real this time, and easily reached down to help lift Jack into the chair. “Kids are fine, just treat them like people.”
Castiel smiled, torn between melting and laughter as Alex and Patience fielded more questions about Moana, dinosaurs, Maui, dinosaurs, Hei Hei, trucks, and dinosaurs. Patience relaxed by increments, though not quite all the way.
Good smells were beginning to waft from the kitchen, and loud, tipsy laughter filled the room. Castiel turned back to his grading, sipping his wine, and content to be surrounded by the easy fellowship Missouri fostered in her home. He got through a whole paper before some bickering caught his attention in the kitchen.
“But I can help more,” said Dean.
“And I said you’re a guest. Take your damn wine and sit down,” said Missouri.
“Yes, ma’am,” he capitulated. He picked up his large wine glass, looking a little awkward with it, and skirted the island where the couples were still holding court. He crossed into the dining room and walked over to look out the windows at the back garden.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Castiel asked.
Dean turned. “Yeah. It’s, uh, real nice.” He gestured at the closest chair, to Cas’s right. “Okay if I sit?”
“By all means.”
He pulled the chair out pretty far, so he could sit to the side and stretch out his legs. He rested the elbow closest to Castiel on the table, hand held loosely around the stem of his glass. “Grading?” he asked.
“Always,” Castiel smiled.
“Well, I’d put it away, if I were you.” Dean nodded toward his nephew. “You’ll become a college professor cliché if you spill wine all over everything and trust me, with a three-year-old around, something always spills.”
“Point taken.” He began to tidy up his papers and pens, looking at Dean out of the corner of his eye. If Missouri wouldn’t tell him anything, maybe Dean was comfortable enough with him now that he would do it himself. “So you moved here recently?”
“Yep,” he said. “Wanted to be closer to my overgrown moose of a brother and his family.”
“Are you originally from South Dakota?” He hauled his satchel into his lap and started tucking everything away.
“Kansas, originally. Hey, is that my paper?”
Castiel looked down, and sure enough, the stack of his 20th century course’s papers were clearly visible. Dean’s he’d left on top, mostly to remind himself to make notes about the relationship between Jack Allen and culture. “Would you like to see it now?”
Dean shrugged and then nodded. His shoulders were tense.
Castiel pulled it out and handed it over. It was only at the moment Dean’s eyes scanned his notes he realized he may not have picked his green pen for his paper at random. It had always been his favorite color to use since it reminded him of his plants, but in this case…
Dean tossed the paper back onto the table after having read only halfway down the second page, and took a strong gulp of his red wine. “Should I drop out now and save you the trouble?”
“What do you mean? The paper is a pass,” said Castiel.
“Based on your notes you want me to rewrite it anyway.” He clenched his jaw, scowling down at the paper.
Just like when they were discussing whether or not Dean should take the class, the man was a poor judge of his own abilities. Castiel cursed whatever teachers he’d had in the past who hadn’t nurtured his gifts. How many other adults were walking around these days erroneously thinking they were incapable because of a poor school experience? “If I had to make a guess,” he said, “I’d say you wrote that in one sitting and didn’t look over it again. Am I wrong?”
Dean’s eyes flicked up to him, then back down again. A tacit admission of guilt.
Gently he put his hand on top of the paper to redirect Dean’s attention. Reluctantly his student lifted his gaze back up. “It’s a first draft, Dean,” said Castiel. “Not the end of the world. If you want to improve, you have to revise the paper. There are some very, very good ideas in this.” He paused. “You also might want to brush up on your MLA.”
Dean was startled into a laugh. “Never thought I’d need to know that bullshit again.”
“It’s not glamorous, but it’s very useful bullshit.”
Dean dropped his head into his arm, laughing anew. Castiel wasn’t sure what he’d said to warrant it, but he could feel himself warming from the inside out. Dean normally looked so grim sitting in the back of his classroom; it was nice to see his shoulders finally relax and a smile lighting his face. In the few weeks since they’d stood next to each other, Cas had forgotten that Dean’s face was splashed with freckles, thicker over his nose and cheeks like constellations in a clear midnight sky. How could he have forgotten that?
Uh-oh, Cassie, said a voice in his head, mischievous and gleeful with Schadenfreude: a perfect imitation of Gabriel. He finished off his wine to flush it out.
Soon after Missouri called all hands on deck to set the table, and then Claire and Kaia made their fashionably late arrival to add to the chaos.
“Yo, Kaia,” Alex greeted. “Biker Barbie.”
Claire made a face at her, strutting across the kitchen in her punk-alternative clothes and swiping a bottle of wine along the way. “I’ll take it as a compliment, I guess. Castiel,” she acknowledged him.
“How are you, Claire? Kaia?”
“Peachy,” Claire answered with her usual attitude. She sat down at the table in her preferred spot, and dragged a set place across the table for herself.
“We’re good,” said Kaia. She was less outwardly rude than Claire, but much like Donna had cultivated a soft smokescreen to hide behind. Castiel knew her tongue could be very sharp indeed, if she felt the situation warranted it. She sat next to her girlfriend.
Claire poured Kaia a glass first, then one for herself. Then she spotted Patience setting one of the last places at the table, having cleared away her homework. She had gotten herself a glass of water. “Hey, want some wine?” asked Claire.
Patience brightened, opening her mouth, when—“No!” came both Missouri and Jody’s voices from the kitchen.
Patience sighed. “Guess not. You must be Claire and Kaia?”
“Howdy.” Claire winked at her. “Cas, who’re the old guys?” She pointed at Sam and Dean, who were helpfully getting dishes down from a high cupboard. Kaia rolled her eyes and grabbed her hand, clasping it between her own on top of the table.
“If Sam and Dean are old,” Castiel answered, “that makes me ancient.”
“If the shoe fits,” she said smugly. “Who are Sam and Dean?”
Introductions were made again—Donna excitedly telling her foster daughters that Jack had also been adopted out of the foster system—which seemed to let the girls’ hackles down a little bit. That also explained why Missouri thought that all the adults would have a lot to talk about.
Dinner was a noisy affair, full of bickering between the girls, indulging Jack’s constant non sequiturs, and Claire and Dean getting into a heated discussion about Vonnegut when Castiel had, somewhat innocently he thought, brought it up. To Castiel’s surprise Dean didn’t seem to be taking any real offense, as he sometimes did in class. It turned out that he and Claire knew how to speak the same biting language, and if the way Kaia fell laughing into Claire’s shoulder instead of defending her was any indication, the blonde girl was enjoying the argument thoroughly. Did Dean, and by extension Sam, come from a similar walk of life as the girls? Castiel wondered.
The conversation on their side of the table soon devolved into a series of pop culture references he couldn’t always understand. “Who hasn’t heard of Caddyshack?!” Dean exclaimed. “I’m done with your whole generation.”
Claire smirked like she’d won some kind of victory, face flushing with wine and a happiness which was too often foreign for her. At the same time Kaia, Alex, and Patience were just about losing it.
Then, to Castiel’s surprise, Dean turned his head slightly and winked so that only Castiel could see, and oh. Oh. Dean had been working them up on purpose. Dean had seen the girls’ edges, especially Claire’s pointed, jagged chips like spikes on her shoulders, and he’d found a way to make them laugh. In one hour Dean had achieved Claire’s grudging approval when it had taken weeks for Castiel to even get her to hold a conversation with him. My god who was this man, lips curling around his glass of wine, nudging his sister-in-law good-naturedly so he could sign her a joke that made her roll her eyes, though a smile lurked in the corner of her mouth, this man who was happy to help Missouri out in the kitchen, who loved his family so much he moved across the country to be closer to them?
Castiel wished so much in that moment that he had met Dean in other circumstances, and wasn’t bound to the distance absolutely necessary between teacher and student. That it wasn’t just his to have the silent Dean, thoughtful and troubled and made unhappy by Castiel’s remarks, but this Dean, too: the one who laughed with his whole body, and made dinosaur noises with his nephew, and ate Donna’s pie with such gusto that her smile hadn’t fallen away since.
He stood and went to the kitchen sink, taking his empty plate and half-full glass of wine, and poured the rest of it down the drain. Castiel was well below his limit for a safe walk home, but he’d had enough of indulging in dangerous thoughts. For the next few months it was imperative that he treat Dean like any other student. His duty as a professor demanded it.
His movement had caused the others to stir from the table. The adults were scraping back their chairs and stacking plates; Alex opened the French doors and followed Jack outside as he shrieked in delight, chasing fireflies around the garden. When Dean got up to help in the kitchen too, Cas kept his distance by seeking out Sam and Eileen, still at the table, and cultivating a conversation with them. They were as kind and intelligent as Dean had tonight proved himself to be, though they were perhaps quieter about it.
“Stanford?” Castiel confirmed, when Sam mentioned it. He was dying to know why Sam had gone to a world-class university and Dean had decided on only a GED, but he was beginning to understand that maybe the less he knew about Dean, the better. “I know several colleagues from there. Academia is a small world, and literature professors who like poetry more so.”
“Yeah I took just a couple lit courses. The only one I really remember is the one I took with Dick Roman because he was, er, well…” He ran his fingers though his long hair.
“A dick?” Cas supplied. “Yes, I’ve met him at a conference or two.”
“Exactly,” said Sam, laughing. “And he really loved Ayn Rand.”
The night drew on, soft and ever so slightly chilly in the early New England fall. Jack soon crashed, the energy he’d gained from his couple bites of pie all expended on the fireflies. Alex gently led him back inside the house and in a flash Dean was there, picking him up and smiling as the child rubbed his eyes. It was exceptionally cute. “Tired, buddy?” he asked. Jack nodded, and buried his face in Dean’s shoulder.
Cas ripped his gaze away. “I should get going,” he announced.
This was met with a chorus of protests from the adults, which turned into rueful agreement.
“We’ve got some driving to do,” acknowledged Eileen.
Relieved, Castiel made his escape with social graces intact.
But not before he was forced to agree with everyone that the night had been fun, and when was the date for his Queer Heroes talk again, and should they meet for dinner afterward since the Winchesters thought they might make the drive up for it?
Chapter 5: John Winchester's Waltz
Dean was nervous going back to class on Tuesday. He’d had a lot more fun than he’d been expecting at Missouri’s, sure. Jody and Donna were both frigging awesome—he couldn’t wait for the “burger date” he’d set up with the Sheriff who insisted she knew where to get the best cheeseburgers in a 100-mile radius—and their foster daughters, and of course Patience, all turned out to be funny and interesting young women. Missouri had chosen for her granddaughter well, he thought.
But the spanner in the works was Castiel. Missouri hadn’t told him that Castiel would be there, though he must have been a regular fixture, because Jody and Donna adored him just like Missouri seemed to. And he could tell that Claire looked up to him in her own prickly way. It was nice seeing Cas in that environment, in nice jeans and his top buttons undone on his shirt in just the way Dean liked, and dreaded. He thought back to how Cas had sat holding his glass of wine and leaning forward toward Claire, a dark curl falling over his forehead, face slightly pink from the alcohol and discussing Vonnegut and Bradbury in the same breath.
Fucking nerdy little dude-flavored catnip is what that man was, and it wasn’t fair. He’d had to remind himself over and over that night, and over and over the two days since, of the way he’d ripped apart Dean’s paper. Dean was far too low a bottom feeding deep sea fish on Castiel’s radar to be noticed by him like that, if he even swung that way. End of.
“You look constipated,” said Kevin, when he sat down at his back desk.
Dean rolled his eyes. “Thanks,” he muttered.
When Cas arrived he was wearing a tie, which meant closed shirt buttons, thankfully. And he didn’t give Dean any special acknowledgment from seeing each other over the weekend, except for one thing: he handed back everyone’s papers and when he set Dean’s on his desk, he subtly tapped at a new message written in the corner. It was in bright orange ink which stood out starkly from the green. If you need help with your revision, my office hours are there for a reason. It’s truly not a big deal! And underneath, a scribbled smiley face.
“Dork,” he laughed under his breath, and ignored how his heart skipped a beat. Did Cas put smiley faces on everyone’s homework?
“Okay, read the notes later,” said Cas, not unkindly. Some of the students grumbled and put their papers away. There were too many overachievers at this school for them not to want to pick apart their grades immediately. “We’re starting the Mid-Century unit this week. The middle of the 20th century was every bit as rich and complex as its early days. Many movements grew out of this time period, including the Beat Generation, Formalism, Surrealism, Confessional, Deep Image poetry, and many more. This is because we are now concerning ourselves with the generation of men and women who grew up in the Great Depression and lived through World War Two. This was truly a great age for the English-language poet. Some came out the other side of it railing against the establishment, celebrating sexuality and drugs and freedom. Others remained steadfast against McCarthyism and blacklisting; others defied categorization amid rampant polarization between races and genders that defined, quite especially, the American mid-century.
“Today I’ll be talking about the complex tapestry of not only our country in the time period, but Britain and South Africa in particular as well. Any questions before we dive in?”
“I’ve got one,” announced Kevin. Dean was still sometimes taken aback that students could use that kind of challenging tone, something that would get you shot down in high school, and have a college professor accept it with equanimity.
“Please,” said Cas, half-sitting on the front of his desk.
“Where are all my Midwestern poets?”
Dean couldn’t help himself. “Right?!” Ever since Kevin had pointed out to him about the rampant regionalism at the school, he’d begun to notice it everywhere. Without taking his eyes off their professor, Kevin held out a fist, which Dean bumped with enthusiasm.
“Hmm,” said Cas. “Where do you hail from, Mr. Tran?”
“Well,” said their professor, with a growing smile on his lips. “Stay tuned for Thursday. I think I can oblige you.”
The next class, Castiel handed out a new poetry packet.
“Alright everyone,” he said, causing conversations to peter off and people to settle in their chairs. “We’re going to begin our mid-century journey by looking at some American poets that typify the period. And Kevin?” Castiel paused, zeroing in on Kevin. “They’re both from Michigan.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Kevin grinned though, per usual, he didn’t bother with any notes. He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and ankles as if to say, let’s see what you’ve got.
Cas wore a tiny, satisfied smirk as he uncapped a marker for the whiteboard. “Remind me everyone, what are the levels of a poem? First?” The class sighed and chanted their way through typographical, sonic, sensory, ideational, and fusional. “Good,” he said, finishing off the last word with a flourish. “Keep this in mind as we read.” He turned on the projector and dimmed the lights as the screen lowered. He tapped a couple times on his laptop and his powerpoint popped up with a short poem of four quatrains. “‘My Papa’s Waltz,’ written by Theodore Roethke in 1942. Why don’t you do the honors, Kevin?”
At this Kevin deigned to get out of his laidback position and sat up. There was a bit of eagerness about him that he didn’t usually show. “My Papa’s Waltz,” he began.
“The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
“We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
“The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
“You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.”
The room fell into the usual thoughtful silence whenever a poem was finished. Castiel let it sit for a few moments. He stood to the side of the projector screen, hands on his hips, and surveyed the students. “First impressions?”
“I like it,” said Alicia Banes. “There’s a…wild joy to it.”
“Like they’re so caught up in dancing that it doesn’t matter that they’re bumping into things or getting scrapes or bruises, because they’re enjoying the moment and having the moment together. Like you know, his dad probably works hard what with his hands being dirty, right, so it’s a treat when he comes home and horses around with his kid.”
“Roughhousing,” her twin, Max, supplied.
There were other murmurs of assent, but Dean was unconvinced. There was that, sure, but…He reread the poem, looking at the words. Whiskey, death, battered, scraped, buckle, beat.
“Death, though,” said Billie. She’d clearly spotted the same thing. “He was dizzy, and he hung on like death. His father beat the time on his head…his mother clearly upset. It’s a conceit, isn’t it?”
“Expand on that,” Cas encouraged.
“The poet is using dance as a conceit. It’s a metaphor for his father beating him.”
Her pronouncement was met with uncomfortable quiet. Dean, thankful to be in the back row, stared at the old wood of his desk, and the decades of grooves and scratches. Buckle. His belt. A memory swam to the surface of his mind from underneath layers and layers of time and repeated offenses, a singular moment of his father, drunk, hands holding the sharpness of anger but none of the steadiness of intent, fumbling with his buckle, two tugs, three to whip the belt from its loops.
“Why would he still cling to his shirt, though?” Lydia wondered. “Maybe he was a rough man, but I think it’s actual dancing. The violent language was for a bad living situation or something—” And the debate began. The classroom fell in line, half of them arguing for a dance and the other for abuse. Was the father a terrible, evil man? Was Roethke’s childhood one of horror and abject misery? Or was it people scraping by the best they could, finding fun in all places, even if a few eggs got cracked? The father a bright light in a bleak world? With every student that spoke Dean felt swayed one way, and then the other. Then waltzed me off to bed still clinging to your shirt…And like it still happened every night, Dean remembered: how when Sam and Dean were still small, their father tucked them in at night if he was home, giving them each a soft kiss on their foreheads, his hard laborer’s hands gentle and comforting. He used to do that, he did. When did it stop? Which job was it, when he came home, and for the first time gave them nothing more than a squeeze on the shoulder?
“Dean?” Cas’s deep voice split neatly through the arguing. Startled, Dean looked up at the professor. “You’ve been quiet. What’s your take?”
He glanced at his classmates and quickly looked away. They were all riled up, half turned in their desks to face each other, and now looking to him to support their side. But the thing was, he supported both. Or neither. Dean cleared his throat and ignored them, narrowing his gaze to Cas. “What if…sometimes it was a dance, and sometimes it wasn’t? Like there’s love there, but it’s buried under all this…” He waved his hand, unsure how to say it. How do you even begin to describe a father like that? One who tried and tried and so often failed?
April scoffed. She was one of the just-outside-of-Boston girls. “It can’t be both. You don’t beat your kid if you actually love them.”
Her words stung him with a tangible weight. The initial lash was instinctive, that old mantra, if he really loved me, if I were better, if I were actually worth loving—but what gave her the right? Didn’t she know that people were never just one thing, and that his dad had worked himself to the damn bone, to the point where his body just wouldn’t work anymore—That his dad beat him once or twice, sure, but then there were times like when Dean had been sick, so sick, but still he’d taken care of Sam and made dinner and put him to bed. There’d been love, then, love in the gentleness of his hands as he rubbed his back, love in the way he let Dean cry himself out onto his work uniform, love in the soft kiss pressed onto the top of his head. There’d been love…but he was not about to spend his time thinking about John Winchester. The man was dead and buried.
This decided, his anger ebbed as soon as it swelled. She was tucking hair behind her ear, back in the argument with another student, and she looked so, so young. Untried, untested by life. She’d clearly never really known someone like his father. He hoped she never would.
Instead he looked at Cas, and was surprised to find him looking back instead of following the new debate. His expression was open but complex, something of respect, somewhat calculating. Dean couldn’t parse it. He got that feeling of being seen again, and set about doodling something in his notebook to make it look like he was taking notes. God, if that wasn’t like old times with Charlie back in high school.
“Let’s pause this discussion for now,” the professor finally said. The students subsided. “Maybe after we read the second poem some of you might want to revisit your theories.” He tapped a button and a new slide appeared. “This next one was written in 1966 by Robert Hayden: ‘Those Winter Sundays.’ I’ll read it this time. I want you to really listen.
“Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
“I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
“Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Dean was overwhelmed. No other word. Overwhelmed. With guilt. With shame. He let the arguments wash over him, this time, the recriminations about ungrateful children, the comparisons of the different perceived behaviors of the fathers in the two poems…the nuance, all nuance lost. When Castiel told them to pair off and discuss further, Dean turned toward Kevin more out of habit than anything.
“Well, my dad died when I was a kid,” said Kevin, no preamble. “You?”
“Uh, dead too. A couple years ago.”
“Fantastic. Want to talk about the sonic qualities instead?”
As soon as Cas started his closing remarks, Dean stuffed his things into his bag. He sat on the edge of his seat until Cas dismissed them—something about a response paper, Dean wasn’t really paying attention—and made sure he was first out of the room. A couple of other classes were being released in the building at the same time, but with his bulk he easily made a way for himself down the stairs and out the door. He climbed the damn hill with a vengeance, relishing the burn that still pulsed in his legs at the effort, and practically flew down the other side in the cool autumn air. He made short work of the green and the rest of campus, and soon enough Dean was slamming Baby’s door shut and peeling out of the parking lot.
It wasn’t until he was alone on the county road, halfway between Maple Hills and home, when the tears got so bad he started choking on them. Only then did Dean realize he was crying. He swerved to the road’s edge, gritting his teeth through the rumble strip, and roughly turned off the car. Baby’s engine cut off with a wheeze. The sobs were loud, now, in his ears, and suddenly even the car was too much, the car John Winchester had bought and driven for most of his life. Dean stumbled out on the empty road and clutched his hands to his head, digging his fingers into his scalp, squeezing his eyes shut. No other sound could be heard but the light swaying of the trees; he hadn’t seen anyone else for ten miles. Another sob ripped its way out of his throat, despite his desperately trying to swallow it down. He turned and slammed his elbows onto the roof of the car, burying his face in his hands.
“John Winchester is dead,” he told himself, studiously ignoring how wrecked his voice sounded. “He’s dead. He’s at peace. I’m at—I’m fine.” Quiet lingered; a bird chirped in the distance. The westering sun was just strong enough to fall like a warm caress on his left side. Dean inhaled. Exhaled.
He pushed himself upright. “I’m just—fucking—FINE.” He punctuated the words with his fists, pummeling the roof of the car. His hands stung but it was a good sting, it felt fucking great, he was going to take a goddamn crowbar to this car and it was going to feel absolutely incredible. He ripped the driver’s door back open and snatched the keys from the ignition, reached the Impala’s trunk in quick, long strides, and shoved the key in to unlock it.
It wouldn’t budge.
“Come on, you piece of shit!” Dean tried turning it again until he realized he was using Sam’s housekey. He ripped it out and fumbled with his keyring, trying to shove them in one by one, not even caring, and when none of them were going in quite right he started over, his father tugging his belt from the loops, once, twice, so angry his hands could barely function and Dean whirled around and threw the keys straight into the woods. “FUCK!” he screamed, then crumpled onto the trunk.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, shoulders hunched and hands pressing hard into cool metal, edge of the car digging into his ass. His anger subsided into a simmer, no longer a boiling rage but still there, deep under the surface. Had it always been there? Shame crept in, pressing against his chest and releasing his muscles from all the tension, instead wrapping them in a heavy weight. In front of him his shadow grew long, and longer. Dean should never have fucking come here. Kansas had been fine, just fine. He wanted to feel something so bad, well he should’ve been more careful what he wished for because now he was really fucking feeling.
He began to shiver.
A hawk flew overhead.
At length Dean became aware of a rustling in the underbrush on the other side of the road. He held his breath as he caught movement, a figure among the red and orange trees. He couldn’t tell what it was between the shadows. An old nightmare came back to him, more flotsam and jetsam floating to the surface of his mind now the floodgates were open: a monster chasing him through the woods, chasing him. The figure moved closer, walked toward the edge of the road where the trees began to thin, and…it was a deer.
A doe, in fact. She snuffled through the grasses that grew in the gravel, and then lightly stepped onto the asphalt. Dean stayed frozen. The deer didn’t bound across as they sometimes did at dusk, making Dean slam on the brakes and reach an arm out to brace Sammy in case of impact whether he was sitting there or not. She just walked, sniffing the ground until she paused, straddling the dashed yellow line. She looked down the road to the east; then the doe turned her delicate head to the west, toward Dean. Even his shivering stilled under her gaze. He knew deer were just dumb animals, but…there was an undeniably natural wisdom in her look that considered him, and in the end was unafraid. They shared an endless moment, sweet and stretched like taffy, until she huffed out a breath and headed on toward the woods. Her hooves made dull clops on the old asphalt, and the gravel crunched when she reached the other side. Dean watched the doe as she slipped back into the trees, glimpses of tan hide and white tail between rough bark and turning leaf. Then she was gone.
Dean’s phone vibrated in his jacket pocket, startling him. He pulled it out. Sam’s name was splashed across the screen. Dean cleared his throat and wiped his nose before hitting accept. “Yeah?”
“You’re usually home by now, class go okay? Gonna be home in time for dinner? No, Jack—Jack put that down.” Dean could hear Jack saying something in the background. “You’re right. Put that down please. Thank you. Dean? Dinner?”
“Yeah, uh…Give me twenty minutes.”
“Kay. Drive safe, jerk.”
He hung up and patted his pockets for his keys. “Shit,” he muttered.
After a couple minutes of searching through the underbrush near the road—deer nowhere to be seen—he found his keys. Thankfully they’d hit a tree not too far in. He trudged back to his car and sighed, pausing to rest his hand on the hood halfway around. “Sorry, Baby,” he said.
The rest of the drive back to Sam and Eileen’s was quiet. The radio was on, but so low that Dean didn’t register it much beyond his loud thoughts. He felt himself in the eye of a dark storm, so many memories vying for attention that he had to carve himself out a space of blankness just so he wouldn’t crash the car. It was nice, having something to do with his hands. He kept them both on the wheel, though he was usually a more relaxed driver, and conscientiously signaled when appropriate, looked twice before turning or changing lanes. The fine tremor in his fingers was lessened that way, with something important to concentrate on.
Each day was getting shorter as autumn limped ahead, and a low sun was settling close to the horizon by the time he reached the neighborhood. Someone was walking their dog, but otherwise everyone was inside, house lights already turned on, cars parked in driveways and along the curb: home for dinner, and family. He supposed that’s what he was there for as well, but…Sam and Eileen led their own lives. Dean was only ever a visitor to their house, to this type of life. That had always been the case. At least since his mom died.
Their little house, snug between its neighbors, maybe needed a bit of care—Sam and Eileen were both very busy, and with a small child to boot—but with the shades yet to be drawn over the front windows Dean could see his enormous little brother chasing Jack around the living room, and all the love and happiness it entailed. It was a good house. A good home. Sam had grown and built himself something and found a good partner to build it with. That pane of glass between them may as well have been a brick wall for all Dean felt he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, been left behind. Still mired in old ways, old thoughts. Old fears.
He sighed and trudged up the front steps to find the door unlocked. Before now, Dean could never have imagined him or Sam being able to live in a place where it was safe enough to keep the door unlocked.
“Dean!” shouted Jack, and ran up to hug his leg.
He reached down and ruffled Jack’s hair. “Hey, buddy.” He stood back up. “Sam.”
His brother narrowed his eyes. Dean figured he must look as worn out and on edge as he feels. “Jack, go tell your mother Dean’s home,” he said. He waited until Jack ran off to do as bid before he asked, “How was class?”
“Not now, Sammy,” Dean said.
Sam took a breath in, but after a moment of thought only let air back out. Dean knew he wasn’t giving up, but maybe, for once, Dean didn’t want him to. “Lasagna’s been resting. It’s probably ready to cut now.”
“What, you actually made lasagna?”
“Hell no. It’s Stouffer’s.” Sam led the way into the kitchen.
Dean snorted. “Good enough for me.”
The kitchen was noticeably warmer from the oven, and was filled with the rich smell of meat, tomatoes, and cheese. Sam opened the cupboard to get plates. “I miss Karen’s lasagna,” he said. “You know how to make it, right?”
“It’s been years,” said Dean. When Karen wasn’t feeling well enough to cook, but at least well enough to sit at the kitchen table and drink some tea, she would direct Dean around the kitchen while Sam did his homework and Bobby was finishing up in the office. It seemed so long ago, like a deep, wide gulf had opened up between then and now. The intervening years were blank and empty in comparison, a doldrums that could have lasted four years, or forty. “Don’t even know when last I made it.” He rummaged through the silverware drawer for forks and knives, picking out a little fork for Jack that had frogs on the handle.
“You should call her later,” said Sam. “Get the recipe. Maybe we can make it this weekend.”
Call Karen? He hadn’t called her or Bobby in an embarrassingly long time. He could imagine it now: “Hey, sorry I blew you off and didn’t pick up the phone the last few times you tried calling, but can I have a recipe?” Thankfully he was saved from replying to Sam by Jack and Eileen entering the kitchen, and then there was a kid to strap into a booster seat and paper towels to hand out and dinner to eat.
The conversation at the table stuck to lighter topics, funny things at the office or listening to Jack describe in detail all the games he’d played at daycare that day. When they were done eating Dean waved his brother and sister off, taking on the cleaning himself. Sam let this slide, too, and Dean was glad of it; he washed the dishes by hand, very thoroughly, and listened to the three of them playing around in the other room. When he was done washing dishes he cleaned the table and the counter, and then swept the kitchen floor for good measure. Then he grabbed a bottle of scotch and went to sit on the patio.
Sam and Eileen’s front yard was modest, but they had a decent-sized yard in the back. Their patio was big enough to hold a large round table with six chairs, the kind of table with an umbrella attached so you could have shade in the summer. To the left was a small garden lined with gray stones looking a little overrun, another one of those projects overachievers like Sam and Eileen started with good intentions but had trouble keeping up with. There was a crabapple tree taking up a good portion of the right side of the yard, and in the middle of the open space was a fire pit. No fence shut in the property, but there was a treeline on the far side separating their backyard from the backyards of the houses the next street over. The sun was mostly set, now, and the evening just cool enough to discourage mosquitoes. Dean kicked back one of the chairs and slumped down. He poured a generous amount of scotch in a tumbler and nursed it, watching the fireflies flicker in and out like sparks.
Dean was on his second glass when Eileen stepped outside with Jack in her arms. “Say good night to your uncle.”
Jack wore the pout of a child who was tired and in denial about it, but the argument must have already been fought and lost because he just reached for Dean. “Hug?”
The unstudied gesture, the honest sweetness of it, hit Dean like a thorn in the heart. He set down his glass and allowed Eileen to hand the kid over. Jack squeezed his arms around Dean’s neck, but Dean was gentle, so gentle in the way he held him close; in this moment he was so incredibly aware of how precious this child was. He hadn’t felt like this since Sam was a kid. Those moments when you understood that you would die for someone if the need arose, and walk willingly into that death without regret. Not a morbid thought: just a simple truth. And if death was easy, what else wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice for him?
When Eileen scooped Jack back up, Dean could see the same thing in every line of her body, in the curve of her arms keeping him safe, in the soft smile resting in the corner of her mouth, the happy kiss she dropped on the crown of his head—because why not? Why would she think twice at showing her son affection? At expressing her love for him?
Had John Winchester ever felt that way about his sons?
After they went back inside Dean tensed, jiggling his knee. As expected, it wasn’t long before Sam came out to join him, sliding the back door shut with a decisive snick. He pulled out the chair next to Dean’s, the metal scraping against the cement. Only when he reached for the liquor did Dean look up and realize that Sam had brought his own tumbler along. Eileen must have told him he was drinking.
The brothers sat for a few minutes. It was nice, the dread of the upcoming discussion notwithstanding; Dean missed those quiet moments with Sam driving around the country, stopping in the middle of a field at night, crickets chirping and stars glittering like a sea of diamonds overhead and no words between them, only a six-pack of beer bought at the last gas station. Fireflies and scotch weren’t a poor substitute, Dean decided. But it might have to wait for another night.
He sighed and broke the silence. “You ever take lit classes in college?”
Sam cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “A few,” he said.
“Ever read Roethke?”
Sam shrugged and shook his head. Dean slid his phone out of his pocket and a quick google landed him “My Papa’s Waltz” easily enough. He handed the phone over for Sam to read. Dean watched him carefully, but his face was neutral, only the slight movement of his eyes crossing back and forth over the lines. When Sam finished he tossed the phone at Dean and took a swig of his whiskey. “Sounds like Dad. Just as likely to laugh and tell stories when he drank as he was to yell you out of the room.”
“Heh.” Dean couldn’t help a rueful smile; trust Sammy to get to the heart of the matter in a split second when it took the class fifteen minutes. He brought up Hayden’s poem and shoved that under Sam’s nose too.
Gamely Sam set down his glass and took back the phone. This one Sam read twice, a frown pulling at his mouth. “Tough class today,” he said at length, putting the phone on the table between them.
Dean shrugged and watched the screen go black, obliterating the words. “Those kids…” He took a drink and started over. “Most of them were convinced that one father was good and the other evil. Or that Roethke’s dad was overall shitty and that any fondness that came through for him in the poem was fucked up. Like he got Stockholm syndrome from his own dad. Or with Hayden like…he was totally ungrateful for all the work his dad did. And they just skipped over the ‘chronic anger’ like in this case it was excusable. Like there’s some kind of line a father has to cross before you’re allowed to hate him. Or fear him. But that also means you can’t—can’t love him.” Dean dropped an elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead. “Talking about it like any nice thing you feel for him is a lie. Like you’re some sad little victim whose mind is so twisted you can’t even trust your own damn feelings. They were so fucking judgmental and you could just tell from the way they talked about it they never had to…you know.”
He screwed up his courage and looked over at Sam. His mouth was pressed in a thin line, and his eyes were watering just enough to catch the low light and hold it. “I get it.”
“Do you?” Dean barked a laugh. “At least you fucking stood up for yourself.”
“At least you talked back to him. I was just yes-sir-no-sir right to the end.”
“I wish you’d left him.”
“And then what?” Dean hissed. “What kind of son would I be if I’d left him? He couldn’t take care of himself, was he just supposed to wake up in his own piss? Was he supposed to crawl across the house every time he needed to eat? What? He worked his fucking ass off in the shittiest jobs known to man all his life, for us, and never heard a damn word of thanks for it, and I should have said sayonara and see you later when he needed me the most?”
“Did he ever thank you?” Sam crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
“You’re so worried about whether either of us ever thanked him, and sure maybe we should’ve said it once in a while, but did he ever say it to you?”
“Course not,” Dean muttered. “But that’s different.”
“Is it?” Sam shook his head and looked out at the fireflies. “Love’s austere and lonely offices—that could be a father taking care of his son. Could also be a son taking care of his father.”
“I didn’t do it for thanks.”
“Maybe he didn’t either.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point, Dean?”
“I used to tell myself. When I stopped…” Dean took a harsh breath and dug a hand into his leg, the other tightening around his glass. “When I went to live with Dad that was a choice, Sam. Not like I didn’t know how he’d be. Not like I wasn’t gonna miss you and Bobby and Karen. It was my choice. Just the reasons I used to lie to myself about.”
“Like what?” Sam asked softly.
“Like I was doing it out of duty. Because Bobby and Karen had done it before but they had each other to worry about. Couldn’t be them. You had your whole future ahead of you. Couldn’t be you. Had to be me, right?”
“No, it didn’t—”
“Just listen!” Sam curled his fist on the table, but nodded for Dean to continue. “I thought to myself, I have to do it because I owe him. Or because he’d be just pathetic on his own. Or that nasty thing he just said? He didn’t mean it, no hurt feelings. Or if you weren’t such a whiny bitch this wouldn’t be so hard, this shit is easy as pie. Or, what would other people think of our family if no one stepped up to the plate? But you know,” he said with a bitter laugh, “I wouldn’t wish having lived with him those last years on you or anybody. The idea of owing him—that guy? We pulled our fucking weight.”
“Damn right,” Sam murmured.
“He definitely meant some of the shit he said. And I might be a little bitch but I am long, long since past caring what other people think of me. Or I thought I was. Because…” He drained his glass, poured himself a third. “I haven’t thought about him in a long time. He died and I thought, well, that’s over then. But I’m thinking of him now and you know what I remember? Not all the shit he said, ‘cause those days when he was mean were a dime a fucking dozen. Not that time he left me behind at that boys’ home as a punishment for stealing food, even though the moment I realized he wasn’t coming for me was one of the worst moments of my fucking life. Not the couple of times he raised a hand to me—kids out there get beat a lot more than that, what’s the big deal?”
“It is a big deal, Dean!” Sam burst out. “He crossed the line long before he ever hit you. He crossed the line when he left us alone so long we had to steal to eat. Though I wish I’d stolen a lot more because he definitely crossed the line as soon as you prostituted yourself to fucking feed us.”
Dean’s breath stoppered in his throat. “How—”
“Oh, I didn’t realize at the time,” Sam spat. “But do you really think I don’t read your fucking poetry?”
He honestly hadn’t, no. Skimmed it, maybe. “Well, I—it’s, it’s boring, and—”
“And nothing. It’s good, Dean, but I can barely stand it because I get so damn angry. I’ve read the poems over and over and over again, each time hoping I’ve misread it and I’ll see something different, but it’s always the same. I wanted him to rot in hell for the shit he did to us, but especially the shit he did to you. Why do you think I never wanted to visit him? You get it, don’t you? Poems like ‘The Hunt’…where you’re chasing after monsters or going up against demons, that’s just you projecting shit, right? Those monsters and demons are Dad. Am I wrong?”
“Don’t psychoanalyze me.”
Sam took it as his inability to deny, which of course it was. “And Dad as you described him in those, like some kind of superhero, that was just wishful thinking.”
“No,” Dean cut him off. “No it wasn’t.”
“It was still Dad.” Dean smiled, ignored the tear that at long last broke free. “It’s what I was trying to tell you. When I think of him, none of that stuff is what I think first. There was this one time, I must have been twelve or thirteen. He was working night shifts as a security guard down at some warehouse in, uh, Ohio or something. So he’s asleep by the time we wake up for school, and I wake up one morning really sick. Bad headache, bad cough, can’t breathe through my nose. But still I get up, get you to school. I go to school, too, because I couldn’t quite fake Dad’s voice yet, and I sure wasn’t going to wake him up by asking him to call out, or by the school calling him to see where I was, right? And I make it through the day, and I pick you up. You do your homework and I make dinner and I bundle you off to bed. But I’m fucking miserable. Can’t sleep but can’t do anything else. Just lying on the couch with the TV on, but not watching it. Shivering, can barely lift my head. Then Dad comes home. Must have been four or five in the morning. I can hear him opening and locking the door, throwing his keys on the table and I’m kind of scared, you know? Is he going to be mad I’m not in bed? But he walks in and I see him and I just…I’m so relieved that he’s home I start crying.” He’s crying in earnest now, overwhelmed by the memory unburied. Awoken and alive. “I can’t help it. But he doesn’t tell me to shut up. Doesn’t tell me to act more like a man. Doesn’t yell at me or force me to go upstairs. Doesn’t say how he’s too tired to deal with my shit.”
“What did he say, then?”
“Nothing.” Dean laughed a little. “Nothing at all. He just comes over to the couch and helps me sit up. He’s real gentle about it. Then he sits on the couch himself and he pulls me into his lap. And I can’t remember the last time he did that but I don’t question it. His jacket is unzipped so he tucks it around me, and his arms, too. He smells like…leather and aftershave and a little sweat. But he’s really warm. I stop shivering. He changes the channel and he’s laughing at some morning show and I just feel so…” Dean swallows. “Safe.”
“Then what?” asked Sam, barely even a whisper.
Dean shrugged. “I fall asleep. Wake up in my bed later. Dad had seen you off to school and called me in sick and everything.” They sit in silence for a few minutes; Dean takes another slug of whiskey and there’s no burn anymore, just smoothness, earthiness. He wipes away the tears. “So yeah. I still love him. Boy do I hate him for some of the shit he did but it doesn’t matter. I took care of him because I love him and I guess that makes me weak. Because he abused us and that’s the bottom line, right? And so my love for him doesn’t matter? Or means that I’m sick? I can’t, I can’t feel sorry for him that he got dealt such a shitty hand? I’m not supposed to worry about him because he’s an asshole? I’m supposed to denounce him and feed him to the dogs and pretend he doesn’t mean anything to me? I’m still some fucked up little kid that doesn’t know any better than to love his own damn father?”
“Loving him doesn’t make you weak, Dean,” said Sam, sighing. “Or if it does, then I’m weak too.”
“Yeah right. You just said you hope he’s rotting in hell.”
“No, I said I wanted him to rot in hell. Wanted.”
“Purgatory might be good. You know, just enough so he understands what he did.” Sam gave him a wobbly smile through his tears, up but shuddering back down again. “Then, yeah. I think he should have some peace.”
The admission was surprising enough that Dean’s tears petered out. “I didn’t know. Thought you still hated him.”
“Really? You think it was all crocodile tears when he died? You think that of me?”
Dean watched his little brother, his patented kicked puppy look melting into defeat. God, how was that even worse than the puppy look? “Of course not,” he said. He thought back to their father’s last breath, and to the funeral itself. “No, I never thought that.”
Sam relaxed, even looked a little relieved. “Eileen’s been through a lot too, you know? She was at this orphanage in Ireland for years, they were the worst kind of religious zealots and…And I’d already been with her for awhile, and it made us realize we had a lot to straighten out within ourselves if we wanted to be good for each other. If we ever wanted to be able to be good for each other. So maybe that helped. But, uh, when you knew it was close to the end and you called me in, and I walked into that hospital I had all of these things I wanted to say to him. All of these really well thought out, lawyerly answers to any argument or accusation he’d ever laid against me. I wanted to rip him a new one for all the things I’d found out from your poetry, too.”
“He never knew about me going out and—he never knew about it,” Dean interjected. Defending John Winchester was something his brother often gave him grief for growing up; Dean didn’t want to derail the conversation, but it was very important to him Sam understood this. “I never let him. And he definitely never knew about Jack Allen, so.”
“Figured not,” Sam shrugged. “Moot point. I saw him and all of that flew out the window. He was just kinda…softer, than I remembered him. Tempered by this pain in a different way from all the stuff with Mom dying.” Sam stared into his glass, mostly empty. “He looked so happy to see me, but really sad, too. Like he had at least an inkling that some of it was his fault. And I just…I wanted him to talk about how he met Mom, or about Grandma Millie. He even talked some about Vietnam, and he never talked to us about that. And he had that soccer trophy I’d won in sixth grade. It was weird that you put it there, but—”
“He asked for it.”
For the first time that night, Sam looked truly flummoxed. “What?”
“Yeah. When we realized it was gonna be a long term stay he asked for a few things from home. That was one of them. Took me half a day to find it in all that junk he kept in the basement.”
Sam ducked his head and shook with a silent sob. After composing himself he continued, “He brought it up. He pointed it out and he recounted the entire play for the goal I scored that game. Couldn’t believe he remembered it. I mean, it was one of the only games he ever made it to, but still. And then he asked about me. When I told him about Eileen he wanted to know all about her, too, wanted to meet her. I’d sent you off to keep her company, remember? I didn’t want her in the room, if he was going to let me have it.”
“He liked Eileen.”
“Right?” said Sam, brightening. “He caught on right away, too, when I had to interpret a lot because his mouth wasn’t always moving well enough for Eileen to read his lips. He would still look at her and talk to her, instead of talking through me like she wasn’t there. He was really good to her and that was…” He choked up again. “Actually wanting to know her, and getting to know her, even if it was only for a few days, was the greatest thing he ever did for me.”
Dean clapped his shoulder and squeezed. He waited until Sam’s sniffles died down before pulling back. He poured them each another finger.
Sam took a fortifying gulp and ran a hand through his hair. “Loving Dad doesn’t make us weak or stupid. Doesn’t mean we’re wrong, either.”
Dean snorted. “If you’d heard them—”
“What do they know, Dean? What do they know?” Sam kicked his foot, demanding acknowledgment for his wit. Dean kicked back. “I can honestly guarantee you Eileen and I spent a lot of time tearing our hair out about this before we adopted.”
“Pretty sure there’s a clause against that in the million dollar insurance L’Oréal took out on it.”
“Shut up,” Sam said easily. “I’m serious. Don’t you think we were scared shitless we’d do even a tenth of the damage to Jack that was done to us? Hell, I’m still scared shitless.”
“You guys are awesome parents.” Sam scoffed and glared at the garden. “Sam. Hey, look at me.” Sam waited a few more defiant seconds before turning and staring Dean in the eye, as if waiting to be judged. “If you were doing something wrong I wouldn’t stay quiet about it. Not about this. You gotta trust me.”
“I know,” Sam sighed. “I’m counting on it. Sometimes I just worry that I’m too much like Dad. I know I’ve got his temper and I’ll be angry and say something and later when I think back on it I realize that what I said was verbatim John Winchester. And then when I try to find examples from my childhood, times when I felt loved and taken care of and safe, examples I can follow when I feel lost with Jack…it’s not him I look to.”
“You know,” said Sam quietly. “Of course you do. You’re the one that raised me.”
“Cooking for him, reading to him, changing him, bathing him, listening to his stories…everything I do for him, it was never Dad that did that. It was you.”
Dean had nothing to say to that. He was crying again, they both were. How could he deny it?
Sam swallowed and took a big breath. “I hate Dad,” he spat. “He neglected us and abused us and he sucked the life out of you like a goddam vampire. But I love him. Because he did love me, and he loved Eileen, and he gave us the Singers, who gave us the Turners, and Charlie, and Missouri. But mostly I love him because he gave me the best big brother I could ever fucking ask for. A toast,” he said, voice regaining its strength.
Dean nodded, wiped the last stray tear from his face. “To John Winchester,” he said, raising his glass. And they drank to all the man was, and all he could have been.
Neither of them poured anything more from the bottle. The air grew chilly. Sam yawned. Without having to speak they slowly stood, gathering their glasses and heading in.
“Hey, Dean?” said Sam.
That night, despite the day’s rollercoaster and the good amount of liquor, Dean floated only on the edge of sleep. There was an urge in him, deep down, and growing stronger the longer he laid there. He couldn’t recognize it at first. He was tired, and that was familiar; he’d spoken with Sam, and that had been enough for some measure of calm. His brain rode lazy circles around it, until the need became so great it was physical, a warning in his gut. Like something was waiting for him, and if he didn’t find it now it might be lost forever. It wasn’t until he sat up in consternation, eyes falling on the box in the corner of his room that he understood.
It had just been so long.
He flipped his blankets over and off, lightly set his feet to the floor. After another moment he finally stood and walked over to the box. It was beat-up cardboard, dirty, with flaps hanging open. It was full of books, at least on top. He’d already rummaged through it in the couple months he’d been here, especially for his Ginsberg, his Tolkien. His mother’s On the Road. The rest he took out now and set down in precarious towers around the box: hardcover poetry anthologies from Missouri, expensive special edition boxsets from Charlie, pass-it-on library paperbacks so cracked and worn the spines were illegible. Beneath all those were notebooks. Gifted moleskins, black and smooth; cheap grocery store spirals in primary colors, ripped and scribbled and smudged. One of them, half empty. It was a blue spiral, college-ruled—less ironic, now—the metal partially unscrewed from the edge. A few pencils were rolling about the bottom of the box, so he grabbed one of those too.
Dean took his spoils back to the bed and sat with his legs folded. He tucked the pencil in the corner of his mouth and flipped through to the middle, where his very last poem was written. The graphite had spread like a layer of fog over it, and it was fitting, as he had scribbled a simple title for it: “The Darkness.” He shuddered, turned the page. This one was perfectly pristine, bright white paper and fine blue lines, a slash of red on either side. He plucked the pencil from his mouth and paused. Backtracking, he hooked the clip on his bottom teeth and pulled; the click it made was loud in the silence of the room. Another memory surfaced, a small one, of sitting next to Charlie and doing homework, pulling his pencil’s clip on his teeth repeatedly until she snapped. “Gross, dude,” she’d said. Dean laughed quietly, hanging his head. Old habits.
He pressed the tip of the pencil to paper. Held his breath.
So. It’s safe to say he was
Monolithic. A midwestern man
‘Nam vet and no nurturer.
I openly admit it.
Dean stared at the words, a wobbly sapling of a beginning. They were small and pathetic on the page and shit, even his handwriting looked awful from lack of use. Who the hell did he think he was, writing down his poor verse like an angsty teenage girl, who the hell—
Ginsberg’s drafts. Lines crossed out and adjustments chicken-scratched in the margins and phrases reworked and reworked and worked over again.
Castiel’s comments in brightly colored ink. His hand covering Dean’s paper so he would look at him from across the table. “It’s a first draft, Dean, not the end of the world.”
Okay then. He could do this. One word at a time.
Dean put the pencil back to the page and he answered the call.
Chapter 6: The Return of the Queen
Dean barely got any sleep, but he said nothing the next morning when he got up to see Sam and Eileen off to work, and took over care of Jack. My candle burns at both ends, the loopy part of his brain chanted over and over, like having a song stuck in the head. It gives a lovely light! He decided that his and Jack’s itinerary for the day would have to find a balance between taking it easy on himself but still being maximum fun for Jack.
They started out at the grocery store, which was always a hit with Jack, who enjoyed bright colors and lots of people and most of all, riding in the cart. Especially because, just maybe, Dean would race down an aisle if they turned into it and found it empty, leaving peels of giddy toddler laughter in their wake. Thankfully Jack was having a good day, too, so the biggest issue Dean had to deal with was when Jack pulled a box of Krunch Cookie Crunch into his lap and it took five minutes of attempting to reason with a three-year-old before he could put it back on the shelf without a tantrum. In the end he had to take notes from his man Harrison Ford and pull an Indiana Jones exchange with his wallet.
After getting home and having a quick lunch, they walked a couple of blocks down to the park so Dean could sit for a bit and Jack could run around to his heart’s content. There were a few other young kids there; Dean recognized a couple of them now that he’d been watching Jack for awhile. But of course Jack ran up to one of the new kids first. Dean smirked and pulled out his phone, opening the group text he had going with Sam and Eileen.
Your kid introduced himself to a newbie in both english and asl
I’d say it was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen
Except now the new kid is interested
And Jack’s teaching her how to sign her name
Dean caught the tail end of the exchange on his phone and attached the video. He didn’t expect an answer right away, and of course he didn’t get one, but he couldn’t wait for the moans of despair that they hadn’t been there to see it…and hopefully they understood it as some positive results in their parenting. He’d had no idea they were being so hard on themselves until last night and Sam’s confession. Dean hesitated before closing the app, though, thumb hovering over his fairly meager contacts list. Conversations with his brother and sister-in-law were at the top, of course, but the most recent text under that was from over two weeks ago, and it was with Charlie. Life between class and his brother’s family has had him so occupied that they haven’t really been talking much, except now and then if something exciting happened on Dr. Sexy. Though to be honest, it had been that way for a while now. He’d pulled away from her just like with Bobby and Karen.
Keeping one eye on Jack, he tapped open the conversation.
WHO BRINGS A GUN INTO A HOSPITAL?!?!?
Guess he really needed that transplant
Real talk though
The elevator scene?
Piccolo and Sexy????
Piccolo deserves better :P
How dare you!!
He’s got cowboy boots
What more could you want?
A woman ;) ;) ;)
Dean huffed a laugh. He missed her. He really, really did. When was the last time they’d actually seen each other in person? A year ago at least, he decided. She’d just dropped by Kansas one day unannounced with video games in one hand and a Lord of the Rings extended edition boxset in the other. Must have realized if she’d asked beforehand he would have found some excuse to turn her away. Christ what a shitty friend he’s been.
He looked up from the phone and sought out his nephew. Jack and the new girl were bouncing up and down on a tiny seesaw, having the time of their lives.
Dean bit his lip and stared again at the blank box, waiting for him to type. When Dean had first stopped writing, and informed her that he was done, Charlie would still periodically prod him for more poetry. His father had been getting worse, the words wouldn’t come, and he knew she’d been trying to be his cheerleader but he’d just…blown up at her. Had he even apologized properly for that? Well, he was willing to take on any punishment she wanted to dole out. She deserved it. So he presented the facts as they now stood and awaited her judgment.
I wrote a poem
Unlike his brother and sister-in-law, it didn’t matter how busy Charlie was; her phone was practically an extension of her body and he was bound to get some kind of response soon.
Just then Jack looked to be heading for the monkey bars instead of the slide, so in a flash he returned his phone to his jacket pocket and raced over there to spot him. That is, he basically carried Jack across the playground while the kid gripped the metal bars. After a couple rounds of that Jack lost interest, and wandered over to the plastic plank bridge that sat an inch above the ground. The coast clear, Dean retreated a ways. Sure enough, he had several unread messages. He braced himself for an angry onslaught and opened his app.
O. M. G.
CAN I READ IT
WHERE ARE YOU
CAN I CALL YOU
I’M GONNA CALL YOU
Sorry I’m just excited
Omg dean please respond please say I didn’t scare you off
Shit. He’d been fucking awful to her and she was worried about scaring him off? Dean’s eyes started burning. It was the last of harvest season, that’s all. Just half a woodchip in his eye. Or something.
I’m watching Jack
It’s playground time
He sent her the video he’d just sent Sam and Eileen.
Damn looks like jack is gonna win cutest kid award 3rd year running
Are you liking new england then? Hanging out with the tiny?
Seriously can I call you?
Since Jack was fine, Dean figured he could spare a hand. He pressed the call button himself.
She picked up immediately. “Hey, Dean!”
“Hey yourself. Look, uh…I just, did I ever tell you I was sorry?”
There was a pause. It wasn’t because she didn’t know what he was talking about, he was sure. “A couple times,” she said, voice subdued. “But you were drunk, so.”
“Oh. Well I’m not now. I’m sorry. For yelling at you. And treating you like shit when you didn’t deserve it. And um. Also for keeping something from you.”
“Apology accepted,” she said, though it sounded cautious. “Was it the poem? When did you write the poem?”
“Only last night, but, ah, no.” He swallowed. Now was the time. “I’ve actually been auditing a class.” And the whole story spilled out, how he moved out here because something was driving him, how Missouri convinced him to take the class, what it was like learning from Castiel, last night’s talk with Sam. Or, just enough of their talk that he could explain how something shifted, and the words had come to him again. How he was feeling again.
“You know I’m really only a long day’s drive away,” she said when he was done talking, and carrying a worn out Jack in his free arm on the walk home. “Ask Sam and Eileen if I can come visit?”
The next Tuesday dawned cloudy and gray, promising a late fall rain. His drive to Maple Hills was more subdued in color, the trees starting to lose their leaves, and fog appearing in wisps the further he descended into the valley. Dean didn’t mind, humming along to Heart, whose cassette was in the player. He expertly steered Baby through the curves of the county road, and then across the pink brick pedestrian walkways of the Maple Hills town center, over the bridge, and finally to his allotted campus parking.
His leather jacket kept him warm enough, though it was cooler than back at Sam and Eileen’s. When he reached the top of the hill where the chapel stood, gazing grim and gray over the quiet campus, Dean held his breath. Shurley Hall was nearly hidden, big as it was, an island in a dense fog that had settled at the bottom of the large hill. Heart beating fast, Dean descended into it, breathed in the moist air, saw the building with brand new eyes. Poet’s eyes. Like a shadowy citadel it coalesced as he drew closer. It was something dark, something secret. It grew taller than ever in his perception, impenetrable, too, the way it steadfastly staved off the cloud that had wrapped around it. Dean liked this building, yes, and stared at its façade until a student brushed past him, hurrying inside.
He smiled to himself, and followed.
A hush was spread throughout the building, the voices of the professors loud in the stillness, even behind closed doors. He wasn’t often in Shurley while other classes were in session, just his own. In deference he stepped as quietly as he could up the hardwood stairs, all the way to the third floor. When he reached the landing he found himself above the fog, and spared a few minutes to stand at the window and admire the view of the small mountain peaks on the horizon, fellow islands in the sea of white.
Knowing he only had so much time before class started, he tore himself away and walked down the hall to Missouri’s office. As her office hours promised, she was sitting at her desk with the door wide open. He tapped the frame.
“Dean,” she smiled. “Come in, honey.” She typed a few last words onto her computer. Then she resettled her cardigan around herself and faced him fully. “What do you need?”
He breathed in, took strength from the afternoon stillness. “Just wanted to show you something.” He reached his hand into his bag and took out his notebook. Carefully he turned the pages, bypassing the ones he’d written in those dark days, and landed on the one from last Thursday. The one about his father. He slid it across the desk to Missouri.
She looked up at him, surprise and happiness evident in her face, and picked up the notebook with care. He didn’t say a word as she read through the poem, several pages long, just sat down and tapped his fingers on the bag in his lap and quietly jiggled his leg where she couldn’t see. Missouri’s gaze was serious, professional, almost to the end. Then she softened and gently laid the notebook back onto the desk. “It’s beautiful, Dean.”
“Yeah?” He hated how vulnerable he sounded.
“Of course. You’re a little rusty and it needs work, but I think you know that.”
He tugged the notebook closer to him with a finger, scanning the last page of his blocky handwriting. “I know.”
“Just like riding a bike, hm?” When he looked back up, she was smiling with something like pride.
“So you’ll…you’ll help me again? If I keep writing?”
“Oh, Dean.” Missouri reached across the desk and took his hands, squeezing them in her own. “Of course I will.”
What has Dean ever done to deserve the people in his life? “Thank you,” he said, squeezing back.
They held on for a moment longer before letting go. Missouri sat back in her chair and adjusted her cardigan again. “Castiel would help you too, you know.”
“No!” said Dean, louder than he meant to. “I mean, I can’t. I’m not ready, I just…”
“It’s alright,” said Missouri, though she looked a little skeptical. “But you can trust him to keep your confidence.”
Dean didn’t doubt he would. “It’s not that. He’s just—and I’m—”
“Start with something else, then,” said Missouri. “Is that one of your papers, there?” She nodded at Dean’s bag, where his Tolkien paper was sticking out, noticeable for the many marks and comments on it in bright ink.
“Ask him for help editing it. See if you can work with his critique style, one on one. I happen to know that Castiel has office hours at right this moment.”
Dean bit his bottom lip. He put his notebook back in his bag and layered the flap back over it. “It’s just prose. And I have you anyway. What does it matter?”
“I asked you to take a course with him for a reason, Dean,” she said, letting some of her inner steel lace her voice. “And words are words. He’s your teacher. Go ask him for help.”
“But nothing. Go on.”
Dean knew when he was beat. Reluctantly he stood up and walked out of her office. He looked back at her, hesitating. She shooed him away and started typing on her computer again.
Castiel’s office, right next door, was cracked open. He checked his watch; if it didn’t go well, he’d only have to suffer ten minutes of it before class started. Might as well, he supposed. Dean knocked.
“Come in,” said Cas.
Dean nudged the door open. Castiel was hunched over his desk scribbling on some poor student’s paper, other hand clutched in his thick, dark hair. If that’s how he normally graded, no wonder he often walked into class with that rolled out of bed look. His office windows, tall behind him, framed the old chapel sitting above the fog, perched like a rock dove in the distance. “Hi, Cas,” he said.
Cas jerked his head up, blue eyes wide. “Dean,” he said. He capped his pen and sat up straight. “How are you?”
“Good. I’m good,” said Dean. “Just, uh, wondering if you had a minute to look at my paper?”
The professor blinked, then a wide smile spread across his face. “Yes, I’d love to! Sit, please. We’ve got a bit of time before class.”
His openness made Dean feel better, at least a little. He sat down at the chair in front of the orchid, and booped the bee.
“Claire is the friend who gave that to me,” said Cas.
Dean grinned. “She did not!”
“That softie,” he said. But his humor left him when he pulled out the paper, saw all the ink again. A promise of that very hard work Cas had talked about for his course.
“Don’t be nervous,” said Cas. Only that earnest son of a bitch could say that without a hint of condescension.
Dean hadn’t realized he was still clutching the paper in his hands. He sighed and tossed it over. “What’s the point, though, if you don’t think that all the pop culture stuff is a good argument for saying that Tolkien’s had a lasting impact?”
“Why wouldn’t that be a good argument?”
“I don’t know,” Dean shrugged. “All that talk in class about how real literature is the stuff that wins the Pulitzer and the Man Booker and the Nobel or whatever. And it’s bullshit,” Dean added, though Castiel had been about to speak, “that other people can’t reference ‘genre’ stories like Tolkien, or hell even Carver fucking Edlund who will never win a major prize in his life but he’s been a bestseller forever, you know? And maybe more of us should do it, or at least acknowledge that it’s okay, and for some people that makes new art better.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Castiel. “You said we have to think about it the other way around.”
“Well I’m not the only one who thinks it,” said Dean defensively. “I read ‘The Ecstasy of Influence.’ Other people get it.”
“You know it?”
“I know it, Dean,” Cas said, his eyes crinkling in an amused little smile. “It’s my job to know it.”
That…actually made some sense. “But you don’t like it?”
“I never said that.”
“You never said anything.”
Cas sobered. “It’s also my job,” he said, “to analyze literature through different lenses. That said…” He looked to be steeling himself. “I maybe let one side of the conversation dominate, knowing we’d get to the other perspective as we moved further into the century. I’m sorry if it came across as taking sides.”
“It’s alright, Cas,” said Dean. He hadn’t been looking for an apology. Maybe he’d been coming on a little strong about it. But when his own poetry was so tied up in the idea of pop references and sampling, blues style, it was hard not to take it personally. “I don’t know why I got so worked up.”
“It’s okay to feel passionate about these things,” Cas answered. “It shows you’re paying attention. Now, let’s look at that paper.”
Missouri was right. Castiel was good at giving critiques without being judgmental, now that Dean was actually talking to him about it, and honest when he didn’t know something. (“Wait. You’ve never read Lord of the Rings? Or watched the movies?” “They’re on the list.” “Move them up! You just told me you liked this poem, you’re gonna friggin’ love everything else.”) But Jack Allen was precious to him, and Dean had spent too long guarding him like Smaug and his golden hoard to be open about it now. If he couldn’t even tell the Singers, why would he tell Castiel? He had to admit, at least, that the professor would probably give him a fair shake, even if he didn’t like it.
They walked together down to the second floor for class, their conversation falling back into the hush of the foggy afternoon. Castiel, however, was in his element. He stoked the discussion about the next batch of poets until they were all kept cozy in the drafty old building, with nothing but the words of dead masters in their mouths.
By the time class was over the fog lifted, but had been replaced by a cool wind. Thankfully it was not so biting as when winter was in full swing, but it still carried the tang of cold and promise of a dying fall. Dean was warm enough in his leather jacket, hands tucked safely in his pockets, though he could feel the wind pricking his ears. He tried to enjoy the leisurely walk back across campus to the parking lot where Baby awaited him. He relished in the slop and splash of his boots in the puddles he didn’t try to avoid, the muddy piles of burnt-colored leaves edging the sidewalk, the pale late afternoon sky. He took a deep breath, imagined his lungs as wide and open and deep, and relished the cool air that tumbled inside, filling him to the brim. He didn't know if it was the trees or what, but there was something about the air here that just tasted clean.
When he reached the parking lot Baby was one of the few cars still there, and none were nearly as gorgeous. The dim light of the cloudy sky still caught upon her polished frame, the drops of mist glinting like little lights, the black incongruously the brightest thing against the old asphalt and faded yellow lines, the wet leaves, the bare boughs of damp fading trees, overcast sky. Instead of getting in and heading out right away, Dean leaned against the driver's side door, jeans thick enough for the bare moisture on the car not to bother him. There was something so quiet about this Thursday afternoon, students off campus and looking for fun, professors closing up their offices and making themselves scarce. Just him and Baby and the wind, but it didn't feel lonely like it usually did. Alone, yes, but not lonely; alone like there's enough room for the self to expand to its full breadth and height, like the thing that makes you you inside is actually monstrous in size, multi-headed and many-eyed, sharp and soft in equal measure, and only during times like this can it stretch its wings. And it feels good. You breathe deep, you expand, and it feels good.
He closed his eyes and reveled in it.
At length above the wind he heard heavy steps through puddles, and he opened his eyes to see Castiel, a lone figure striding down the sidewalk toward the lot, the grass spread out like soft carpet either side of him. He was wearing a tan trench coat, but even in the damp autumn cold had eschewed to tie the belt. This meant the wind was hitting him full on, lifting and holding the sides of the coat, billowing like sails and flapping like wings. The wind also pulled flush his white shirt, straining the buttons and molding his chest like marble, his dark hair wild and stride strong.
Dean's deep breaths stuttered and halted in his chest. Instead of breaking the spell, Castiel felt like he belonged in the quiet afternoon with his easy strength, pale shirt, coat the color of the muddied yellow leaves. As powerful and rich and expansive. Not pressing against Dean's self, but large, larger than Dean still, like his self was so massive that Dean could comprehend it less than the universe.
The closer he came, though, the more Dean shrunk back inside himself, inside his shell, remembered that Castiel was not some otherworldly being, but a doctor, and Dean's professor for chrissakes. He tore his eyes away before he could be caught looking, and closed them again, lifting his head to the sky, willing himself to re-expand, recapture that perfect, fleeting moment.
A wet thump.
"Shit!" a rough voice exclaimed. "Shit, shit, shit."
Dean looked back over to see that Castiel had dropped his satchel, and now dozens of white papers were skipping across the grass, buoyed by the wind.
No time for thought, Dean leapt into action, and between the two of them the papers were collected in short order, if a little wet and sprinkled with leaf bits. Dean bent to grab one last sheet, and when he straightened and turned, ready to hand his stack over, he found himself nearly nose to nose with his professor.
Castiel, god, was there ever a more perfect name for such a rare face? The wind whipped around them in half an embrace, Castiel's dark hair rippling across his forehead like bangs. His eyes shone like beacons between the strands, framed in long dark lashes. Dean was standing so close he could count the drops of mist perched upon them like jewel dust. He didn't think there had ever been anyone else that intrigued him so, that pulled the poet so easily to the surface, that called for words of beauty and strength and utter terror. There was just something so inescapable about Castiel, but Dean couldn't, he couldn't. He daren't even let himself breathe for fear of words spilling out. All the wrong words.
Cas blinked. "Thank you, Dean," he said, softly, warmly. He gently took the papers from his hands and Dean suppressed a shiver as their fingers brushed. They were cool compared to Dean's, which had shortly been in his pockets.
The touch jumpstarted his lungs again. "Yeah," he breathed. "Sure. No problem."
Cas was shoving his papers back into his bag, but he took a moment to look up and smile at Dean in response before securing it closed. "Is she yours?" he asked. When he saw Dean's confusion, he nodded his head toward the Impala. "The car?"
"Oh! Uh, yeah," said Dean, walking the few steps over and giving her an awkward pat on the hood. "She's my Baby."
Cas ambled over and dragged his fingertips lightly along her edge, leaving trails in the water. "Absolutely gorgeous."
Dean flushed with pride and pleasure, warmed from the inside out. "I think so."
Cas smiled again. "She suits you, you know?"
Of course Dean knew that, but he didn't know what to say to someone who'd just complimented his car—as she deserved—but then turned that compliment back around onto him.
"Have you read Jack Allen?" Castiel asked suddenly.
"Uh," Dean sputtered. Of all the things he’d expected his professor to say— He knew even less how to respond to that, how to protect his secret while his soul was so open, but Cas was looking at him expectantly and he had to say something. "I guess." Castiel’s eyebrows rose slowly, an unmistakable request for clarification. "I mean yes, but, like, a little." My god could he be any less eloquent. Words were always so much easier on paper.
Cas hummed in acknowledgment, then turned his eyes back to Baby. "She reminds me of one of his poems, ‘Beast.’ Do you know it?"
Dean's heart was pounding, and he had to fight the urge to flee. This was the moment. There’d always been the possibility that Cas knew Jack Allen’s poetry, of course there was, he was a doctor, he studied poetry for a living, of course he probably read contemporary stuff on the regular. But now was when Dean found out what his professor thought about his work. He’d always avoided reviews as a rule, letting Charlie tell him if there was anything worth his knowing, and now he had to stand here and take Castiel’s opinion in person. And Cas must know the poetry, at least well enough that he could name one of Dean's poems. So his opinion was unlikely to be based in ignorance. Dean gave the barest of shrugs, afraid any greater movement, any word would give him away.
"She's a beast," Cas quoted,
“barreling down raindrop blacktop
late night highway drive rock
n’ roll down the only road
I’ve ever known.”
Cas gazed fondly down at the car, ran his hand along her hood again.
Dean stood frozen. Would he really have memorized a stanza of Jack Allen of his own volition? Was this a test? Had Castiel somehow found out who he was? No, no way. No one who knew would have said anything, and he never wrote what kind of car the ‘Beast’ was. Cas just seemed to…like that poem? Did Castiel actually like Dean’s poetry? Act normal. Say something, idiot! “Uh, Whitesnake.” He leaned on the car, but his hand slipped in the moisture, nearly taking him out. Clearing his throat, he stood back up and wiped his hand on his jeans.
Cas watched this happen, then gave a minute shake of his head. “I’m sorry?”
“There’s a Whitesnake quote? From their song ‘Here I Go Again’.”
“Oh yes, of course. There’s some debate about whether it’s deliberate.”
Debate? What kind of debate? Who was even debating?! “I thought it was…obvious?”
Castiel opened his mouth, then closed it. He squinted down at the car. “Dean, I believe you just helped me out with an article I’m writing. Again.”
“Jack Allen doesn’t write for academics, and the general audience would naturally just accept the reference, wouldn’t they?”
“I think so?” What was even going on.
“Of course Crowley shut down any academic discussion of this poem when he called it a ‘juvenile exercise in Kerouacian machismo’ so is it worth opening it back up to debate?”
“You’ve lost me, Cas.”
Cas snapped his head back up, blinking a couple times. He wiped his dark hair from his forehead where it was turning damp and sticking. “I’m sorry. A colleague of mine at another university—he and I have some friendly academic debate going. He always finds reasons to dismiss my claims that Jack Allen is an important contemporary poet. Loudly and verbosely.”
“You think he’s an important poet? I mean—” Dean cleared his throat again, focusing on the rest of the comment because he had to, for his sanity’s sake. “So either this colleague of yours is a dick with nothing better to do or he just can’t stop thinking about m—this guy.”
The professor’s eyes went comically wide, blue flashing in the late sunlight, laughing like it was surprised out of him. “Dean,” he said. He clasped Dean on the shoulder, and smiled. “Thank you. I have an article to go work on now but…thank you.” Giving his shoulder another squeeze, Cas breezed past him into the gray afternoon, marching down the sidewalk toward town, his coat sailing behind him.
Was he about to go work on an article…about Jack Allen?
No. He’d said there was a friendly argument about Jack Allen. Castiel must be writing about something else.
Dean watched his professor until he disappeared across the next hill, and the mist coalesced into rain.
Charlie arrived on Sam and Eileen’s doorstep in a yellow AMC Gremlin, and toting a new haircut. She didn’t even say hi when Dean opened the door, but threw herself in his arms and squeezed him tight. “Don’t ever be an asshole like that to me again. You understand me?” Her voice was muffled in his chest, and more than a little teary, but Dean knew she was perfectly serious.
He rested his chin on top of her head. “I promise.” They held on for another minute before he gave her a slight lift and dropped her inside the house. “Thought you weren’t going to be able to get away from your job for another week,” he said, closing the door.
“What job?” she asked brightly.
“Charles, tell me you didn’t.”
“Yes, I quit. Thank you for asking. Yes, I’ll be fine. I’ve got a lot saved and I know how to code freelance. Is that Jack?!” She brushed past him to greet the others in another round of hugs.
“You quit?” Eileen signed when they were done.
“Certainly did!” Charlie replied. “I was already there for a year and it was time to move on. But enough about that!” She picked Jack up and twirled him around, to his giggling delight. “Is this little whippersnapper getting a babysitter or is he tagging along to Queer Heroes tonight?”
“Tagging along,” said Sam. “You know about that?”
“Maaaay have read about it while I was looking into the area. Did you know there’s a pretty good LARP scene?”
Her timing was looking more suspicious by the minute. “Charlie,” said Dean, “did you come out here just because—”
“It’s been forever since I’ve seen you? So what,” she sniffed. “But also, I wasn’t about to miss a lecture by Dr. Castiel Novak.”
“You…know who he is?”
Jack wriggled out of Charlie’s grasp so she set him down and then squinted her eyes at Dean. “Why, do you?”
Sam snorted. “That’s his professor. Didn’t he tell you?”
She punched Dean in the arm. “No he didn’t.”
“Ow!” said Dean. “Why does it matter?”
“Oh, you’re only being taught by one of the biggest up-and-comers in poetry criticism. But no big deal, right?”
“She’s got a point, Dean,” Eileen said.
Dean held up his hands. “Wait, he’s really that big?”
“He’s one of the best,” said Charlie. “Didn’t you google him at all before signing up for his class?”
In retrospect, he can’t believe that never occurred to him. “Uh, no? I mean, Missouri said he was good, so…”
“Oh Dean,” sighed Charlie, wrapping an arm around his waist. “I love you.”
Dean nodded and draped his arm over her shoulders. “I know.”
It was a good thing they left early, because campus was as hopping as Dean had ever seen it, the crowd of students and townies swarming the science building. He’d thought it was weird that the school had scheduled it there, given the subject for the talk was poetry, but now he understood that as one of the newer buildings, it was the only one with classrooms big enough for a large assembly.
Max, whom Dean recognized from class, was greeting people at the door. “Hey,” he said when he spotted Dean. “Just stay in the atrium. The crowd’s too big and we’re setting up there instead.”
“Wow, was it this crowded last time?”
“No,” said Max, grinning after them as they were swept inside with the tide of people. “But it’s Castiel!”
This was a first time in the science building for all of them, and they looked up appreciatively at the ceiling of the atrium, several stories high, and covered in a painting of stars. Jack sat on Sam’s shoulders, pointing excitedly, adding to the swell of noise with his happy shouts. But when Cas jogged up several of the steps on the main staircase so everyone could see him, wireless mic in hand, the crowd settled down immediately. An ASL interpreter stood a couple steps below him, and to the side.
“Hello,” he said, deep voice pouring out of the speakers hidden somewhere in the open space. “I would have volunteered to host a night class this semester if I’d known you all were going to show up.” They laughed obligingly, and then Cas was off. It was something else, hearing him talk about poets, both the ones who everyone knew for sure were queer—Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop—but also describing how using a ‘queer lens’ elucidated the possible lives of other poets, like Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen. He lured people in, showed how it could make history and literature more interesting; not just because it gave subsets of the population more heroes to look up to, but also because incidents like the infamous one night meeting between an older Walt Whitman and a young Oscar Wilde took on more meaning. “The accounts say they stayed together all night. Was it an intimate chat of fellows living similar lifestyles and sharing their experiences in a world which sometimes wanted to spit them back out?” Cas wondered. “Or was it an intimate chat?”
The audience oohed and aahed at this revelation, and Charlie tugged Dean’s arm. “Dude, how did I not know this happened?!”
Dean grinned at her enthusiasm, was bursting with it himself, but didn't take his eyes off Cas. Listening to him speak under the stars, fake as they were, was like reading “Many Loves” for the first time: stirring, unlooked for. Full of possibility. Could a man be so passionate about the subject of reinstating the queerness of poets, if he wasn’t queer himself?
After the talk was over, their little group didn’t bother waiting for Castiel, as they were all going to meet up with Jody, Donna, and the girls at Missouri’s. Dean had practically had to park the Impala in town anyway, so they headed there immediately. “That was amazing!” said Charlie, her short red hair bouncing as she turned to walk backwards, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her yellow jacket. “He lives up to the hype, let me tell you. He was dreamy.” She skipped back to Dean’s side and hooked their elbows. “Don’t you think?”
“So dreamy,” laughed Sam, saving Dean from having to answer.
The farther they walked across campus the more the crowd thinned, until they passed into town. Jack wanted to walk some so they let him, slowing down to travel at his pace. The evening air was cold and clean and the streetlights lining the road shone like beacons leading them home. When they got to Missouri’s they found that all the women had beat them there. Wine was pressed into their hands at once, snacks were neatly arranged and just as quickly devoured, and the girls, to a one, were smitten by Charlie and hung onto her every word as she held court. So it was that when Castiel finally arrived, almost an hour later, he walked into a loud and tipsy scene.
Charlie, a couple glasses of wine in, hopped down from her island barstool and marched up to him, holding out her hand. “Thank you, O Castiel,” she began in her LARP queen voice, dear god, “for the fine work you do in educating the baby queers. I was one such baby queer, and would have loved to have your tutelage in those trying times.” When he took her hand, she bowed over it.
“Geez, Dean, are all your friends nerds like you?” Claire asked.
“Takes one to know one,” Dean answered.
Castiel just laughed, some of his exhaustion lifting from him at her antics. “I do what I can. And you’re Charlie? Dean’s friend?”
“Ugh!” she exclaimed, smacking her forehead. “Yes, sorry. Hey,” Charlie said, switching gears like she suddenly got a bright new idea. Knowing her, she probably had. “Let’s go sit at the table!” And she tugged Castiel, trench coat and all, and plopped him down right next to Dean.
Dean knew exactly what she was trying to do. But he forgave her, even though it wasn’t going to mean anything; she’d given Castiel a perfect opening to mention why he lectured about the subject the way he did, but hadn’t taken the bait. It wasn’t a negative for his liking men, exactly, but it wasn’t a positive either. Besides, Cas was still his teacher, and he had to face him in class still for the next couple months. And if something happened to, well, happen after that…
“Heya, Cas,” he said, and allowed himself a smile. “Some talk you gave.”
He’d cross that bridge if he ever got to it.
Chapter 7: The Bridge
Castiel was deep within freshman papers for his 100-level World Literature Survey course—a cross the English faculty took turns bearing each semester—putting his office hours to good use. He liked to keep his door mostly closed to allow some modicum of privacy, but left a few inches of space to indicate he was present. Office hours were not usually busy at this time of the semester; with the midterm over and students well back into college life, there was little anyone wanted to discuss. He didn’t mind. There were always papers to grade, and articles to write and get published in order to assure the school they hadn’t made a mistake in tenuring him. Castiel also liked to cleverly place his hours right before classes so that he could use the required office time to make any last minute lesson preparations.
But today papers it was, the early afternoon sunlight striping his desk. Though his article kept niggling at him. He thought he’d explored Jack Allen as well as could be done, but he kept coming back to music. The David Bowie reference was hard to miss, but he wasn’t at all familiar with classic rock, and then Billie had mentioned that if Robert Hayden grew up in Detroit couldn’t “blueblack” also be a reference to the local music scene in his childhood? And wasn’t there a Muddy Waters song that’s maybe referenced in Jack Allen’s “Nights”—but then there was Dean, who’d brazenly brought in a Led Zeppelin song as a favorite poem while everyone else was bringing in Frost and Dickinson and Keats, and Led Zeppelin notoriously drew upon American blues, did they not? (Dean, who had looked so handsome, almost otherworldly leaning against that beast of a car in his leather jacket. And how intuitive he’d been, slashing through years of scholarship with a sharp point, and You have a type, Cassie the voice that sounded annoyingly like Gabriel said.) Castiel breathed out through his nose. There was a lot more reading he would have to do, and he’d been so busy he hadn’t even had a chance to crack open Lord of the Rings…
The Road So Far: The Collected Poetry of Jack Allen sat on the nearest bookshelf to his desk. Castiel eyed the black volume, spine cracked in two places, multi-colored flags sticking out, well read. Well loved. His fingers itched to shove away his papers and pull the book from the shelf, cradle it in his hands. It had been released almost two years prior and collected Allen’s three previously published collections in one. Castiel’s entire awakening, the history of his long relationship with the poet, was innocuous and inconspicuous while closed on his shelf. But inside, inside—!
His fingertips had barely grazed the book when he became aware of raised voices next door. Missouri also held office hours Tuesday afternoons, and it seemed she was having an argument with a man. Tensing, he strained his hearing; years of growing up in a household constantly on edge made him adept at interpreting the slightest shift in tone. But no true trouble seemed afoot: their voices held exasperation, not true anger.
“Do I have to tell you again?” came Missouri’s voice, muffled through the old walls.
The response was too low for Castiel to hear, but then there was the creaking of Missouri’s office door as it opened, and heavy footsteps on hardwood. Which paused, almost immediately, outside his own door. Castiel trained his eyes on where it was cracked open, where as yet no figure had appeared. After several seconds, there was a knock.
Castiel gathered his papers into a neat pile. “Come in.”
Slowly the door was pushed open, and Dean’s head popped in around the edge. Then—shyly, Castiel was tempted to think—the rest of him followed and he stood in the doorjamb, shoulders slightly hunched, hands in his jacket pockets, his bag’s worn strap across his chest. Sun from Castiel’s large windows spilled over Dean as he entered, pulling gold highlights out of his hair.
“Dean,” said Castiel, not sure where to begin. Why had he been arguing with Missouri?
“Hey, Cas,” he said, flashing a smile. “I’m just here a little early, no big deal. Wanted to see how Missouri was doing.”
Castiel knew that this was a white lie; he’d lived in Maple Hills long enough to know all the townies at least by sight if not by name (students took up half the population, after all), and Dean was no townie. Nora from the gas station had agreed; she said he was only there Tuesdays and Thursdays to fill up his gorgeous car, and then was off again west down the county road out of town. Depending on how far out he lived, being on campus early was probably a bit of a deal. “Okay,” he said, after a pause. “What can I do for you?”
“Er, right.” Dean rubbed the back of his neck and scanned Castiel’s bookshelves, as he seemed fond of doing. “I guess I have another question. About last week’s discussion.”
Castiel pushed the papers away at long last, and pushed Dean’s conversation with Missouri out of mind, too. It wasn’t his business, after all, and as Dean had been quieter than usual the last couple of lessons as they plowed through the mid-century, he was more than intrigued to hear his thoughts about it. “Of course. Please, sit.”
Like every time he had come to discuss his writing, Dean carefully pushed the office door back to its former position, only letting a single stream of sunlight escape into the hallway, and sat in the chair closest to the orchid instead of the computer. Also like usual, his eyes lingered on Claire’s bee.
“Huh? Oh. I didn’t—” Dean heaved a short sigh and shifted in his chair. “I was just thinking.”
Castiel smiled. “Usually a good sign. What about?”
“About poetry.” Dean’s posture was a study in casualness: he sat slouched in his chair, one arm draped over the back of it. But his other hand gripped the end of the chair’s left arm, and his handsome face was sketched in tense lines. “And pain.”
“Poetry, and pain.” Castiel hummed. He sat back, setting an ankle to his knee, and laced his hands over his stomach. Dean had the uncanny ability of surprising him at every turn, and with those three words Castiel felt all of his considerable academic focus fall on the other man, and the unhappy twist of his lip. He waited.
“Poets like Sylvia Plath,” said Dean, when he realized Castiel wanted him to expand. “This really deep, confessional poetry. Poets like her, who were depressed and killed themselves, or ones who drank themselves into the grave like Dylan Thomas, or were going crazy all the time like Lowell…they really suffered. And there’s beauty in their poems, you know?” He lifted his arm from the back of the chair and ran his fingers through his hair, eventually settling his elbow back down and resting his temple on his hand, tracing the spines of all Castiel’s books with his eyes. “In the dark poems and in the ones where they keep fighting. And we’re reading and talking about how tragic it is they had a shit life and died young, and kids in class are saying that they’d rather write good poetry and die early than live long, and be forgotten.” He didn’t move his head, but Dean’s eyes slid over to meet Castiel’s, gauging.
He was hardly going to state his opinion when it was clear Dean was bursting with his own. “Some people do feel that way,” he hedged.
Dean frowned fully now, and Castiel worried he’d made a misstep. But he forced himself still, kept his breath calm, his gaze steady. Dean took the bait. “So people celebrate pain. Admire it. But then,” Dean leaned forward, placing the tips of his fingers on the desk. “These poets for social justice, like Dennis Brutus. Grappling with these real issues, getting shot, imprisoned, beaten. That’s a higher calling, to write about it. That’s real struggle, right? More than someone like—anyone in our class.”
Castiel felt him spiraling closer to the issue. “That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from, even truly enjoy their work.”
“Yeah. Exactly.” Dean shrugged, sitting back. “That’s what everyone wants to read. Those are the stories people want to hear. Like, would Marilyn Monroe be half as popular now if she hadn’t died young? Would people still think Kurt Cobain was a rock god?”
No, this wasn’t quite it; Dean was too agitated. There was clearly something deeper. “It’s hard to say,” he ventured. When that earned him a half-hidden glare—Dean was clearly onto his hedging—Castiel switched tacks. “Let’s stick with Brutus. Do you like his poetry?”
Dean ticked his jaw, deciding on his answer. “Yeah. I do.”
“Why do you like it?”
“Dunno,” said Dean. Castiel raised an eyebrow. Dean sighed. “Okay, fine.” He closed his eyes. Remembering certain lines, perhaps? Dean’s broad shoulders inched down from his neck as he thought. “Warmgold folds,” he said. “Silkchill skeins. That sunlit sensuous voluptuousness / of luxurious indulgence in lush-ripe flesh.” Dean shaped each word slowly, barely letting them escape his lips, and Castiel was transfixed. With a strong internal reprimand he forced his gaze upward from Dean’s mouth, and just in time: Dean opened his eyes and met it head on. “Milkblue.” He gave Castiel a swift, half-smile. “I thought all this talk about craft would take the magic out of poetry, but…when you see a master craftsman at work it just makes it better.”
“I think you begin to see why I’m in this business.”
Dean nodded his head to the side, conceding the point. “When you read his work on the page it’s full of imagery, and rhythm. But when you read it out loud…I’ve never tasted words like that.”
“Uh, I mean…” Dean blushed, a deep pink sweeping over his face. “You know, when you…say the words and, the way they feel and sound, in your…mouth?” He was practically mumbling by the end.
Castiel was torn between smiling and scowling. He’d never seen a man go from gruff to adorable so quickly, but the embarrassment was edged in a deep shame that was all too easy to see. And that, Castiel would not have. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I’ve never thought of putting it that way before, but then again, I’m not a poet. You have a way with words, Dean.”
Dean searched his face and Castiel let him; he had nothing to hide. “Says the guy who tears apart my papers,” he muttered at last.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t help you develop your skills,” he said. But Castiel would not be so easily swayed from the topic at hand. “So you enjoy Brutus’s diction? His choice of words?”
“In some poems he just uses really simple words, or uses a ton of big words, or he makes up these new, amazing words all the time and no matter what, his poetry has impact.” Dean shrugged again. “I feel it when I read it.”
“I notice you didn’t say you like his poetry because of the life he led.”
Dean opened his mouth, then rethought his words. “But he wrote poetry because of it.”
Castiel spread his hands. “Or he wrote poetry because he was a poet.”
“But it gave him something to write about.”
“Dean.” Castiel pulled his rolling chair close in to the desk. “It would help if you told me exactly what’s bothering you. If it’s a question of inspiration, every poet has a different answer.”
“No, it’s not that.” Dean crossed his arms and stared over Castiel’s shoulder out the window, where the school chapel sat on top of the hill. “It just seems like…all poets do is suffer, all the time. Even the ones who make it to a few decades, they just…I mean is that a choice that poets have to make? To let depression and alcoholism take over and kill you, or to…fight these major external forces and almost die in the process? Like Byron did both, right, ‘cause he went off looking for wars but he also totally self-destructed?”
Castiel took the time to think. The question wasn’t a new one; it came up in his classes now and again. The difference here was in the way that Dean wouldn’t meet his eyes, how he was staring out the window jaw clenched, hunched in on himself, like the answer was very important. It could, Castiel supposed, just be that Dean labored under the weight of great compassion, but there was something too personal there for it to only be about people he had never met. For the hundredth time Cas circled back to Missouri’s assurance that Dean had the background required for his course despite his lack of formal education. He wondered, had Dean known a poet who’d met a bitter end? Is that what it could be? Was he in the class for answers seeking to understand someone he knew? Or even, still knows?
No matter the reason, Castiel had his duty. In most discussions it was to act as guide and moderator to help his students come to their own conclusions. But in those rare cases when a student confides—as this now had become something like a confession—honesty was required. “No, Dean, that is not a choice a poet has to make, anymore than other people who drink, are depressed, fight wars. It was quite the opposite for Dennis Brutus, in fact.”
Finally Dean looked back at him.
“He said, if he had spent more time on poetry, he would have been a better poet. But working to end apartheid and other injustices in the world was more important work. And that is how he chose to spend his time.”
“So he did not sacrifice the life he chose to lead for his poetry. And still his verse was beautiful. Do you understand?”
“He’s one guy,” said Dean. “Maybe he was just strong.”
“Yes, he was strong,” Castiel agreed. “That doesn’t mean there’s no strength to be found in others, no matter what walk of life they came from, nor how long they lived.”
“But what if when they’re happy, they have nothing to write about anymore?”
“I don’t believe that,” Castiel answered, “but if it is true, so what?”
Dean was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘so what’?”
“This idea that poets and other artists should self-destruct for our amusement is a rotten romanticism. There is nothing noble or romantic about that kind of darkness and struggle. There is honesty to be found there, and a commonality to be found in our own struggles, but no one, artist or not, deserves to be put on display as if he were art himself. The idea that someone isn’t a true artist unless they suffer horribly is a terrible lie our society tells itself.”
“But if it’s not a lie?” Dean asked quietly.
“Like I said, so what? Take Jack Allen—the poet I quoted you about your car?” Dean bit his lip and nodded. Castiel forged on. “We don’t know all that much about him. We know he’s American and, well, a he. But he’s highly reclusive. Doesn’t give interviews. All communication takes place through his agent, and she doesn’t talk to people who want interviews. So there are only two more things we know about him. One: he was incredibly prolific. In just a few years’ span, he produced enough high quality work to warrant three collections, and in each one his skill had developed by leaps and bounds. And two: for a few years now, he hasn’t written anything.”
Dean swallowed. He seemed to be listening. “What’s your point?”
“There are some dark things in his poems, both present and past. If what I think is true, the darkness overwhelmed him and he couldn’t write anymore. But if the common theory is true, and happiness is the enemy to art, then he is happy. And I do hope he’s happy, Dean,” Cas concluded. “And so against my belief, I prefer to think he is. I’d rather have him happy than write another poem, even though he’s my favorite poet. Because he is my favorite poet. I’m simply grateful for what he’s shared with us.”
Castiel watched a series of expressions tug Dean’s face, worried he’d somehow made whatever turmoil his student was experiencing worse. At last Dean laughed, a quiet, broken thing, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took another breath and looked at Cas. “Jack Allen is your favorite poet?”
“Yes,” said Castiel, allowing him to steer the conversation. “I wrote my dissertation on his work.”
“Shit, Cas,” said Dean. He was laughing again. He leaned over and scooped his bag from the floor. “Thanks.” Bumping the desk with a knee, he hurriedly stood. Claire’s bee bobbed wildly in the orchid pot. “Good talk.” Dean was out the door before Castiel could even come around his desk.
Cas went over to the door to watch him go. Dean was most of the way down the hall, and as Cas watched, he clomped down the stairs, presumably to the second floor where class would soon begin. Castiel was left feeling wrongfooted, and like he’d missed something very, very important.
He turned the other way and poked his head into Missouri’s office. “Is everything okay with Dean?”
She looked up from her computer screen. “He’ll be fine, Castiel. He isn’t giving you trouble in class, is he?”
“No, no of course not. He’s a wonderful student.”
“Good,” she said, and turned back to her computer. And with that Castiel was dismissed.
It didn’t sit right with him, still, but he had no more time to ponder it because class was about to start. He settled for pulling a book from his shelf. It would have to do.
Castiel raced down the stairs to the second floor and barely remembered to slow down before actually entering the classroom. He was still breathing a bit heavily when he strode in and walked to the back corner where Dean sat. His eyes grew wider and wider as Castiel approached, clearly nervous. But of course, Castiel would never continue such an intimate conversation in public, or betray any confidence a student had given him. He just held out the book.
Dean took it hesitantly. “A River Dies of Thirst,” he read. “What is this?”
“Mahmoud Darwish. Read ‘The essence of the poem.’ Near the end. Okay?”
Dean swallowed, and pulled the book toward himself. “Okay.”
Dean could barely pay attention to the lesson, still reeling from what Castiel had revealed. Jack Allen was Cas’s favorite poet? Was it true? Had Missouri known?
When the interminable hour and a half was over, Dean carefully placed himself in the middle of the rush to leave the room, as camouflaged he could get in a place there was no hiding. He drove home, Cas’s little brown book practically burning a hole in his bag beside him on the seat its presence was so strong. When he parked along the curb, he didn’t even get out of the car before seeking it out, and flipping through toward back of the book. “The essence of the poem” was there, just like he’d said.
The road to meaning, however long and branching, is the poet’s journey, Dean read.
When the shadows lead him astray, he finds his way back.
What is meaning? I don’t know, but I may know what its opposite is:
thinking that nothingness is easy to bear.
Suffering is not a talent. It is a test of talent, and it either defeats talent
or is defeated by it.
All beautiful poetry is an act of resistance.
Dean let the book drop into his lap.
Jack Allen was Castiel’s favorite poet. And, somehow, he’d known exactly what Dean needed to hear.
For the next couple weeks Dean felt he was in some sort of dream. He dreaded and looked forward to class equally; every time Castiel spoke Dean wondered how he could know him so well, and know him so little. For him to guess that it was darkness that stayed his pen, but trying to regain a life that had allowed him to pick it back up? He had seen it so clearly while Dean had been seeing it all backwards.
And yet—Castiel had written his dissertation on Dean’s poetry. There must be something he saw in Dean’s words that wasn’t really there. Castiel must have built the figure of Jack Allen into some myth that wasn’t real. Because Dean was just…Dean. No one to write home about. Definitely no one to write a damn dissertation about.
And yet—again—that Castiel could so baldly state that Dean’s work was his favorite, but that he didn’t care if he wrote another poem, so long as Dean was well? That he could so selflessly let go of something he enjoyed for someone else’s benefit?
With all the worrying Dean was doing about it, he would have thought that the question of whether or not they’d study his poetry in class would have crossed his mind. Instead, he was completely blindsided.
The first class after winter had truly set in, and snow spread like a blanket on the curves of the hills and the sun started to set at 4 o’clock every evening, Castiel handed out the poetry packet for their final unit. In the last seat of the last row, Dean was the last to receive it. He flipped through the packet while Castiel started talking about the era of contemporary poets.
Dean didn’t hear him. After Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, there he was: Jack Allen.
Dean’s head snapped up. Castiel had turned on the projector, and one of Dean’s poems was on the screen. No. God, no. Could this get any worse?
“Dean, will you read this one for us?”
Dean’s heart plummeted. This was personal. It was one thing to publish poetry that nameless, faceless people would read. It was definitely another to read it in front of people, talk about some of the most intimate moments in his life with them, with Castiel. For a brief, shining moment he considered faking illness, running out of the room, but he’d been silent too long. He could see the concern growing on Cas’s face, could almost see the question form on his lips. But Dean didn’t want to hear it. Not when thinking about this.
He sat up and cleared his throat, telegraphing his readiness. Cas positioned himself by his laptop, ready to scroll the text down on the overhead. Studiously ignoring everyone else in the room, he plunged headfirst into a poem he hadn’t read in a long, long time.
“Perfection, by, um, Jack Allen.
“Those nights in that in-between time
In in-between spaces,
Truck stops and 24-hour diners
From bygone eras and unforgiving lights all
Left up bright,
Rundown bars made seedier
By smoke and starlight and fluorescent strips
Warring with half-dead neon,
Dad more than half-drunk on his last job’s last wages,
Drinking to forget Mom (but really forgetting that
Erasing her erases us),
I learned to play pool.
I hustled and ran my luck and got my face
Busted up for my troubles.
I learned to drink beer because drunk people think
Drunk kids are a blast,
I learned to charm bartenders and waitresses and gas station clerks with just the right quirk
Of my lips’ corners,
Learned how to scrounge coins for the coffee machine,
And how the change-jangle heaved the hulking thing
Into spitting out cheap joe, stale from sitting hours in a heated can,
But with money to earn I learned that
First sip is always perfect.”
Dean paused here, wondering if Cas would call on someone else as he sometimes did for longer poems. But his professor simply scrolled the page and looked back up expectantly. Dean took a steadying breath and forged on.
“In those places in-between
Earning money you’re lying in wait for it,
Girls don’t paint thick eyes and lips to look pretty,
They do it to advertise in Coca-Cola red and
Marlboro menthol blue.
But kids don’t need to advertise.
I’d just bite my lips and hit my cheeks hoping the blush
Would hide the hollow pits
And it must have worked, because
Never accepting less than ten dollars, I let men
Use me in-between the in-between,
In the shadows where the dim back door light didn’t go,
In rusting bathroom stalls on half-mopped tile,
In truck cabs rising in quiet rows like metal monuments
To the liminally dead.
I liked the outside best, though, dirt soft on my knees
As I gave everything, everything to please these sorry men
Starving for that instant
Because in the dark, under the shade of my eyelashes
The men could imagine me looking up at them,
While my gaze was up and over them,
Observing the sky and counting the stars
As I bobbed and asking myself,
Is there life?
Is there life on Mars?
The men always came, and they liked to tell me
My mouth was perfect.
“When I think back on those days
I don’t hear the skeletons banging in the closet,
Or see that this country is built
Like a Dust Bowl carnival pitched by deadbeat dads,
Where cotton candy is the only sweet sold
And it melts in the mouth like happiness:
Insubstantial and sticky until washed away
By a single tear,
And the most popular ride is the
Merry martyr machine that goes round and round
And up and down
In endless sighs while blasting broken lullabies,
And you ride and you ride,
Until a snarling unicorn with paint
Peeling from his horn crushes you
Under his heels.
(Though a few, a very few
Rise up to enjoy the view from the top of the
Or so they say.)
“All I see is the next morning,
Dad snoring across the room
And me proudly pouring a bowl of the best cereal
A single dollar can buy,
And Sal smiling at the marshmallows
And me shushing as he slurps milk with his spoon.
The TV’s showing Scooby-Doo,
A bunch of kids in a big car
Cruising the country solving mysteries,
Masters of their own destinies,
And it was perfect.
“I’m telling you,
It was perfect.”
The class fell into the usual silence. Dean took another deep breath, and let it out as slowly and quietly as possible. It was shaky.
It might have been Dean’s imagination, but Cas let the silence linger a little longer this time. “Any thoughts?” he asked them.
“Is Jack Allen a girl?” asked Alicia.
Dean choked down a squawk.
“His agent uses masculine pronouns for him in correspondence,” Cas answered. “Why do you ask?”
“In correspondence? So we don’t know for sure?”
“I suppose not. Can you expand your reasoning?”
“Well think about it,” she said. “Forced to walk the streets, mothers a sibling. Getting crushed by a unicorn, hello Freud! It’s all pretty feminine-coded. Women getting crushed by the patriarchy and all the deadbeat dads, you know? Besides, can you possibly pick a more masculine sounding dudebro name than ‘Jack Allen?’ Please. That’s exactly the kind of plain guy name a girl would use for a pseudonym. George Eliot-style.”
“Holy shit,” said Max.
“Girls aren’t the only prostitutes,” argued Kevin. “Predators go for boys, too. And he explicitly states earlier in the poem that the girls paint their faces, but he, a kid, didn’t have to, setting himself apart from them.”
The class exploded into a heated debate about, how is this even Dean’s life, whether he was a man or a woman.
“Maybe they’re genderqueer?” offered Max. “They quote David Bowie, who’s well known for androgyny and the way he played with gender.”
Dean bit his lip, fighting not to snap out that he quoted David Bowie because sometimes it’s kinda funny, you know, what you think when you’re doing things like that, and sometimes a song was just a damn song.
He felt a sudden, fervent understanding with all the poets they’d read earlier in the semester. Had they been rolling in their graves? He was nearly vibrating out of his damn seat. It was just a poem, damnit! Just a sad little piece of his fucking life my god would they just stop picking it apart?!
“This is all good discussion,” said Castiel, which might mark the first time he was ever really wrong because hell no this was not good discussion. Three-quarters of the class thought his poetry was too feminine because his pseudonym was too masculine. Please. “But I wonder if Jack Allen might want to speak for himself.”
Dean gripped the edge of his desk and looked up at Castiel in horror.
But Cas wasn’t looking at him. He was googling the Poetry Foundation, and bringing up another Jack Allen poem.
“Fuck no, don’t you dare make me read this one,” Dean hissed through gritted teeth.
“’Nights in Pink Satin,’” Castiel announced. “I think I’ll read, so please listen.
“I met her at a bar in New Mexico
I’m nineteen. The ID I made
Makes me a man (age 21)
And I want a beer though I’m a boy
And don’t know what I want.
But she does.
Yes, she does.
““I live nearby.” Her lips are pink.
And I think: I’m a man, she sees it
And she can’t resist.
I’m cocky and offer an hour,
The bartender laughs,
My face goes pink and I see red—
But she grabs my head and gives me a kiss.
She gets pink on my lips.
“Her place is draped in veils, bedroom dark red
As a womb. (Am I a boy? No—)
Leather jackets hit the floor, and more,
Boots and jeans and my boxers, blue.
Her matching lingerie is pink.
Who’d think beneath her denim
Against her skin she wore such pretty satin?
Then I’m on my knees, hands on her hips
I pull down her panties, my lips half on
The elastic trim, trailing after satin,
“Teach me,” I beg
And she grabs my head and leads me to where
“But the night doesn’t end there.
She builds me up, tears me down (not
A boy, not yet a man) takes everything
I give, gives me what I like
And when I’m soft, and sated,
She hands me satin.
“I’m a man!” I push them away but don’t make it
Very far, “Boy, you don’t know who you are”
And she knows what I like, so I let her
Hand me pink panties.
“My legs are long but her hips are
Wide, she wasn’t too far off
Thinking they’d be my size, and she slides
Them up and drags at the hair
From the night’s start. They are so soft
And satiny and I kinda like it.
Yes, I like it!
“Holy the night in pink satin!
Holy the panties, holy the pink on cock, holy the woman
Straddling the man, making him man!
Holy the blush! Holy the scratches!
Holy the lacy bras and lipstick traces in bars!
Holy the man who knows to wear satin!
Holy the kink and revelation!
Holy the pink!
“The next morning, a kiss on the cheek.
“You’re a man,” she says, “I’m a
Man,” I agree, because there are many ways to be a
Man, even ones that Kansas can’t understand,
And so what if I ain’t the world’s most masculine man?
I know what I am.”
This time the post-poem quiet was a distinctly uncomfortable one. Dean’s face felt so hot his blush was practically burning him. Why did he let Charlie convince him that was okay to publish?
Finally, Max broke the silence. “Hawt,” he drawled. The class fell into giggles.
Dean sunk further down in his chair.
“Conclusion, class?” asked Castiel wryly.
“I guess we needed more evidence,” Alicia conceded. “He seems pretty cool, though. Does he write a lot about gender norms?”
“No way, can we stop? That shit’s not normal for a man,” complained Todd.
“Dude,” said Kevin.
“Excuse me, Castiel?” asked Billie, raising her hand.
“If he’s so uncomfortable, I would very much like to read out Sharon Olds’s ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’.”
And when Billie read out a really vivid comparison between slugs and dudes’ dicks, and the other guys in the class blanched (except, of course, for Castiel), Dean wasn’t grossed out or offended. He was just really grateful.
Charlie was not helpful when he stopped by her new apartment later. He’d been too chicken to bring it up with Sam. Because he suddenly realized that if Sam read his poetry, he knew that he kinda, sometimes, maybe, liked to wear panties. As if the day could get any worse.
“You’re fine, Dean,” she said when she was done laughing. “Besides, what’s wrong with being a woman? Our team is cool too.”
“Nothing! I know that. It just, sometimes, you know…”
“Makes you feel like a pussy?” she supplied.
He sighed. “I just didn’t want all my dirty laundry up in front of the class. I felt really…exposed.”
“Ugh,” she said, throwing herself back on her couch dramatically. “So many places I could go with what you just said, but it would be too easy, like kicking a puppy. Anyway, you only have a couple weeks left of class, right? That means you only have to see these people a few more times and they have no idea it’s you anyway, so there you go.”
“One more response paper and I’m done. I’m not doing a final paper.”
“You gonna write it on Jack Allen?”
“Shut up, you and Sammy have the same bad jokes. No. I have no idea. I can’t think right now.”
“What about Carol Ann Duffy?” Charlie suggested. “You have any of her stuff?”
“She’s really cool, I’ll lend you the books I have. I think you’ll like her.”
“Sure. I trust your taste.”
“As it should be, padawan, as it should be.”
With three regular class periods left to go, they handed in their last response paper. The last week of class was to be spent peer reviewing and revising for their final paper, which they should have already been working on. But Dean hadn’t.
He waited until everyone else had left and walked up to the front desk where Castiel was packing up his things. His skin was golden in the yellow light of the classroom. Dean didn’t look directly; he stared at their reflections in the dark early evening windows and waited for Cas to look up.
“Dean, what can I do for you?”
“Just wanted to say that this is my last class. And, ah, thank you. I learned a lot.”
Castiel’s face fell, visibly fell, and Dean’s breath caught. But he covered it quickly with his “I am here for you” professor face. “You won’t be handing in a final paper?”
“No. Sorry. Do I still get a pass, teach?” he joked weakly.
“Of course you do,” said Castiel, serious as he usually was. “And thank you, Dean. I enjoyed having you in class, and all your writing. And the discussions we had.”
Dean ducked his head at the memory of their last discussion. “Me too,” he said. And then almost laughed. Isn’t that what he’d told him after their first class together? Well, it didn’t matter. After today Dean was leaving the world of higher education behind, and he would probably rarely see Castiel again, if ever. But that’s how it was.
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
He almost said it. But of all people, Castiel was sure to recognize the reference. So he did not. “Goodbye, Cas,” he said instead.
Castiel swallowed. “Goodbye, Dean.”
Dean left then. He imagined, hoped, that Castiel at least watched him go.
The next Tuesday, when Dean was supposed to have gone to class, a melancholy swept over him. He kind of missed the discussion, but mostly he just missed Cas. Even just seeing him. It’d be so good to hear his voice.
With Jack off at daycare and nothing else to distract him with heavy December snowfall keeping him inside, he inevitably found himself with notebook and pencil in hand. And for the first time since he’d started writing again, he wasn’t looking backward. He was awake now, wide awake, but—
What’s dead should stay dead, he wrote.
He wrote, and he wrote.
It made him pretty poor company, when he was on a writing binge. It never used to matter with John Winchester, who was too wrapped up in his own problems, but Sam and Eileen left him be, and even ran interference with Jack sometimes, unless they thought he really needed the interruption. But the urgency didn’t truly lift until Christmas, his first real Christmas in…he couldn’t remember how long.
He used to drive off during holidays, and his birthdays. He didn’t want to see anyone, because holidays just weren’t the same anymore. But this year showed him a different way: a way that included Sam and Eileen and a wildly happy Jack delightedly chewing his allotted nougat, and Charlie too, and gifts sent by the Singers under the tree. A real damn Christmas tree that smelled of fresh pine and winter. By all rights he should have been content, but he wasn’t.
When the New Year rolled around he picked up some part time work at a nearby garage, enough hours to help support the house but still be able to watch Jack every other day. After a couple weeks settling down into his new routine, the ache in his chest lessened to a hum. But it never went away completely, a persistent what if, what if, what if that whispered with every beat of his heart.
He was almost even looking forward to his birthday. Almost.
He still worked down the garage that day, and was looking forward to a quiet evening spent with his brother, sister, and nephew. Eileen had promised there would be burgers and that no one would make a fuss, and she was a dirty rotten liar.
Because he walked in the door to practically find a party. Not only was Charlie there, but so were Missouri and Patience, Jody, Donna, and the girls, and even Kevin was there. Most surprising of all was that both the Singers and Turners had flown in from South Dakota. And they all, to a one, made a big damn fuss.
At least there were burgers.
He had to admit, it did warm him some when he and Bobby bickered good-naturedly over the grill on the patio out back, which had been shoveled for the occasion. There was no wind that evening, either, so everyone else bundled up and sat at the patio table or on camping chairs in the snow, and Charlie chased a screeching Jack around the backyard, both of them stumbling around in the drifts. Sam shored up a fire in the pit, and the aroma of freshly burnt wood and wet pine needles hung like a cloud over the yard.
When all the burgers were devoured, Eileen went inside and made a strong Irish coffee for everyone who wanted one. When she returned, Sam scooped up a fast-fading Jack and went over to Dean.
“Say goodnight to your uncle,” said Sam.
“Night, Uncle Dean.” Jack wiped his nose with a mitten.
“Goodnight, buddy,” he said, giving him a quick hug.
When they went inside, Dean closed his eyes and relaxed back in his chair. He let the conversation wash over him; he treasured the sound of all the voices he adored. It was cold but undeniably cozy, the mug of coffee in his hands, the logs cracking in the fire. It was just about perfect.
Then the doorbell rang and flashed, the bright bulb startling him into opening his eyes. Eileen made to stand, but Dean waved her back. He went inside and found Sam at the edge of the stairs, Jack in his pajamas with him and rubbing his eyes.
“I’ve got it,” said Dean, and Sam gratefully disappeared from the landing.
Dean opened the front door. A man stood there, snug in a long dark coat, a blue wool scarf, and matching hat. But there was no mistaking those eyes.
Castiel lifted a gloved hand—black leather—and pulled down his scarf. His breath escaped in a dragon’s plume. “Hello, Dean. Happy Birthday.”
Dean stood there like an idiot for a moment longer, blinking in surprise. “Uh, thanks. Come in. Please.” He stepped back to give room for him to enter. Castiel brought in the cold air with him, and a whiff of cologne. He stamped his feet, but Dean stopped him from bending to take off his boots. “We’ve got a fire out back. Come say hi.”
Cas nodded. “I hope it’s alright, Dean,” he said quietly, looking unsure. It was very different from the easy grace he carried himself with in the classroom. They walked through the kitchen and passed through the patio door, back out into the cold.
“Of course, yeah. It’s, uh. It’s good to see you.”
The others greeted him loudly, several winter scarves to the wind. He introduced Castiel to the Singers and Turners and watched in some consternation as Bobby and Rufus began quizzing the expert on his knowledge, as if he were the student. Dean sat back, and couldn’t quite stop himself from being pleased at the way all the most important people in his life were accepting this other…important…person.
Dean was startled from his reverie when a touch came at his elbow, just enough pressure to alert him through his coat. He turned to find Castiel, large snowflakes perched on his hat and shoulders, something like a question in his eyes. “I must have missed presents,” he said.
Dean felt himself blushing all over again, and hoped the shadows masked it. He ducked his head but immediately forced it back up with a shrug and a smile. “Right after dinner.”
Cas returned his smile, though this one was small with a spark of amusement, like he could tell just how much Dean was affected and trying to hide it. “May I give you mine now?”
Dean’s fingers twitched, halfway to his head in an aborted gesture to run his fingers through his hair, before remembering he’s wearing gloves and a new hat. “You didn’t have to, really, I mean just because you were invited—”
“Dean,” said Castiel, quietly but still with that command that stopped him in his tracks. “I wanted to.”
He searched his eyes, blue and wide and utterly sincere. Dean licked his lips and nodded. Cas undid the first two buttons on his coat, revealing hints of a soft sweater, and reached a gloved hand into an inner pocket. He drew out a small rectangular gift, wrapped in sparkling black paper and one of those silver bows that were really more tinsel shaped into a glittery fountain. Also taped to the front was a small silver card that read Happy Birthday! in classy cursive. The stock was thick enough he could flip it open with a gloved finger. Cas had filled it top to bottom with his tidy script. It read:
To say it was a pleasure to have you as a student would be an understatement. Not only did you keep class discussion lively and intriguing, but whenever we talked one-on-one it brought home to me that I hadn’t had such rigorous poetical debate in years. I’ve grown to respect you as a peer and, I hope, a friend. Please accept this gift of poems, written by a man who reminds me of you: someone who, despite hardship, makes his way through life with empathy, righteousness, and an abundance of soul.
My best to you now and always,
Dean looked up from the card, a laugh strangled halfway up his throat. To think that he was in any way a peer of Castiel’s was a joke. But Cas just gave him an encouraging nod. Dean ripped the card from the front and shoved it in his pocket. Then he made short work of the wrapping paper only to find that Castiel had given him a book.
Not that he owned a copy of this one. It was a pristine copy of The Road So Far, the collected works of Jack Allen, and he hadn’t really wanted anything to do with it. Dean supposed he was grateful for it because it was what had gotten Charlie speaking to him again after he’d blown up at her. The publisher had offered a decent deal for a poetry collection, which didn’t actually add up to much, but she had thought it was a good offer. He’d agreed to it mostly out of apology, and told her to do what she wanted with it.
The cover design was a clear homage to the City Lights style that the old Allen Ginsberg collections were printed in, with the black and white inverted, and just different enough to be its own thing. He did not deserve Charlie Bradbury. He’d have to thank her later. But for now… “Thanks, Cas.” He couldn’t quite hide the emotion in his voice, from Charlie’s past kindness, to Cas’s current kindness, and mostly, how every time hope rekindled for Dean that he could reconcile his feelings for Cas the man just had to go and put Jack Allen up on a pedestal, again. And the reality that Dean could never live up to it.
“You’re very welcome, but are you alright?” Castiel looked worried and confused, and Dean felt bad enough already. He wanted to explain but he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
“Hits a little close to home, that’s all.”
“Ah,” he said, looking somewhat mollified. “Then you did like the poems of his we read for class. I’d wondered, but you never said.”
“Heh. Those were some discussions,” he evaded.
Castiel smiled, eyes crinkling. “That they were.”
Dean glanced around a bit. The others were involved in another conversation, so he took a chance. “Will you tell me why he means so much to you? Jack Allen, I mean? I get if it’s personal, but I’m not your student anymore, so…”
“No, you’re not.” Castiel looked down, clenching his jaw in deep thought. But after a moment he met Dean’s gaze, and nodded. “Alright.
“I grew up in a very strict, very religious household. All the old clichés were true: we were to be seen and not heard. We were to be good. But most of all, we were to obey. And even after a couple of my older siblings rebelled, I still didn’t see the light.” He shook his head. “No, that’s not right. I mean I was confused and hurt, just very, very repressed. There were things I knew, but didn’t let myself know. Like that I might not be straight.” He paused, ever so slightly, to gauge Dean’s reaction. It was giddy fucking internal screaming, is what it was, but he nodded for Cas to go on. “I was going to the college my parents had picked out for me, studying economics like they wanted. But I was taking a required English class when the professor gave us an assignment to pick up a recent literary journal and talk about a piece in it. And that’s where I found him.” He looked fondly at the book in Dean’s hands. “Our library happened to have his first collection, and by the time I was doing post-graduate work very much not in economics, all three of his collections were out.” Cas hit him with a sly side-eye. “And so was I.”
Dean barked a surprised laugh.
Castiel blushed, but looked pretty pleased with himself. “My sexuality was only a part of it. The way he approached his battles in life was so righteous and open he didn’t just wake me up. It’s more than that. He showed me how to live. It’s like he taught me…free will.”
Is that possible? How could Dean have had any kind of effect like that on the man Castiel was today? There was no way that he, mid-twenties and practically broke, working constantly and serving his ailing father hand and foot could have changed intelligent, gorgeous, amazing Castiel with a couple shitty poems.
But the evidence sat in his hands.
He had no idea how to respond to something so enormous, how he could even begin to explain why it mattered so much to him, not without the last curtain between them falling away. More than that, he understood now that this fantasy, this Jack Allen that Cas had built up in his head was too important to him in his life. Dean couldn’t rip that away from him, especially not in his moment, when he’d been more open and human to Dean than he’d ever been before.
Just then, thankfully, Charlie punched him in the arm and asked him if he’d seen the new Marvel trailer. With a fleeting smile at Cas, just enough to show him he’d heard and understood, he let himself be distracted.
But he didn’t let go of the book.
It was not, it turned out, the last Dean and Cas saw of each other. When Charlie eventually eked out of Castiel that he hadn’t seen Lord of the Rings, she orchestrated some of the dinners at Missouri’s to turn into movie nights as well. They had no choice but to orbit each other, spiraling ever closer together, but every time Cas got too close—Dean reminded himself of what Jack Allen meant to Cas, and pulled away.
Somehow, his definition of too close got narrower and narrower. Soon he was foolishly agreeing to small hikes in the mountains, which Dean wasn’t that fond of, except he might have, maybe, been fond of seeing Cas in shorts. And sitting alone with him on lookouts over the picturesque New England landscape. And teasing him about his homemade trail mix.
“You are the most New England ever,” Dean joked.
“Nonsense,” said Cas. “I eat my granola just like you, one cluster at a time and drizzled in maple syrup.”
The best part, though, was when they returned to Maple Hills starving, and settled in together at small tables in the small town’s even smaller restaurants.
It was on one such spring evening when they left the local Indian restaurant, Castiel eating the candied cardamom they kept at the register, when they found themselves walking along the riverbank. The low sun pulled in the water threads of gold and orange.
“Have you ever been on the pedestrian bridge?” Cas asked him.
“No. There’s a pedestrian bridge?”
Cas grinned. “Come on,” he said, and led him in the opposite direction of his apartment. They walked away from the bank and onto the street, walking down the sharp descent that mirrored the waterfall. Two small town blocks later, Cas led them back toward the river where the old buildings opened up, revealing a wooden bridge low over the water.
Intrigued, Dean walked to the middle of it and found it gave a perfect view of the waterfall, the large brick bridge that crossed above it, and the still wheel of the old mill next to it that used to power the town. It was gorgeous. Poem-worthy. “Thanks, Cas,” he said without tearing his gaze away. “Always showing me things in new perspectives.”
After another minute of etching the sight in his memory, the willow on the left bank perpetually weeping into the water, the sparrows circling their nest in the eaves of one of the buildings, the water foaming and sparkling as it joyfully tumbled under their feet, Cas pulled at his arm, and Dean let him.
Gently Cas turned him and pressed his back against the wooden railing. One hand he slipped under Dean’s leather jacket and wrapped around his waist; the other he used to cup the back of his head. Castiel inched closer, pressed their chests together so tenderly. His mouth was just a breath away, warm, rich, tasting of cardamom. “Dean,” he whispered.
Dean inhaled his name, trembling. “Cas,” he begged.
Hearing the plea for mercy in his voice, Cas stepped away. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I thought—But I was wrong,” he babbled. “Forgive me Dean, please.”
Dean couldn’t stand the anguish in his voice. He reeled Cas back in and hugged him close, though he was stiff and didn’t reciprocate. “Not yet,” Dean whispered in his ear. “Not yet.”
Cas slumped in his arms. Slowly, he returned the embrace. Then he was trembling, too.
The next night Castiel was about to leave his office, not able to grade a single assignment more, when he received a text. He fumbled his phone from his pocket, and saw it was from Dean.
An image flashed in his head—how Dean looked at him with such sweet surprise in the sunlight on the bridge, waterfall at his back—but not yet, he’d said.
Not yet couldn’t mean…now, could it?
Castiel froze in his doorway, wondering if he should read the text, or wait until he got home.
Who was he kidding? He swiped open his phone.
In your office?
Can I stop by?
Castiel dropped his bag, uncaring, and hurriedly tapped out a reply.
About to walk home
Cas held his breath waiting for a reply. Unfortunately Dean had it set up so that Cas was unable to see whether he was typing.
In the lot where I usually park
Could drive you?
Cas put his phone away and hurriedly locked his office door. He was the only person left in the building, outside an evening class on the first floor, so it was no problem dashing down the stairs and then the front steps. The cool spring air blasted him but the thought of Dean being so nearby was intoxicating. He practically flew up the hill from the English building, past the chapel, and down the other side. He made quick work of the green—newly green again, after the winter—and soon was at the far parking lot where, sure enough, Dean’s “Baby” sat waiting, her engine a welcoming rumble. A promise of power, and warmth.
As he approached Dean leaned over the passenger seat and manually unlocked the shotgun door. Castiel wasted no time opening it and sliding onto the leather bench seat.
They smiled, and it wasn’t until Dean cleared his throat and shifted gears that Cas thought that maybe the look had been a little too long.
The Impala made short work of the distance between campus and town. Dean guided the car into the alley behind Castiel's old building where he knew he was allowed to park. The night was very quiet when the engine ticked off. Dean grabbed a package when they left the car, which Cas noticed for the first time. It was one of those interdepartmental office envelopes, and it was very full. He thought he caught Missouri’s name as the most recent recipient.
But he said nothing; just led Dean up the back steps, the aromas of the cafe curling up around them.
The apartment was cozy and he'd left it clean enough, Castiel figured. Dean at least didn’t seem bothered by the few dishes in the sink, just gravitated toward the window that overlooked the small river which ribboned through the town, as he usually did.
Cas licked his lips. “Something to drink?” he asked.
“Nah. I—” Dean turned around abruptly, envelope clutched in his hands. “I need to tell you something. Just let me talk because I gotta say it now or maybe I won’t, okay? I write poetry.”
Castiel opened his mouth, then remembered Dean wanted to do the talking. So he nodded. Was it such a big deal? If he just wanted Castiel to read his work…
“I’ve written poetry since I was sixteen, in Dr. Moseley’s summer school English class in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.” Dean’s voice shook, but all the lines of his body screamed determined. “She was the first person to encourage me to send my work in to different journals. After a year or so I won a contest put on by USD.”
That sounded familiar, but what—
“But I didn’t want my name to be on it. I didn’t want anyone to know. Well, Missouri knew. So she told me to just pick a name. And I was really into the Beats at the time, so—”
“No,” Castiel breathed.
“You can ask her,” Dean said. “I swear. Charlie and Sam know too. And Eileen. I just—I just wanted you to know. Because it felt too much like lying when I—just read this.” He held out the tan envelope. “Now that you know, read this.”
Cas stood frozen, his trench coat hanging off only one shoulder. Slowly he let it drop the rest of the way to the ground. He took a step closer to Dean, two. “Now that I know what, Dean?”
“Don’t make me say it.”
“What’s your pseudonym?” Castiel had to hear the words straight from his mouth. Because if this was a cruel prank, Dean should at least have the balls to say it to his face. And if it wasn’t a prank…
Dean gave him a sad, defeated smile, like he could see just what Cas was thinking. “Jack Allen,” he said. “My pen name is Jack Allen.”
It made absolutely no sense, and far too much sense at once. How could someone completely removed from writing programs, literary circles, and other poets get so much circulation based on the strength of his work alone? But Missouri’s insistence that Dean had the necessary qualifications for his course. The way she’d been one of the few people in the community who could go toe-to-toe with him about his dissertation, and didn’t treat it like an eccentricity. “So few of us appreciate him, up here in our ivory towers,” she’d said.
Dean stepped closer, still offering the envelope.
Castiel took it. Both their hands were shaking.
He unwound the worn red string and opened the envelope. There was a thick stack of papers. He ran his thumb along their edges to quickly flip through: poems. Pages and pages of poems.
He scanned the first page.
My first waking thought is: what’s dead should stay dead.
Stirring in my grave, pain cracks open my limbs
As they heave off the heavy cloak of deathly lead
And darkness woven expertly around me by deep depression,
A humble funeral shroud for my turbulent mind and body,
Rendered lifeless in this life, and for good reason.
The waking is endless. Each of my extremities
Trembles, tearing apart dry muscle from brittle bone,
Nerves popping as blood quickens, and gritting teeth
I punch past my coffin’s cheap wood. I atone
For my sins with ruptured knuckles, for my lies
I breathe in the grave dirt that was my home.
When I breach the surface I hear the poet’s lines;
They grip me tight. It fills me with dread
To be alive, looking into a kind man’s eyes.
What’s dead should stay dead.
Castiel let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. “Is this—?”
“For you,” confirmed Dean, barely above a whisper.
Castiel read the next poem, and the next.
I was there—
I’d rather have you—
Love poetry. The only genre Jack Allen had never dipped his pen in.
“Why are, why are you telling me this now?” Castiel said, heedless of the tears threatening to spill. “Why wait so long?
“Because the way you talked about Jack Allen, it wasn’t me. I didn’t want to ruin the fantasy, but…I just couldn’t keep it from you anymore.” He laughed. There was something desperate in his eyes. “I ain’t exactly a role model.”
“That’s not true,” Castiel denied at once. “You changed me. You changed the course of my life, Dean. I can’t…” He shook his head. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Dean, his eyes, his mouth, the dip of his nose and the curve of his cheek. So many times he’d imagined what it would be like to meet Jack Allen, but never could he have imagined this. “I owe you a debt. How could I repay…?”
“Don’t you see, Cas?” He gestured at the poems. “You changed me too. Because you were right. I wasn’t writing anymore. The darkness had taken me but you taught me how to live, too. And I’m writing again because I’m alive. Because I’m maybe not now, but I could be happy. I think I could.” He swallowed. “With you.”
Slowly Cas turned away, and softly set the poems on his kitchen island. He allowed the moment to stretch, hang over them, letting it sit in an unmoment, between what was, and what could be. When he felt brave enough, he turned back around. Dean was still there, eyes trained on him, waiting.
Cas couldn’t bear to make either of them wait any longer.
In three long strides he ate up the ground between them, Dean reached his arms out to pull him close, and they kissed.
At first it was rushed and clumsy, Dean laughing in broken relief, in tentative joy. Cas trailed kisses along his jaw until the laughter had spent itself and then he gripped the back of Dean’s head, turning him into a deep, heated kiss. They found their rhythm, found each other, and it was glorious, and exciting, and they were free.
They were alive.
I swear your love
would raise me
out of my grave,
in my flesh and blood,
hungry for this,
and this, and this,
your living kiss.
~Carol Ann Duffy