Games People Play
"Will Michael ask me to marry him?"
Flickering flames from the candles located around the room reflected off the planchette as it moved across the letters on the board. The tip of her fingers lightly touching the device, Susan protested, "What a stupid question, Paula. You already know he’s going to."
When the device stopped at the top left corner of the board, Paula smiled. "It says yes. Now I know for certain."
"This is silly." Her bleach blonde hair glowing in the gloomy bedroom, Kathy slid off the bed and pushed Paula out of her way. Sitting on her knees across from Susan, she put her fingertips on the planchette.
"What are you doing?" demanded Paula.
Kathy nodded at the Ouija board. "I’m going to see if this thing really works."
"It’s answered every question accurately, as far as we know. How much more proof do you need?"
"I want to contact Mrs. Madden."
"No." Paula backed away, almost tripping over a candle.
Susan scoffed, "Mother Madden died two years ago."
"In this very house," said Kathy. "It’s perfect."
The quiver in her voice displaying her nervousness, Paula protested, "But she died of natural causes. Her heart gave out."
"Yeah," seconded Susan. "If I was her, I would haunt a place more exciting than the house where I grew up."
"Then there’s nothing to worry … about, is there?" Kathy smugly reasoned, putting her fingers on the planchette. "Mother Madden, are you here?"
When he heard the bathroom door open, Sam Winchester looked up from his computer. More wet than dry, his brother Dean emerged with a thin, almost see-through, towel wrapped around his waist. He was using a second one to dry his hair.
"Find anything, Sam?"
Anticipating the reaction his words would invoke, Sam smiled. "Does a haunted sorority house interest you?"
Dean turned on his heel and headed back into the bathroom. "I’ll be ready in five."
While he waited for his brother, Sam turned off the laptop and slipped it into its case. He shoved his clothes into his duffle and checked the room for anything they might have left lying around. By the time Dean surfaced a second time, all their things were ready to take out to the Impala.
Throwing his toiletries in his bag and zipping it closed, Dean said, "Stop making like a tortoise, Sammy, and get a move on."
With a tolerant shake of his head, Sam followed Dean out of the motel. He threw his bag in the trunk and was closing the lid when the car’s engine roared to life. Checking his watch, Sam opened the door and quickly slid into the passenger seat. He had a feeling that if he got left behind it would be hours before Dean noticed.
Checking her watch, Kathy sighed, realizing she was going to be late for her government class – again. Dr. Bennett was sure to penalize her this time. He wasn’t as tolerant as her other professors. She just hoped he wouldn’t make her write another paper. Jim Swanson had finally asked her out after months of flirting. She didn’t want anything as mundane as homework to interfere with the weekend she had planned.
She was almost out the door when she saw her textbook sitting on her bed. Softly cursing at the additional seconds she would lose, she snatched it up and threw it in her backpack. A last, quick glance assured her she had everything she needed.
One hand buttoning her coat, she hurried from her room. Barely pausing when she reached the top of the steep staircase, she started down.
When a hand roughly pushed her from behind, she grabbed for the handrail, loudly protesting, "Hey, watch it!"
Turning her head to see who had almost caused her to take a nasty tumble, she was shocked to see there was no one there. Puzzled and a little frightened, she hesitantly released her grip and took a step down.
This time, something clutched her ankle. Her hands desperately sought the banister, but were unable to make contact. There was nothing to stop her fall.
When she reached the bottom, her neck was twisted at an impossible angle.
The town where they had spent the night, hours behind them, the road stretched endlessly ahead. AC/DC drumming in his ears, Sam looked out across the desolation of harvested cornfields. One of his first clear memories was of driving through Illinois and being frightened by the endless rows of cornstalks. He had thought a fairy or a demon had trapped them in a maze with no exit. He hadn’t believed either his father or Dean’s reassurances until they drove over the Mississippi River. That experience, coupled with what had happened in the Rockford Asylum, made Illinois one of his least favorite states.
"So," Dean said, turning down the volume on the radio, "what’s going on at this sorority?"
Smiling, Sam looked at his watch. "Two hours, and sixteen minutes."
"That’s how long it took you to ask me about the job," clarified Sam. "You heard the word sorority and that was all it took to get you on the road."
"This is what you call a fringe benefit, Sammy." Dean grinned lasciviously. "God knows this job doesn’t have many."
"So," repeated Dean, "do I get a rundown, or is it going to be a surprise?"
Sam took out his notebook and turned to the page where he'd listed the details he had unearthed. "Carthage College is in Racine, Wisconsin. It’s a private college of the liberal arts and sciences on the shore of Lake Michigan."
"Oh, great," Dean grumbled. "The vacation spot of America this time of year. What, you couldn’t find anything to hunt in Alaska?"
Ignoring his brother’s vocal displeasure, Sam continued, "Last Monday, Paula Danforth was found hanging from the light fixture in her bedroom."
"I hate to say it, but suicide isn’t all that uncommon in college."
"I know," said Sam. "But Paula had no reason to kill herself. She was set to graduate in June with honors; she had already accepted a high profile job with United Airlines; and her boyfriend had just asked her to marry him."
"Marriage or death, not much to choose between them if you ask me."
"Anyway," snapped an exasperated Sam, "by all accounts, she had everything to live for."
"If you say so."
"The night after Paula’s body was found, her Kappa Phi Eta sister, Danielle Coates, drowned in the hot tub."
"They have a hot tub? Rough life."
Sam slammed the notebook against his knee. "Do you want to hear this or not?"
"I take it they ruled the drowning an accident."
"Yes." Sam looked down at his notes. "Even though there wasn’t a mark on her, and she had been on her high school swim team."
Shaking his head, Dean said, "It seems like too much of a coincidence for two healthy young women to die in the same house within twenty-four hours of each other. But neither does it appear to be connected to something supernatural. What haven’t you told me?"
"Two nights before Paula Danforth died, she and some of her sorority sisters had been using a Ouija board."
"Son of a bitch!" Dean slapped his hand against the steering wheel. "When will people get it through their heads a Ouija board isn’t a toy?"
"I’m guessing never."
"Was the other girl--"
"Danielle Coates," supplied Sam.
"Playing with the Ouija board, too?"
"Not according to the newspaper articles I read."
"Which means the spirit isn't just after the ones who summoned her, she's after all the girls in the sorority."
Sam closed his notebook. "What makes you think the spirit is female?'
"It's a sorority house."
"The spirit could be from a previous owner or a boyfriend or --"
Indicating a sign stating Chicago was three hundred and twenty miles ahead, Dean said, "I guess we have about five hours before we find out."
Dean hunched his shoulders as he exited his car. Slamming the door closed, he stuck his hands in the pockets of his coat to try to keep them warm. Feeling as though he was taking two steps sideways for every step forward, he fought the vicious wind blowing in from the lake across the Carthage College visitors' parking lot. He softly cursed, wishing he could have parked closer to his destination.
His nose was numb, and he couldn't feel his ears by the time he reached the library. If this was spring, Dean decided he never wanted to be here in the winter. Even a house full of sorority sisters wasn't worth this.
Entering the library, he cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew on them. The warm air thawed his nose, making it run. He snuffled, wishing he had a Kleenex.
Following the signs to the computer center, he found Sam sprawled in front of a terminal in a corner by himself; a cup of Starbucks coffee sat in front of him. "Where did you get that?" Dean jealously demanded.
"That's real helpful."
"It's the last building north of the visitors' parking lot."
Mentally calculating the distance as twice what he had traversed to reach the library, Dean decided it wasn't worth the effort. More than just his nose might be frozen before he reached the center. Grabbing Sam's cup, he took a sip. The bitter taste of the cold brew swished around inside his mouth until he reluctantly realized there was no where to spit it out. He would have to swallow it. "Son of a bitch," he sputtered.
It was clear the apology didn't reflect Sam's true feelings. He shot his brother a dark look. "Sincerity is oozing out of your every pore."
A smile deepening the dimples in his cheeks, Sam asked, "What did you find out?"
"Our sorority house isn't technically a sorority house." Dean pulled up a chair and sat down. "It was built in the late forties by Malcolm Madden. When he died in 1960, he left it to his only child, a daughter, Violet. She died two years ago with no husband or children. She left the house to her old sorority."
"Kappa Phi Eta," furnished Sam.
Dean nodded. "It only has eight bedrooms, two on the first floor, four on the second, and two in the attic, so it's not big enough to house the entire sorority. Apparently, they decided to let seniors have first choice. What did you find?"
"Nothing strange has ever happened either inside or outside the house," Sam said, wearily brushing his unruly bangs out of his eyes. "The daughter, Violet, died in her sleep."
"No reason for her to attack her own sorority sisters," reasoned Dean.
Waving a hand at the computer screen, Sam slumped lower in his chair. "The house wasn't built on sacred land or on an old cemetery. All the land around here, if it was developed at all, had been cornfields."
"I seem to remember you used to think cornstalks were possessed." Dean smiled.
"I was five years old and you had just read Jack and the Beanstalk to me." Sam suspiciously regarded his brother. "You did it on purpose. You knew we were driving through Illinois the next day."
Dean's smile widened. "It was so easy to get you wound up back then. Not that it's difficult now."
With a look of frustration, Sam ignored the remark and pushed his notepad towards his brother. "I couldn't find any evidence the land had once been used as an Indian burial ground, though that would be hard to verify one way or another."
"Unless, skeletons start oozing out of the mud." Dean scratched his head. "I hope this house doesn't have a scary ass tree and a swimming pool."
Sighing, Sam turned off the computer. "I did find one thing of interest. Another girl died in the house this morning, Kathy Franklin."
"Let me guess, she was massaged to death."
"She fell down the stairs and broke her neck."
"Fell or was pushed?"
Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Where do you want to go from here?"
"To the source."
"You mean the house?" Sam's voice rose with each word he spoke.
"You got a better idea?"
"It's almost ten o'clock."
"On a Friday night, everyone should be out, either because they're upset over what happened this morning or on dates. We might even be able to look around without an audience." Dean eyed his brother. "Don't tell me you stayed in and studied on a Friday."
Sam stared at his hands.
Dean laughed loudly, earning him a dirty look from the couple at a worktable nearby. "You did! You're such a geek."
Dean parked the car across the street from the sorority house. Disgustedly eyeing the lights blazing in almost every window, he glared at his brother. "You sure you weren't a member of this sorority?"
"Men belong to fraternities, Dean. Women belong to sororities."
Frowning at the jibe, Sam ignored it as he asked, "Now what?"
"Now, it's time for Plan B." Dean turned off the engine, pulled the keys from the ignition, and opened his door.
Quickly exiting from his side, Sam intercepted Dean on the sidewalk in front of the house. "What's Plan B?"
"When I know, you'll know." Dean patted Sam on the chest and dodged around him to continue on to the front door.
Tempted to return to the car and leave Dean to sink or swim on his own, Sam fought the urge and followed his brother. He would never acknowledge it out loud, but some of Dean's best results came from his by the seat of his pants approach.
"What was the name of the other girl that newspaper article said was playing with the Ouija Board that night?"
"Susan Lawler," Sam supplied.
Dean knocked on the door. When his summons was answered by a young girl in baggy clothes and slippers, he asked, "Is Susan Lawler around?"
"Sure." The girl stepped aside, opening the door to let them in. "I'll get her for you."
As the girl started climbing the stairs, Dean called after her, "Thank you."
Keeping a non-threatening smile on his face, Sam sidled closer to his brother and whispered, "What are you doing?"
"Going to the source."
Immediately realizing what Dean was saying, Sam gasped. "You're going to tell her the truth."
"You got a better idea?"
"She's going to think we're crazy."
"With this face?" Dean gently tapped Sam's cheek. "You'll have her convinced in no time."
"What? You think she'll believe me?"
Sam didn't have time to voice an argument. Another young girl, dressed much the same as the first but with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, descended the stairs to stand in front of them.
"Hi, I'm Susan Lawler."
Though the girl couldn't seem to take her eyes off his brother, Sam asked, "Is there somewhere we could talk?"
"Alone," Dean added.
"Sure." Susan pointed to a room down the hall. "The library will be empty tonight."
Thankful for the girl's trusting nature, Sam followed her into the small room. She took a seat in a chair by the fireplace. Sam sat across from her. He saw her smile falter when Dean closed the door and remained standing in front of it.
A slight quiver in her voice, Susan asked, "Who are you?"
"My name is Sam." Sam waved his hand toward the door. "That's my brother, Dean."
"What do you want?"
"This is going to sound crazy," warned Sam. "But, please, hear me out. My brother and I don't believe Paula Danforth committed suicide, or that what happened to Danielle Coates or Kathy Franklin were accidents."
Her gaze shifting between the brothers, Susan asked, "Are you detectives?"
"You could say that," Dean said.
"We're not members of the law enforcement community," Sam clarified, scowling at his brother. "But we do look into unexplained incidences."
Shocked by her reaction, Sam found himself momentarily speechless.
"I never thought Paula committed suicide. Danielle could swim like a fish. None of it made any sense."
Relief flowed through Sam, until Susan asked her next question.
"So who do you think killed them?"
"Not who," corrected Dean. "What."
Her eyes narrowing in suspicion, Susan said, "I don't understand."
Dean left his post at the door. "What happened the night you and your friends used the Ouija board?"
"Why is that important?"
Keeping his tone even, Sam supported his brother's line of inquiry. "What kind of questions did you ask it?"
"Paula wanted to know if Michael was going to ask her to marry him." Susan blushed. "I asked it if I was going to pass my poli-sci test."
"Is that it?" demanded Dean.
Her gaze resting on her hands, Susan spoke so low she was barely audible. "Kathy tried to talk to Mother Madden, the woman who used to own this house."
"What happened?" A note of excitement crept into Sam's voice.
"Nothing." Susan was starting to look frightened.
Sam pressed, "Did you suddenly feel cold?"
"Maybe a little," admitted Susan. "But this is an old house. When that wind is coming in off the lake, nothing stops it."
In the short time they had been here, Sam recognized the truth of her observation. Exchanging glances with Dean, he frowned when his brother silently urged him to continue. "Did anything happen on the Ouija board? Was anything spelled out?"
"Yeah, but I'm sure it was Kathy trying to scare me."
"Did she cop to it?" Dean sat on the coffee table between the two chairs.
"She swore she didn't." Susan hastily added, "But it wasn't me, so I know it had to be her."
"What did she spell out?"
Sam knew the she Dean was referring to was the spirit, not Kathy. But he was certain that if Susan realized it, she would clam up.
"It didn't make any sense," insisted Susan.
Dean clarified, "It was gibberish?"
"No," Susan reluctantly conceded. "It said: get out."
Leaning forward in his seat, Sam asked, "Get out of what?"
"The house," Dean said with conviction.
"It can't be that." Sam shook his head. "If the spirit is Violet Madden, she gave this house to the sorority. Why would she want them out?"
"Good question." Dean turned to Susan. "What have you done to piss her off?"
Rising from her chair, Susan snapped, "Nothing! This is nonsense. You're talking as if her ghost is haunting us."
"There's no such thing as ghosts."
Dean rose to face her. "If you don't tell us the truth, this thing that doesn't exist is going to kill again. And you could be its next target."
When the girl's face paled and she swayed, Sam hastily stood and put a hand on her arm. "Let us help."
"This is a beautiful house," whispered Susan, "but it's old. It needs a lot of work, a new roof, plumbing. Plus, the taxes and insurance are really high."
"You want to sell it," finished Sam.
"Yes. We're primarily a philanthropic organization. We dedicate our time and efforts towards service projects such as the Special Olympics, Foster Care, and the American Cancer Society. We don't have the resources to own a house."
"We understand," Sam assured her.
"I'm thinking Mother Madden doesn't," said Dean.
A bitter smile curving her lips, Susan admitted, "Some people think we're ungrateful. Do you really think Kathy conjured her spirit, or whatever?"
"Not Kathy," Sam corrected, "the Ouija board. It's not a toy. It can act as a portal between this world and the spirit world."
Closing her eyes, Susan whispered, "I can't believe I'm asking this, but how do we close the portal?"
"We have our ways," said Dean. "But first, we need to see the room where you used the board."
"It was Paula's room. The police locked it. They said it's a crime scene."
Sam smiled. "That's not a problem."
Fear peeking through the mask of determination shaping her face, Susan crossed to the door. "We need to go upstairs."
They didn't encounter any of the other girls as they climbed the stairs. However, Sam could hear them. Music blared from somewhere. But even The Rolling Stones couldn't drown out the high-pitched voices. From what he could hear it appeared those girls not actually staying in the house had come to support their sisters.
As soon as they reached the second-floor landing, Sam saw the yellow crime scene tape barring the door to the room on the far left. Trusting Dean to keep watch, Sam pulled his lock-picking tools from his pocket. He felt the bolt slide back just as Dean tapped his back in warning. Quickly slipping the tools up his coat sleeve, Sam turned to smile at a young African-American girl exiting the room across the hall. For once, his puppy dog eyes failed him. The frown on her face deepened.
"What's going on, Susan?"
"These are some friends of mine, Gail."
"You're not going to try to get into Paula's room, are you?"
"No, of course not, we're on our way up to my room." Susan pointed up to the attic.
The deep furrows in the girl's brow eased. "Good. I'm sure the police wouldn't like it if you broke into Paula's room."
"I'm sure they wouldn't," Susan agreed. "Are you going out with Jerome tonight?"
"I can't wait to hear all the details tomorrow."
Sam tuned out the rest of the conversation. He bit his lip to keep from laughing when he saw how hard it was for Dean to keep a pleasant smile on his face. Dean did not suffer fools – or inanity – lightly.
A ringing doorbell finally prodded Gail to continue on her way. "That's probably Milton. See you in the morning…maybe." A happy smile on her face, she hurried away.
As soon as she was out of eye and ear contact, Sam turned the knob, opening the door to the empty bedroom. He held up the crime scene tape, allowing Dean and Susan to duck under. With a quick look around, he followed, closing the door behind him.
The click of the latch sliding into place was still echoing around the room when Dean pulled what looked like a walkman from his coat pocket. He had barely turned it on when red lights on one end started flashing, accompanied by a squeal loud enough to be heard outside.
"Turn it off," Sam loudly hissed.
"W-what is that?" Susan pointed to the now quiet instrument.
"It's an EMF meter," explained Sam. "It measures electro-magnetic frequencies."
"Which are signs of . . .?" Susan stuttered to a stop.
"Ghosts," Dean succinctly revealed.
"I don't believe this." Hugging herself, Susan asked, "Now what?"
"Now," said Dean, crossing back to the door, "we do our thing so no one else gets hurt." His hand started to turn the door knob when the drapes burst into flame. "What the - -"
"Dean." Sam tore the bedspread off and threw it to his brother. Grabbing another blanket, he joined Dean, beating at the slowly spreading fire.
"Starting to believe now?" Dean pointed to Susan with one hand, while beating at the blaze with the other. "Call 911."
Her eyes wide with fear, Susan frantically tugged at the knob. When it wouldn't turn, she fiddled with the lock before finally admitting defeat. "I can't get the door open."
"Sam, can you handle this?" asked Dean.
When Sam nodded, Dean returned to Susan's side. His efforts were greeted with the same results. "Sam, throw me the lock picks," Dean called.
Despite his expertise, the lock refused to open. Dean looked around for something heavy to use as a hammer. Grabbing a marble bookend in the shape of a globe, he took out several of the thin tools and held them close together. Placing them under the top hinge, he pounded until the pin came out. "Hold the door," he instructed Susan.
"Hurry, Dean," Sam yelled.
Noticing the fire had spread and the room was filling with smoke, Dean didn't waste time answering. He knelt by the bottom pin. It was almost out when he heard a crack followed by a cry of pain. Dean turned his head and saw the dresser had moved from its place against the far wall. It had slid halfway across the room before its progress had been halted. Sam had stepped in front of it, causing it to veer off and smash into the bed. It was clear to Dean the furniture had been dispatched to stop his own efforts. Sam's intervention had saved his brother from serious injury. "Sammy, are you all right?"
"No." Sam held his left knee. "But none of us will be if you don't get that door off."
The smoke filling his lungs and the heat making his skin feel like it was on fire, Dean was forced to ignore his desire to help his brother. Reluctantly, he returned to his task, hoping Mother Madden wouldn't put any other obstacles in their path.
A couple more blows knocked the pin out of the hinge. Quickly regaining his feet, Dean helped Susan lower the door to the floor. Even this simple act created an air pocket adding fuel to the fire. Realizing his brother would have difficulty walking with his injured knee, he hurried over to lend a shoulder for him to lean on. Smoke accompanied them out into the hallway. "Susan," ordered Dean, "go downstairs, call 911, and get everyone on the first floor outside."
As the girl hurried away, Dean turned to his brother. "Let's get you out."
"No." Sam took his hand off Dean's shoulder. "I don't hear any smoke alarms. Either they don't have them or they haven't changed the batteries. We have to check the other bedrooms, make sure everyone gets out."
Dean wanted to say the hell with everyone else – at least until he got Sam away from the danger. They had a pretty pissed ghost on their hands considering she was willing to burn down her own house. However Dean's sense of responsibility wouldn't let him. "Can you take this floor?" he asked.
"I got it," Sam agreed.
"I'll check the attic," said Dean. "Meet you outside."
Flames licking at doorway of what had been Paula Danforth's bedroom, Sam urged, "Hurry."
Dean didn't look back as he ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Tendrils of smoke followed him up. There were only two bedrooms on this floor. With any luck, he would have the occupants out before Sam checked his three. It was clear his brother would need assistance getting down the stairs.
The first room Dean looked in was empty. Remembering Susan had indicated her bedroom was up here, he guessed it was hers.
Crossing to the door on the other side of room, he knocked before opening it to find a bathroom. A quick glance showed the room was unoccupied. There was another door opposite, apparently leading into the second bedroom. "What is this," he muttered, "the freakin' Brady Bunch?"
Two big steps took him to the other entrance. He didn't bother to knock this time before flinging the door open. The young girl who had greeted them at the front door was sitting on her bed studying. Her cry, equal parts surprise and fear, met his sudden appearance. Dean stood in the doorway as he said, "The house is on fire. You need to get out."
He gave the girl full marks for not arguing or becoming hysterical. She pushed her book away, rose and grabbed her coat.
Before she reached him, Dean felt himself lifted and flung into the room. As he crashed into the desk, he felt a pain in his chest that dulled next to the agony that flared in his left shoulder. The roaring in his ears almost drowned out the sound of the door slamming closed behind him.
Though he knew the implication of what he'd heard could spell doom for him and the young girl trapped with him, there was one consolation. If the spirit was here, she couldn't be going after Sam. Dean could endure anything if he knew his brother was safe.
Exasperated, Sam grabbed the hysterical girl's arm and tugged her towards the bedroom door. Smoke was already making it difficult to see. He coughed as a wisp rolled down his throat despite the wet cloth he had obtained to cover his nose and mouth. The crackle of the flames devouring everything in their path was growing dangerously close. As aggravating as this girl was proving to be, Sam knew he had been lucky. There had been four girls in the first room he checked; all had left in an orderly fashion. The same was true of the two inhabitants of the next room. Unfortunately, three wasn't turning out to be a charm in this instance.
"We have to go," Sam insisted, tightening his grip on her arm.
"Wait." She tried to pull free. "I have to get my jewelry box."
Her arms were already laden with things she couldn't leave behind. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't possibly carry anything else. With a tug that almost pulled her off her feet, Sam growled, "There isn't time."
Using his considerable strength, Sam dragged her out the door. When she bumped his sore knee, pain blurred his vision, making him nauseous. He had to stop and lean against the frame for support. The sight of the fire finally illustrating the danger they were in, the girl screamed, and practically knocked Sam down as she charged for the stairs.
Swallowing the bile threatening to choke him, Sam saw flames had almost engulfed the staircase to the attic rooms. Tempted to call up to be sure Dean had gotten clear, Sam heard the wail of sirens, indicating the imminent arrival of fire trucks.
His leg hurting so bad he was afraid to put weight on it, Sam rested his shoulder against the wall, using it as a crutch. When he reached the stairs, he dragged his bad leg the short distance to the railing. Holding onto the banister, he hoped his voice could be heard above the noise of the burning wood, crackling flames, and blaring horns of the emergency vehicles. "Dean!"
"Sam," Susan called up to him. "You need to get out now."
"Have you seen Dean?"
"No, but Pam was the only one in the attic, I'm sure they got out all right."
Though he had no verification, Sam knew differently. Dean was aware of his brother's injury. He wouldn't leave without making sure Sam was safe. The fire flared as he took a step toward the attic stairs.
"Sam, no!" protested Susan. "You'll get yourself killed."
Four firemen ran through the open front door. One grabbed Susan and pulled her outside while the other three ran up the stairs to Sam.
Sam's initial relief at their arrival turned to frustration when two of them grabbed his arms and partially carried him down the stairs. "No," Sam said, trying to pull free. "My brother could still be in the attic."
His voice muffled behind the shield on his helmet, one of the firemen assured, "We'll find him, but no one can get up those stairs."
Though he knew the fireman was right, Sam felt as though he was deserting his brother when he stopped fighting and allowed himself to be carried from the burning house. Once outside, his eyes scanned the spectators and the ambulances, hoping to see a familiar figure. It came as no surprise when his questing gaze met with failure.
As he was helped onto a stretcher, Sam looked back at the house. It was almost fully engulfed. It didn't seem possible that anything – or anyone – inside could still be alive.
Every time he or Pam had tried to get near either of the bedroom's doors, they had been flung back. Dean was beginning to feel like a yo-yo. In desperation, he used a ski pole to tuck blankets in the cracks at the bottom of the entrances to try to keep out the smoke. It had helped for a while, but the coughing, coupled with the disorientation he was feeling, told Dean it wasn't enough. It was getting harder and harder to pull air into his lungs. Pushing to his feet, he closed his eyes to dispel the dizziness threatening to put him back on the floor.
Dean stumbled blindly over to where Pam had taken refuge under the room's only window. It was high and too narrow to use to escape – even if they weren't three stories off the ground. Carefully lowering his aching body down beside her, Dean rasped, "I'm sorry."
"What's doing this?" Pam croaked around bouts of coughing. "What's keeping us in here?"
"You won't believe me."
Deciding she had the right to know the truth, Dean said, "A pissed-off spirit."
A laugh triggered another round of coughing. "What pissed her – him," she finally settled on, "it, off?"
"Her," supplied Dean, the burning in his lungs making every word torture to speak. "We think the decision to sell the house set her off."
"You want to hear something funny?'' Pam rested her head against Dean's good shoulder. "I voted against the sale."
Dean wanted to laugh, but there was barely enough air in his lungs to keep him alive. He couldn't afford to waste any. Sweat poured down his face and into his eyes making them smart. The heat against his skin and the smell of burning wood triggered a memory. Once again, he felt the heartache from the night his mother died. The horror of that event washed over him, making his jaw quiver. The pain in his shoulder was similar to what he had felt carrying Sammy from the burning house. Though the weight of his little brother had made his muscles throb and his arms feel like lead weights, he had never been tempted to release his burden. Nothing had changed in the intervening twenty-two years.
A thump penetrating the wall he was leaning against caught Dean's attention. Looking up, he thought he could see a fireman at the narrow window. He wasn't sure if he was hallucinating or if the swirling smoke made him see what he wanted to see. Deciding not to take a chance, Dean pulled Pam underneath him, trying to cover as much of her body with his own as he could.
He had no sooner gotten into position when he heard the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood, and felt a smattering of chips hit his head and shoulders. A cool breeze wafted through the room, momentarily dispelling the smoke.
Unable to stop himself, Dean tried to take a deep breath of the fresh air. A bout of coughing emptied what little air he had been able to inhale. His strength waning, he quickly rolled off Pam. Agony ripped along his shoulder, almost making him pass out.
The breeze fueled the fire, making it flare and advance. Recognizing the danger, Dean pushed to his feet. Bone jarring coughing tearing at his raw throat, he grabbed Pam's arm and pulled her up. He paid for his chivalry with burning lungs. Unable to fulfill their demand for air, Dean dropped to his knees.
Wishing there was more he could do, Dean drew the frightened girl's attention to the fireman in the window. He saw her eyes widen with hope as she reached up her arms. His muscles no longer able to support his body, Dean collapsed against the wall, and closed his eyes. He didn't even have the energy to cough anymore. The flames licking at his legs, he struggled for air.
"Sir, you should stay still."
Sam glared at the paramedic in frustrated anger. How could she expect him to relax when his brother needed him? What seemed hours ago, firemen had disappeared around the back of the house with a ladder. From Sam's limited view on the stretcher, it looked as though the whole house was engulfed. Nothing could possibly survive that inferno. The licking flames reminded him of Jess' fate. The pain of the memory surpassed the physical pain from his knee. The thought that fire had claimed someone else he loved made him feel ill.
Twisting away from the hand pressed against his shoulder, Sam tried to sit up.
"Sir, you have a dislocated kneecap. It's popped back into place, but unless you want it to come out again, we need to keep your leg elevated and put ice on it. We can't do that if you won't lie still."
"You don't understand." Sam tried to push her away. "My brother's in that house."
"Trained personnel are trying to save him. You can't help your brother, but you could do permanent damage to your knee."
The threat didn't make Sam stop fighting; but the appearance of two firemen, one carrying a young girl, and the other an apparently unconscious Dean, did. Sam would do nothing to distract the paramedics from helping his brother.
With the help of another paramedic, the fireman gently eased Dean onto a stretcher. From the blue/gray color of Dean's skin, and the frantic rise and fall of his chest, Sam knew Dean was having trouble breathing. Rhonda, according to name tag on her shoulder, grabbed an endotracheal tube and rushed over to her partner.
"What is it?" demanded Sam. "What's wrong with him?"
Once the tube was in place, Rhonda returned to his side. Gently pressing Sam back on the stretcher, she explained, "Your brother is suffering from smoke inhalation. We needed to artificially maintain an airway."
"Then he's alive?" Sam needed corroboration of what he couldn't see for himself. The odd color of Dean's flesh, combined with the lack of movement from his normally animated brother, made him believe otherwise.
Unable to see around the bodies surrounding Dean's stretcher, Sam asked, "Was he burned?"
"Not that I could see." Rhonda patted his shoulder. "Are you ready to go to the hospital now?"
"Is it the same one where they're taking Dean?" Sam nodded to the stretcher being loaded into an ambulance.
"Same place," confirmed Rhonda.
Sam eased onto his back. Though the pain of his own injury had diminished since ice packs had been placed on either side of his knee, he still felt nauseous. The blur of people as his stretcher was carried to an ambulance made his stomach do flip flops. Closing his eyes, he swallowed down the bile, unwilling to show weakness. Though he had fought against his father's teachings, some lessons were hard to forget.
As he slowly regained consciousness, Dean's first memory was of fighting to fill his lungs with air. He took a deep breath, unprepared for the pure oxygen shooting into his nostrils from a nasal canella. Overwhelmed, he coughed, trying to rid himself of the extra quantity. The pressure making his chest ache and his throat burn, he struggled to sit up.
"It's all right, sir," a strange female voice assured him. "Try to breathe naturally."
As opposed to unnaturally? Dean mentally snarked.
Despite his thoughts, Dean tried to follow her advice. He fought the weights pulling at his eyelids, and opened his eyes. A quick glance confirmed his suspicions that he was in a hospital. It also sent a stab of fear coursing through him. His heart beating so rapidly it made him dizzy, Dean had seen enough to know Sam wasn't in the room. An occurrence so unexpected, he felt more frightened than when he was trapped in the burning house. "Where's my brother?"
"Sir, you really need to calm down." The nurse gently pressed him against the mattress.
Dean raspily contradicted, "What I need is my brother." Sam's absence from his bedside could only mean one thing.
"He's dead." Dean collapsed onto his pillow. He had known Sam would need help to get down those stairs. He had failed his brother.
Unwilling to let a stranger see his grief, Dean gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. But he could do nothing to stop his jaw from quivering.
"Dean, what's wrong?"
The question, asked in Sam's familiar voice, broke through Dean's defenses. A sob escaped his ravaged throat.
"Hey, man, you're scaring me here."
Unable to bear any more, Dean lifted his arms to cover his ears with his hands. The movement ignited a pain in his left shoulder that made him see white dots behind his closed eyelids.
"Dean, you don't want to do that."
Though the warning had come too late, it was followed by a recognizable grip wrapping around Dean's arms and gently pushing them down to his side.
"You have a cracked collarbone."
Though he was certain it couldn't be real, the hands encircling his wrists felt like Sam's. The voice was Sam's. Even the smell of clothes permeated with smoke he associated with Sam. Though Dean was afraid the tears welling behind his eyelids would spill over, he hesitantly opened his eyes. His disbelieving gaze rested on familiar features. Blinking rapidly, he tried to clear his vision, but the apparition didn't go away. Gray ash was liberally sprinkled through brown, scraggly hair. It, along with the black soot smeared across a cheekbone, made Dean believe the specter in front of him was real after all. "Sammy?"
A tired smile curving his lips, Sam nodded. "It's really me."
"When I woke up and you weren't here, I thought—"
"Sorry about that." Sam tapped the brace on his leg. "I was getting this."
Relief weighing so heavily on him it made it difficult to speak, Dean croaked, "How bad is it?"
"I'm all right," said Sam. "My kneecap was dislocated but it went back in on its own. The brace is to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Laying his head back, Dean sighed. He felt drained. "We still have to salt and burn Mother Madden's bones."
"You have a cracked collarbone and a couple of bruised ribs," revealed Sam. "You aren't going to be doing any digging for a while."
"I'm good." A cough made Dean's claim a lie.
"They want to keep you in the hospital overnight to make sure all the damage from the smoke in your lungs doesn't develop into pneumonia."
Dean threw back his blanket. A lingering ache in his left shoulder reminded him to use his right hand. He gripped the nasal canella to pull it off when a large hand fisted around his, stopping him.
"For once," said Sam, "you're following doctor's orders."
"We can't afford to."
"This isn't costing us a dime."
"They might discover—"
Sam interrupted, "Pam's parents are so grateful to you for saving their daughter's life, they're paying all our bills."
"Those firemen saved her life." Dean shook his head. "Not me."
"She seems to think you were both responsible."
"She's a brave kid," acknowledged Dean. "But we still have to burn those bones."
Ducking his head, Sam said, "It'll be taken care of tonight."
"You can't dig a grave in your condition," protested Dean.
"I'm not. A couple of Susan's friends have volunteered to do the grunt work."
Dean frowned. "You know how Dad feels about enlisting outside help."
"If we ever find Dad, I'll happily let him rip me a new one. Right now, I don't see any other way to ensure the safety of the women in that sorority."
Too tired to argue further, Dean closed his eyes. "Just be careful."
"I've got the shotguns loaded with rock salt."
Finding it increasingly difficult to speak around the razor blades lining his throat, Dean whispered, "Good luck."
"I'll see you in the morning." Sam patted Dean's good arm.
"I'll be here."
Flames burned hot, scorching Dean's throat and lungs, making every breath a fight. The blaze licked at his feet. Any moment, it would catch the bottom of his jeans, roar up his legs, and over his body. He kept his gaze fastened on the mesmerizing fire, refusing to look up, afraid of what – or who – he might see pinned to the ceiling.
A hand clasped his shoulder before moving up to cup his head, bringing him out of his nightmare and back to reality. His initial fear quickly disappeared. He knew that touch.
"Easy, Dean," Sam softly soothed. "You're safe."
His brother's words didn't calm Dean as much as the contact. It told him he was safe. More importantly, it told him Sam was safe. That was far more important. Opening his eyes, he let them rest on the dirty face.
"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," said Sam. "I was beginning to think I would have to start looking for seven dwarfs."
"Charming," rasped Dean.
"You're asking a lot if you want them to be charming, too. If I remember correctly, one of them was named Grumpy."
Dean gruffly corrected, "It was Prince Charming who kissed Sleeping Beauty and woke her up, not the dwarves."
"Actually," smirked Sam, "Prince Charming saved Snow White. Prince Philip kissed Sleeping Beauty and woke her up."
"Like a said, you're a geek."
Sam took his hand away and dropped back onto his chair. "What can I say, I know my Disney movies."
Missing the warmth of the big hand, Dean didn't reply. Never once had he been sorry he had a little brother. Though, there had been times he couldn't wait for Sam to grow out of a certain phase. Sleeping Beauty had been one of them. Though at the time, it had almost been a relief, as the movie had replaced a purple dinosaur in Sam's affections. If that obsession had lasted much longer, Dean would be an only child now.
Loath to play the memory game, afraid of what would be exposed, Dean said, "I thought you were supposed to be digging a grave?"
"Already?" Dean looked around for a clock. "What time is it?"
Sam looked at his watch. "Almost six."
Embarrassed that he had slept the night away, Dean asked, "How did it go?"
"Susan didn't tell her friends what she wanted them to do." Sam smiled broadly.
"They ran for the hills when they found out?"
"They may have wanted to, but they didn't. However after they dug up the casket, they couldn't open it. Since I couldn't get down there to do it, Susan had to."
"Vomit doesn't hurt a coffin."
"No," Sam contradicted, "she did good. Once I salted and burned the bones, she brought me back here while her friends filled in the grave."
"At least if they get caught it'll be considered a college prank," Dean bitterly noted.
When the door opened, Dean glanced over, expecting to see a nurse. He was surprised to see it was Susan. After all she had been through, he thought she would never want to see the Winchester brothers again.
"Hey, guys," she greeted them.
Dean smiled. "I hear you had an interesting night."
"You could say that." Her matching grin faded as she crossed to the bed. "Sam said you would be leaving as soon as the doctors gave the OK. I wanted to be sure I caught you in time to say thank you. I know you saved my life, and probably everyone in the sorority. And I'm not talking about the fire."
Dean was embarrassed. He was more accustomed to being sworn at and kicked out of town than he was at receiving approval. Trying to sit up, he quickly clamped his mouth shut over a moan when pain ignited in his shoulder and chest. He had forgotten about the cracked collarbone and bruised ribs -- again.
Regaining his feet, Sam grabbed the remote to operate the bed and put it in his brother's good hand. "We're glad we were able to help," he said, pulling Susan's attention from Dean.
His eyes expressing his appreciation, Dean pushed the button to raise the head of his bed. When he started to feel the pull on the sore muscles in his chest, he took his finger off and laid the control by his side. When he was sure no sounds of distress would escape his lips, he pleaded, "Just do us a favor, don't play with a Ouija Board again. It's not a game."
"You have my word." Susan held her hand up as if making a pledge.
The sincerity of her words and expression reassured Dean. Eager to change the subject, he asked, "How's Pam?"
"She's fine. Her parents took her home last night after the doctors checked her out. She wanted me to thank you for saving her life."
"I didn't do anything," snorted Dean. "The firemen saved us both."
"I don't think you'll convince her of that."
Once again, Sam stepped in to rescue his brother. "Is the sorority still going to sell the house?"
"What's left of the building isn't worth much," Susan admitted. "But the land should still bring a good price, considering its location."
"You can do a lot of good with that money."
"We plan to create scholarships in Paula's, Danielle's, and Kathy's names."
Uncomfortable with the tears he saw welling in the young girl's eyes, Dean said, "You might want to get psychological help for those friends who dug up the grave. They're probably scarred for life."
"Hey," Sam smiled, "we could always introduce them to that dude in Rockford."
Dean grinned reminiscently. "On a scale of one to ten, kissing a whacked out ghost is a ten, digging a grave: a two."
The door opened again, admitting a doctor.
Giving both boys a quick kiss on the cheek, Susan said, "I better go. Thanks again."
Dean knew she was as relieved as he was by the physician's timely arrival. Her appreciation had been sincere, but he knew she wanted to forget this whole incident – which included the Winchester brothers' existence. He didn't blame her, though he knew it was an impossible dream.
Sam slowly followed Dean across the parking lot to where they had been told the Impala was parked. The crutches under Sam's arms were already making his armpits ache. He could understand his brother's desire for speed, even if he couldn't match it. The cold breeze cutting through their coats was incentive enough, even without the desire to put the hospital, its doctors, and the numerous tests and treatments behind them.
By the time Sam reached the car, Dean had opened the back door for his brother, and climbed behind the wheel, one hand fumbling under his shirt. Knowing exactly what his stubborn sibling intended to do, Sam leaned against the open door and snapped, "Leave it alone."
Ignoring the command, Dean tugged the white cast out from under his coat and threw it on the passenger seat. "I don't need it."
"Your collarbone is cracked, Dean."
"Cracked," repeated Dean, "not broken. That sorry excuse for a cast isn't going to do much except get in my way."
"It could keep it from actually breaking if you do something stupid."
"I'm not going to do anything stupid."
Sam bit back a smart remark. Getting into an argument would only prolong their stay in this uncomfortable, bitterly cold wind. Besides, he knew he would lose.
His first attempt to climb into the car was met with failure. When he tried a second time, he was surprised when Dean suddenly appeared on the other side of the car to guide his braced leg along the seat. He hadn't heard or seen his brother move.
Once Sam was situated, Dean asked, "All right?"
"Yeah." A cold breeze blew into the car. Softly cursing as he shivered, Sam pleaded, "Let's get out of here."
"You used to like popsicles," said Dean, climbing back behind the wheel.
"To eat, not to imitate."
Closing both back doors, Dean climbed behind the wheel and turned the key, starting the engine. Shifting into gear, he pulled out of the hospital parking lot.
Getting a glimpse of the gray water of Lake Michigan, Sam shuddered. "Where are we going?"
"Where in the south?"
"Does it matter?"
Leaning back, Sam shook his head. "I guess not, as long as it's warm."
"I'm thinking Siberia would be warmer than this."
Sam smiled. "It's not that bad."
Grabbing a newspaper from the stack Dean had placed on the floor within easy reach, Sam said, "I'll see what I can find in Florida. They always have some weird ass stuff down there."