Like Forever Had Gone By
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
There were days when the mere sight of a happy couple strolling down the street would send lancing daggers of pain knifing through his heart.
And he couldn’t breathe.
When the sound of children’s innocent, joyful laughter, even the melodic giggles of his own six-year-old son, would spiral him into a fit of rage that he could not contain.
And he couldn’t stop himself from falling.
He would find himself in a pit so dark and desolate in those times that John wasn’t sure if he would ever see the light again.
And he wasn’t sure if he wanted to.
Agony consumed him, ripped at his weakened defenses, and everything beautiful and good and pure in the world seemed only in existence to mock him.
And he grew angry.
It was in these moments that seemed to last forever that John was sure that God was punishing him for some hideous, hidden flaw, buried deep within his heart.
And on these days, Johnathan Mathew Winchester hated everyone.
But no one quite so much as he hated himself.
He was sure that Fate was taunting him with perfect sunny days, and families picnicking in the park, like a sadist rubbing salt in the bloody gashes of its wounded prey.
John felt but a helpless victim, whose only recourse was to shut down. Withdraw. Fade away into the shadows.
And he did. All of those things.
Alcohol helped with the daunting task at night, when the dreams would come to join their waking counterparts of the day. They would rape and pillage his unconscious and use their plunder to dazzle and tease by offering him up the object of his desire. Bait him by delivering his lost treasure back to his aching arms, only to leave him more sick and desperate when the dawn would tear it all away again in one fiery melee.
And in the light of day, it was hunting that held the monsters at bay when they’d come begging for tears and remorse. When the whispers of his dead wife’s voice would plead for understanding and the mourning that was deserved. Hunting helped him cling to the hate and the anger that kept it all from going away. That kept it all from being real-and accepted. They kept him from being vulnerable.
Together, the drink and the job, they kept him distracted and focused, tarnished and polished, distant but present, dead -but one step away from putting a bullet in his brain and ending it all.
And that worked for John. Mostly.
But there were times when both his allies kept him from being what he had once been most proud of.
That fortress of protection, that hazy bliss holding reality at arms length, could also easily become a gigantic moat separating him from his children-keeping him from being the daddy that they so desperately needed. That they so obviously deserved.
And on one such day, John understood with startling clarity what God had been trying to tell him ever so subtly. What his own flesh and blood father had shouted at him as he walked out their door for the last time. He was a no good bastard, who didn’t deserve the few gifts that had been spared him.
It wasn’t that he had set out to hurt either of his sons. There had never been a time when he had intentionally caused pain to anyone that he loved.
And he loved Sam and Dean with a fierceness that he had never thought himself capable of.
Maybe he loved them even more than he loved Mary. Because they were the best parts of her, and of him, without the complications of intimacy and egos. Children were honestly the purest part of a marriage-the embodiment of love.
But grief did things to a man. That should have been the most important lesson that he learned from his father. And grief had it’s way with John, just as it had done with Jonah before him. It took him whenever it wished, like a mistress that couldn’t be denied. The bitch bent his will, blinded and beguiled him. Lured him out into the treacherous depths like the bloody siren that she was.
So even though he promised himself that he would never fail either of his boys, John found himself letting them both down in one fucked up day.
He’d been so blitzed the night before. His friends Jim and Jose had given him quite the surprise party, and he’d succumbed to their wicked wiles and broken a cardinal rule about getting smashed out of his mind during the school week.
John had told himself that Dean, the ever responsible eleven- year-old that he was, would inevitably pick up the slack and get both himself and his brother off to school. But what he hadn’t let himself remember was that Dean was sick with the flu-on the recovering end, but still unable to attend Hanover Middle. So, Sam would be on his own.
And no matter how hung over he might have been, John understood even in his cotton ensconced brain that Sammy-no matter how bright he was-could not be trusted to take a bus across town by himself. Nor would a sober John ever allow that.
So, it was with much determination and will power that the hunter was able to drag his sorry ass out of bed at the sounding of the alarm clock and actually pull his protesting, aching body into the shower.
By the time he had washed most of last night’s sins down the drain, he was surprised to hear both boys moving about in the small rundown apartment.
It seemed that even with his ailment, Dean at least had his priorities straight. He had managed to get Sam up and ready for school.
A pang of guilt rushed through John as he towel dried his dark hair, and listened to the soft voices that permeated the paper-thin walls.
“But I want to stay home with you today.” Sam sat in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, his legs swinging back and forth as he concentrated on retrieving the prize from the bottom of the box of cereal.
Dean took it from him with a scolding shake of his head and filled the Scooby Doo bowl with the chocolate covered puffed rice. “Sammy, you have to go to school. You have a spelling test today and a vocabulary review.” Dean’s voice was still hoarse but it didn’t hurt as much to talk as it had the last few days.
“Yeah, but you’re sick,” Sam pointed out, smiling when Dean retrieved the toy himself and handed it to him.
“Yeah, and you’re not, Brat,” Dean replied as he poured the milk and tried not to look at the brown soupy mess- seeing as how his stomach still wasn’t up to solid foods yet.
“But I could take care of you.”
“I’m fine, Sam.”
“But you stayed home with me when I was sick.”
Dean grinned. “That’s because you’re a baby.”
Sam looked insulted. “ I am not a baby. I‘m six.”
“Really?” Dean feigned surprise, feeling victory close at hand. “I thought six-year-olds weren’t afraid to go to school by themselves.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Are you sure?”
“I just want to stay with you, that’s all.”
Dean sighed, feeling his plan being annihilated by the big, brown puppy dog eye brigade. “Eat your cereal, Sammy.” He threw in the white flag.
“We could color and play games and watch cartoons,” the six-year-old mumbled around a spoonful of the crunchy chocolate concoction. “Like it’s Saturday.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Dean told him as he put the milk away. “And tomorrow is Saturday, so you don’t have long to wait to do all that stuff. Dad has a job, so it will be just the two of us.”
When Sam simply stared down at his breakfast, Dean took the chair beside his brother. “Listen, Sammy, I’ll probably just sleep all day. You’d be bored stiff. School will be more fun.”
The brown gaze lifted and another spoonful was quickly shoveled in. “I..could…leep…wif ..u.”
“Sam…” Dean started, but was cut off by the gruff voice of his father.
“Stop arguing with your brother, Sam. And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
The six year old swallowed and turned pleading eyes on his dad. “But, Daddy…”
“No.” John went to the coffee pot without another glance to his sons and started making his first of many cups that he’d have that day. “Dean-go back to bed. Sam-finish that mess up and get your things together. I have a ton of research to do and I don’t have the time to fool with your whining this morning.”
“I wasn’t whining,” Sam proclaimed, but shrank slightly as Dean gave him a stern glare, and made a slashing motion across his throat.
Sam knew that code. Daddy is in a bad mood. “I just wanted to help Dean.”
John turned and focused on his oldest son. “You need help today, Dean?”
“No, sir.” Dean stood and put the cereal box back on top of the refrigerator. “In fact, I think I feel well enough to go to school. I could take Sammy, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Do you think I’m not capable of taking your brother to school, Dean?” John’s head was threatening to come unhinged and roll right off his shoulders. He rubbed at his eyes, willing the coffee maker to hurry up.
“No, sir. I just thought…”
“I do the thinking around here,” John snapped, louder than he’d meant to, and cringed at the reverberating echo thundering in his skull. “Besides, the school nurse said not to send you back until Monday.”
“Right.” For once, their dad would have to read something the school sent home. Dean glanced at Sam, and forced a smile. “So, I guess you’re going solo, little brother.”
“Yeah,” Sam sloshed his spoon around his bowl, and then looked at his brother. “Who’ll come and meet me at the playground?”
“Dad will pick you up at the gate,” Dean glanced at his father who was ignoring them again and still rubbing his forehead. “Just wait on the swings, okay?”
“Okay,” Sam picked up his bowl, and drank the last of the milk, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve when he was done.
Dean shook his head, thankful that the T-shirt his brother was wearing was at least black. “ And don’t worry about the test-I know you’ll ace it.”
“How do you know?” Sam asked, sliding from his seat and putting Dean’s hand-me-down jacket on.
Dean grinned, and picked up his brother‘s backpack and gave it to him, “Well, we studied the last two nights and because you’re really smart.”
Sam looked at him, doubt reflected in his brown eyes. “Really?”
“Sure you are,” Dean ruffled his hair, “It makes up for you being really, really, ugly.”
“I'm not ugly.” Sam laughed, shoving his brother playfully.
“Are too,” Dean shot back.
“Boys!” John shouted, causing both of his sons to turn startled gazes to him. “Be quiet and do as your told. God-can’t you both act your ages?”
Dean had the sudden urge to point out that they were acting their ages, but had enough sense to keep his mouth shut. Sam, on the other hand, did not.
“What age do we act like, Dean?”
John pushed away from the counter and was only further irritated when Dean quickly placed himself in the path between him and his youngest son. The older hunter moved past them both and grabbed his jacket and his journal from the table by the door. “Let’s go, Sam.”
“Dad…” Dean called out to the man as he started out the door.
The oldest Winchester stopped, but didn’t turn around. “What, Dean?”
“School lets out early on Fridays.”
John didn’t reply, but let the slamming of the door suffice as an answer.
“Daddy needs to act his age,” Sam said softly, looking reproachfully at the door.
Dean snorted. “Don’t let him hear you say that.”
“Why’s he so grumpy?”
The eleven-year-old shrugged, and bent down to help Sam button up his jacket. “Don’t ask him that either?”
“What should I say to him then?”
Dean frowned, using his hand to mash down a stubborn lock of Sam‘s hair. “Nothing. Just study your words, or read a book.”
“I could tell him a story. That always makes me feel better.”
The eleven-year-old shook his head. “Just play the quiet game, Sammy.” He waited for his brother to look at him.
“But who am I suppose to play it with? At school the whole class plays.”
Dean raised a brow and Sam finally nodded, but looked completely put out about the whole thing. “Okay, Dean. I’ll be quiet-like a mouse.”
“Good,” the older boy stood and pushed his brother towards the door. “And don’t keep Dad waiting this afternoon, come right to the playground.”
As if to illustrate the importance of that instruction, the truck horn suddenly blasted from outside and Sam and Dean shared a pained look. “I will,” Sam said, recognizing the slightly worried look on his brother’s face. “I promise.”
Dean nodded. “See-you are smart.”
“And ugly,” Sam added, with a dimpled grin.
“The ugliest.” Dean agreed and opened the door for his little brother, before nudging him through. “You take after Dad.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Sam replied, causing his brother to smile.
Dean still wasn’t able to shake the nagging feeling that he should grab hold of Sam and haul him back into the house, as he watched the younger boy open the truck door and crawl up inside the vehicle with their father.
A little voice chided him for being ridiculous. After all, their father would die to protect Sam. He‘d never let anything happen to him. Not on purpose, anyway.
The eleven-year-old finally closed the apartment door and locked it, thinking that maybe a few hours of sleep would quell the uneasy feeling stirring in the pit of his stomach.
A few hours of sleep had been the last thing on John Winchester’s mind. He had research to do on a remote area of West Virginia. But the library was so quiet and warm-the midday sun shining through the dusty windows, falling across his slumped shoulders. The smell of old books and musty carpet, oddly comforting, offered a feeling of safety. And the diner’s lunch special of turkey and mashed potatoes sitting heavily in his stomach was just another enemy in the battle to stay awake and focus on the materials for the hunt. Before he’d had a chance to scan the last of the microfiche, exhaustion found him and he succumbed.
John wasn’t sure how long he’d slept there amidst the papers and the texts, before the young librarian, who had shown him to the research room earlier that day, found him.
Apparently, when clearing her throat had not worked in rousing him, she had resorted to dropping a huge book on the table near his head. That had done the trick.
The trained hunter had him on his feet and in a defensive posture before his sluggish brain even registered what the hell was going on.
“Sir? Are you John Winchester?”
Surprisingly enough, the girl didn’t look intimidated or surprised at his abrupt move away from her and the table, but instead, frowned at him and looked rather bored or disgusted-John wasn’t sure which.
“Yeah,” he finally found his voice, albeit rough and low, raking a hand through his sleep- flattened mop.
“You have an urgent call. And we’re closing in about five minutes if you‘re done with your nap.”
John squinted, noticing the orange-red glow now flooding through the windows. Shit. The sun was setting. “What the hell time is it?”
“Five of five,” she replied, with a hint irritation. “You’re lucky that your son called, or I might have locked you in here.”
“My son?” John shook his head again, trying to pull together the fragmented pieces of his mind.
“He’s on the phone-Dean, I think he said.”
“Damn!” John cursed, grabbed his jacket and started out of the room.
The hunter beat the librarian to her desk and grabbed the phone, which was sitting by the checkout area. As soon as he spoke, Dean’s frantic voice filled the line and he winced.
“Dad-what’s going on? Why didn’t you call? Is Sammy with you?”
“No,” John had no other recourse but the truth. “I’m on my way to get him now.”
“What? School’s been out for hours, Dad!”
The accusation and raised tone had anger burning through the guilt. “We’ll be home soon.” And as if he could read his son’s thoughts across the line, “And Dean, don’t you dare leave that apartment. Do you hear me?”
There was a pause and John could almost imagine the internal struggle waging within his eldest. As he expected, the soldier won out. “Yes, sir.”
Without giving Dean another chance to speak, he hung up the phone and hurried out of the library.
Luckily, it wasn’t too far of a drive to the school.
John’s heart nearly stopped when he saw the huddled form on the deserted schoolyard.
Sam would have been easily recognizable even if the playground had been full of children.
The too-big blue jean jacket of his brothers that he was wearing, and his long dark blond hair hanging across his face a dead give away.
If someone had told him that guilt could feel like a prizefighter’s punch to the gut just moments before John would have been quick to discount it.
But the sight of his little boy, shivering on the swing, all alone, had him staggering and he might have gone down with for K.O. if that had been a luxury afforded to him.
As it was, he needed to get Sam out of the cold.
The late fall day, which had been warm when the sun was high in the sky, was now almost bitterly cold.
Sam acknowledged him with a tentative, relieved smile as he entered the gated area. “Hey, kiddo.”
The little boy slipped from the swing and picked up his small backpack. “I thought you forgot me, Daddy.”
John stopped, his heart suddenly thundering in his chest. He had forgotten him. He’d forgotten his own child. “I’m sorry, Sammy. I got tied up at the library.”
“A monster tied you up?” Worried brown eyes lifted to search his father’s face for the usual array of cuts and bruises that the older man and his brother would come home with after doing battle. “Are you okay?”
“No, son,” John fumbled at the concerned look on his little boy’s face, and raked his hand over his beard. “I mean, yes- I’m okay, but , no a monster didn't tie me up. I just got busy.”
“Busy?” The little boy dropped his gaze to the ground. He knew exactly what busy meant. His dad was busy a lot. “You did forget about me-didn’t you?”
“Not on purpose, Sammy.” That weak answer was apparently not misunderstood and Sam pulled his backpack higher on his shoulder and started for the gate-but not before his father recognized the hint of tears swimming in his big brown eyes.
They didn’t fall though. Sam rarely cried in front of his father, and today, as usual, that was an undeserved blessing for John. The boy was quiet and withdrawn the whole way back to their apartment-practically hugging the passenger’s side door of the truck, holding his backpack tight to his chest.
John had tried to make small talk. Asking his son if he was still cold, if he wanted to listen to the radio. To both questions, he received nods. So the heater was left on high and the music drowned out the painfully loud silence that had settled between them. Later, John would look back on that moment as the first of many tiny hairline fractures in what would later become the clean break with his youngest son.
Where it was the beginning of the rupture between he and Sam, it was the final shattering of the complete, blind trust that he’d always found reflected in Dean’s eyes.
No longer would his oldest son look at him as their competent protector; instead he’d double his own efforts to take up the slack where John lagged. He still might count on John to watch his own back, to keep him safe, but it was an unspoken vow that from then on, he wouldn’t take the risk where his brother was concerned.
The point was driven home quite clearly when Sam nearly jumped from the truck before it even stopped moving. Dean had stepped out of the door just in time to catch him as the six-year-old flung himself at the older boy, clinging to him as if he were a life line that he’d grasped to with his last failing breath.
“Sammy,” Dean breathed out a sigh of relief, taking his own moment to hold desperately to his little brother. He‘d been worried before he‘d tracked his father down. But after finding out that the man had left Sam at school, he‘d been terrified. After all, he‘d let Sam go with him. “Are you okay?” he asked, finally pulling away enough to bend down and look into the younger boy’s eyes.
“He forgot me,” Sam cried, the stoic front forgotten. He pointed an accusing finger at their father. “Daddy left …me…alone…all by myself for a long…long…time.” The words came out in hiccupped sobs, which methodically tore great chunks of John’s heart from his chest as he walked up behind his two sons.
Dean continued to check his little brother out for anysigns of injury. His face and hands were cold and he was shivering slightly but at least he was whole and in one piece. Things could have been so much worse, but the pitiful, hurt quality to his little brother’s voice was still painful to witness. He hugged the six-year-old again, as much for his own solace as for Sam‘s. “It’s okay, Sammy. Don't cry. ”
“Everybody…left me…Dean. Even Kelley and Junie B,” Sam recounted, holding tight to his big brother.
Dean pulled back again, and forced a smile. “Hey-I told you that you can’t trust women, kiddo. And cats aren't much better.”
When his joke concerning Sam's favorite classmate and the schoolyard stray didn’t elicit the response that he had hoped, Dean reached up a hand to push the ever-present long bangs from his brother’s eyes. “It’s okay, though. You’re home now. I’m here.”
“But…” Sam cast a glower in his father’s direction, and his lower lip trembled. “…I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
“You did good, Sammy. You stayed right where I told you. Right?”
Sam nodded. “On the swing. I didn’t go out of the fence, even when it started to get dark.”
“See- I knew you were a smart kid.”
“But bad things come in the dark, Dean. And I was cold…” Sam said miserably, “And hungry. ”
“I bet,” Dean spared a look at his father. There was no real heat behind it, but it still stung, and the eleven-year-old took some comfort in the fact that his Dad looked more than a little guilty. “How about I fix you some dinner, huh?”
“But…” Sam glanced at their father again and then back at Dean, and his breath hitched. “Aren’t… you going to do something?”
Dean frowned. “Like what?”
Sam crossed his arms over his chest and shrugged. “Make him say he’s sorry,” he sniffed.
The whole thing was laughable. Dean looked from his miserable little brother to his father, who appeared almost as forlorn. They were both staring at him as if he was the judge in some weird version of family court.
But there really was no decision to be made or punishment to be handed down because nobody made John Winchester do anything, especially one of his sons. Dean couldn’t even comprehend the idea-even to erase the look of complete anguish off of his kid brother’s face. “It was an accident, Sammy.” Dean rubbed his hands up and down the little boy’s arms. “Everybody has accidents.”
“You made stupid Tommy say he was sorry when he knocked me down,” Sam protested.
Dean sighed. Yeah, but Dad has about three feet and 150 pounds on Tommy Hayes. He’d had to threaten to give the fourth grader a bloody nose before he’d apologized to Sam. Somehow, Dean didn’t think his father would fall for that trick.
John had heard enough. He squatted down next to his boys, bent on rescuing his eldest, if nothing else. It was the least he could do after failing him so badly.
He reached for Sam, but the six year old quickly danced away from him and scooted closer to Dean, turning his face into his brother’s shoulder. “Look, Sammy, I didn’t leave you at school on purpose-all right. I’d never do something to hurt you, kiddo.”
Sam didn’t reply.
John rubbed a hand over his tired eyes, and said the words that would someday become impossible for him to speak to his son. “I’m sorry.” He looked at Sam. “I’m sorry I forgot you, and left you all alone. I know it must have seemed like a long time…”
The six-year-old lifted his head and stared at his father, one last tear slipping from his dark lashes and sliding down his wind chapped cheeks. “Like forever had gone by.”
The familiar words finished off what little composure John had left. His hands started to shake.
Mary used to say that same thing, to Dean- to him- when they’d come home from some outing. She’d hug them and gush about how time had crawled while her favorite men were away. Mary would go through the same ritual sometimes when Dean would wake up in the morning, or when John would pull an all-nighter at the garage. Apparently, his eleven-year-old son hadn’t forgotten about it either, and had shared the memory with his brother. Maybe Sam had come up with it on his own.
Or was it possible that Mary had whispered it to him in dreams at night- like she so often whispered things to John.
No matter, it still cut to the quick to hear it spoken out loud, in the light of day, where it could lay open all the old wounds that were still barely scabbed over after almost six years. Like forever had gone by. “Yeah, I know exactly how that feels, son.”
And he did.
Sometimes it seemed like the time since Mary had been taken from them was just one endless eternity. And John was left waiting, alone. Praying that she’d come for him soon.
“God, Sammy,” he choked. “I didn’t mean…I would never…” The hunter ducked his head, his own tears escaping and falling to the concrete stoop they were all sharing. He was so fucking tired of it all.
The six year old looked from his father to his brother, who was staring at John and also seemed on the verge of doing the unthinkable, and for the second time that day, Sam was scared.
Dean never cried, and neither did their father-not even when the meanest of monsters hurt them. Suddenly, his own pain was forgotten and an innocent, unselfish, need to make everything all right was overwhelming.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” Sam said with a tentative step away from Dean. “I’m not mad at you any more.” He placed a small hand on the older man’s head. “Everybody has accidents.”
John looked up. He didn’t deserve this absolution that his baby was so openly offering.
After all, it wasn’t like he’d tripped and that bottle of Cuervo had run down his throat. Nor was it an accident that he’d gotten pissy and competitive when Dean had offered to go to school to be with his brother. And if he were honest, it wasn’t by chance that he’d fallen asleep. It was all just one big case of him being a selfish bastard. But even if he didn’t deserve it, John was not stupid enough not to let it go. Someday, in the not so far future, he would beg to have such forgiveness from his sons. “I’ll make it up to you, kiddo. I promise.”
Sam smiled and leaned back against Dean. “I’d like to have an Optimus Prime and a puppy.”
Dean rolled his eyes, and gave the little boy a slight shake. “It’s not even Halloween yet, Sammy.”
John laughed, feeling the sadness lift, if only for a small, completely normal moment. Sam had begun with his Christmas list right after school started back, and even though it was only the middle of October, it had grown in considerable length. Funny-how the most mundane of things could bring clarity and focus. “How about we start with me taking you two boys out for dinner. Pizza and ice cream.”
“Chuckey Cheese?” Sam asked hopefully, all transgressions completely forgotten in typical child-like wonder.
His eleven-year-old brother groaned. “ Upchuck Please-I hate that place. All those freaky bears, singing and shit…”
John raised an eyebrow at the inappropriate word and Dean sighed in defeat. “Sorry.”
“They’re not bears, Dean. They’re mice.”
“No. They’re bears.”
John stood and followed the boys into the apartment, listening to his six-year-old’s laughter as it echoed down the hallway.
Today, it wasn’t unbearable. On the contrary, it was a melodic tune drowning out all the haunting whispers from the past.
He wasn’t angry, but thankful, that God had watched over Sam when he hadn’t. The good fortune making him feel blessed for a change-instead of cursed.
And for a while, John hated no one.
Well-except for the one person he could never forgive.
And that worked for John. Mostly.