“The Way Home” by Ridley C. James
He could feel the warm sun on his face, the light of it a soft glow behind his closed lids.
A cool breeze danced over his bare arms, and a tinkling of wind chimes in the distance brought a feeling of safety and contentment.
The smell of earth and freshly mown hay mixed with the briny scent of fishy water, and Dean was enticed by a call from his childhood to force his eyes open. Tranquil blue sky spread out above him, cotton puff clouds drifted across his field of vision, as the sheer brightness of the orange fireball in the sky caused him to blink several times.
Then the huge, distorted head was there, blocking out all the pleasant scenery. Nose to nose with him. Breath hot and putrid against his cheek, tendrils of drool shoe-stringing from the black curled lips, sliding onto Dean’s neck.
“Atticus!” He groaned, pushing at the golden-furred beast, whose cold, wet nose, plunged into his ear, then nuzzled across his hair. “What the fuck…”
“Language!” Jim Murphy’s deep baritone echoed from beside him and Dean jack-knifed into a sitting position, despite the Golden Retriever looming over him. He crab-walked back, until his butt was off the old patch-work quilt he‘d been lying on, and firmly planted in the red-clay shoreline.
“Jim!” Dean’s gaze went from the dog panting at its master’s feet to the priest who was reclining in a lawn chair, by the water’s edge.
“About time you woke up.” Jim motioned to the rumpled blanket. “You’ve been sleeping for hours.”
The hunter glanced from the preacher to the landscape surrounding him. He was at the pond, on Jim’s farm. That in itself was strange, but the fact that Atticus Finch, who had died when Dean was fourteen, was there made it an even more surreal scene. Then there was the smiling priest…. “But you’re dead.”
When Murphy only smiled, that all-knowing, saintly-patient smile, Dean swallowed thickly. And then promptly looked down at his chest, suddenly remembering what had happened, like the echoes of some terrible nightmare.
Amazingly enough, no blood marred his shirt. No wounds from where the demon had tortured him maimed his chest. In his jumbled mind, that could only mean one thing. And it wasn't good.
“Holy crap.” His eyes found Jim’s again. “I didn’t make it.”
Murphy frowned, and Atticus whined. “Of course you made it. Don’t be silly. You’re just taking a much-needed rest.” The preacher sighed. “Nothing wrong with a little relaxation-especially on a glorious summer day.” He motioned to the pond, the beauty around it. “I thought I taught you that.”
Dean’s brow furrowed and he licked his dry lips. He didn‘t know what the hell was going on. One minute he was with his brother and father, bleeding to death in the Impala, speeding for the hospital, and the next he was waking up at the farm…with a dead man and his deceased dog. What was it with him and dead canines and their masters? “I don’t understand.”
“Come now,” Jim pointed to the blanket. “Sit. Have lunch with me.” The pastor put down his fishing pole. “We’ll worry about the real world in a bit.” He motioned to the old wicker picnic basket by his side. Dean vaguely recognized it as the one that sat in the pastor‘s kitchen. The same one that he and Sammy would bring with them to the pond to fish when they were just kids. “My Emma made this basket of goodies. No need in letting it go to waste.”
“Emma? Your wife?” Okay, Dean was sure she was dead, too.
“Oh yes. Just as beautiful as ever.” Jim smiled, a certain smile Dean couldn’t ever remember having witnessed. There was a twinkle in the man’s blue eyes. “She would have loved to meet you, but this place isn’t really for those that have passed on.”
“But you’re here.” Whatever here was. Dean eased himself back onto the blanket, his finger’s brushing against the time-worn material. It was the same quilt that covered his and Sam’s bed for all the years they stayed at the old farmhouse, and the sight of it sent a pang of longing through him…an ache to see his brother.
“I'm here because you needed me to be.” Murphy said simply, unpacking sandwiches and a pitcher of sweet tea. He handed Dean a glass, complete with ice and floating chunks of lemon and then grinned as he passed him the sliced bread with a huge piece of tomato. “Extra mayonnaise…just like you and Sammy liked.”
God. Just the sight of the red fruit hanging off the homemade sour dough bread made Dean’s stomach rumble and his heart flutter. All sorts of summertime memories flooded back. “You made us tomato sandwiches all the time.”
The pastor nodded. “They were your favorite. Well, that and pancakes.”
Dean shrugged. “Actually the sandwiches were Sam’s favorite.”
Jim raised an eyebrow. “But it made you happy to see him happy.”
Dean took a bite of the memory and swallowed its sweetness. He glanced up at the other man, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Damn, I’m going to miss you, Jim.”
The holy man waved a hand as if to dismiss the nonsense. “Life is too short to waste on grief, my boy. You’ll be so busy living, you won’t even know that I’m gone.”
“I’ll know,” Dean whispered. Sometimes he felt as if Jim were the only one who saw him as something more than a hunter-a protector. The pastor saw past that…to the real parts.
“I’m not the only one who knows how special you are, Dean.”
The young man looked up, taken aback. “Please tell me that you’re not a mind reader now, too.”
Murphy laughed. “Nah, I just know that face of yours. I’ve seen that look about a hundred times through out these years we’ve known each other, and it always left me with the inclination to turn your daddy over my knee.”
Dean smiled, took another bite of the sandwich. “I’d like to have seen that.”
Murphy sighed. “Your dad is a good man, son. He’s had the best of intentions all this time, but a lousy-ass follow through, I'm afraid.”
“He’s going to get himself killed.” Dean felt his appetite flee, and he tossed his sandwich to the ground where Atticus quickly inhaled it. “Just like this mess got you killed, and maybe even Caleb, and Sammy…” Fear knotted his stomach.
Jim reached out and patted his knee. “Sammy is fine, except for being worried about you. And so is Caleb and your Daddy. And me…well, that demon ended my life, not John, not anything that any of you did or didn’t do. It would have come for me eventually.” He waited for Dean to look at him. “Are we clear on that?”
“Yeah, I just wish…” Dean glanced to the pond and the trees and the old tire swing that hung from the big oak by the water’s edge. “I just wish a lot of things could have been different.”
The pastor sighed, tossing his own lunch to the Retriever. “My wish for you has always been a simple one, Dean. I want you to be happy-to have the family and the home you deserve.” He smiled. “To be real.”
Dean ducked his head. “It hurts to be real, Jim.”
“Yes, it does. But it’s worth it. And once you are real, like old Skin Horse said, you are real forever.” He winked at the younger man. “Even when you pass on to the place where it’s eternally summer, where the fish are always biting, and the tomato sandwiches are made with love and delivered straight from the garden.” Jim waited until he was sure the boy was listening. “You’re real now, Dean. For all the demon took from you…by God, he gave you that.”
Dean blinked, not quite understanding what the priest meant. “I don’t know if I can go back.” Atticus nudged his head under Dean’s hand, and the hunter ran his fingers through the soft, yellow fur. “It’s too hard.”
“Even if you had a choice, son, I know you would go back. You’ve always been a fighter-brave-just like you knew your mama wanted you to be.” Jim held up his hand. “Speaking of which…” He dug in the basket once more, looking like Santa reaching in his magical black sack. “I forgot about dessert.”
Murphy pulled out a plate piled with cookies, that were less than perfectly round, and even slightly burnt around the edges. “Peanut-butter.”
Dean took the plate, a feeling of warmth rushing from the tips of his fingers, up his arms, before encompassing his heart like the old quilt on a winter’s night. “Mom.” He said in disbelief.
“She told me that you never once complained about them being burnt, and I told her that sounded just like you.”
“I’d forgot about that.” Dean picked up a cookie, smiling when the scent of daisies floated around him. “She was not a good cook.” He took a bite of the burnt cookie, closed his eyes as the lovely bitter taste made them sting.
“Sometimes when we lose people, we forget about those things that made them human-all the less than perfect things.” Jim shook his head. “Sadly, that’s how ghosts are made.”
Dean opened his eyes, forced himself to swallow the gift. “I don’t think I can handle any more ghosts in my life, Jim.”
“A lot of people love you, Dean. Both on this side, and back home. You‘re not alone.”
“But I don’t know how to protect them from themselves.” His gaze was so intense, so pleading, so desperate, that Jim felt his own heart clench in empathy. “And I can’t watch them die. I can‘t lose anyone else.”
“Sometimes, all you can do is be there to pick up the pieces, Dean. Trust me, I know. I’ve done it for years.”
Dean felt a phantom pain burn its way through his chest. “What are we going to do without you?”
The priest smiled. “Oh, I’ll be around. Death isn’t the end, Dean. You know that. It’s just a door.” Jim glanced back towards the house behind them in the distance. “But the welcome mat is not out for you today, young man. So, you best be going. It‘ll be getting dark soon.”
The young hunter looked up at the old farm house he could barely make out over the hill, its green tin roof shining in the afternoon sun, like the bulb of a lighthouse. “I’m not sure if I can find my way back.”
The pastor leaned forward in the old lawn chair, covering Dean’s hand with his own. “Of course you can.”
Dean felt a warm sensation beneath his fingers and when he turned his palm over, a brass object was lying there, glinting in the mid-day sun. “My compass?” Dean looked up at Jim and swallowed. “How?”
“I’d say someone wanted to make sure you never lost your way.”
“Sammy,” Dean whispered the name, the sound of it making his head light. His brother had given him the brass guide years ago. It never left Dean’s pack.
“He’s found his True North , son. Death is one hell of a navigational beacon. You scared him and now he needs you to come home and make everything right again.”
“But what about you…” Dean felt Atticus lean into his legs. “And Atticus?”
“Oh, we’ll take care of one another. Just like you and Sammy will.” Jim stood stiffly, reached out a hand to help Dean up from the ground. “Everything will be fine. Trust me.”
Dean took the offered hand, held it tightly as he made it to his feet. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
The pastor’s blue eyes filled, and he clasped a rough hand at the back of the boy‘s neck, squeezed. “Oh, Dean… you and your brother…Caleb and your daddy, you all saved me a long time ago. This,” Pastor Jim waved his arm to encompass the pond, and rolling hills around them, “would have meant nothing without you all to share it with.”
“You saved us, too, you know.” Dean held his gaze then glanced down to the smiling Retriever. “You gave us a home…a place to belong…somewhere to always come back to.” Somewhere to be normal.
Murphy nodded. “It’s still there, Dean. With your brother and
Dean finally nodded. “Thank you. For everything.”
Jim let his hand fall away. “Be brave, son.”
The hunter forced a watery smile. “The castle won’t be the same without you, Merlin.”
“Oh, but I left it in the company of some mighty fine dragons. It shall not perish.” The pastor gave the hunter a little shove. “Now scurry home. Your Boy misses you.”
Dean looked once more towards the house and this time when he turned back to the pastor, he found himself alone.
No Atticus Finch, tongue lolling haplessly to one side.
Only an empty chair, a forgotten squeak toy, and a discarded fishing pole.
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