Summary: You never know your own father.
Characters: John, Sam (peripheral Dean).
Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.
Original Story & Author: Too late by definewisdom
You go off to war, you learn a few things: John Winchester thinks now how his father’s eyes had been dark harsh shadows in his cavernous face – the face that had seen the Second World War, the face that had been in Hiroshima just days after the bomb that redefined history dropped, the face that watched him all through his life and yet was never sympathetic or even human – watched him walk out the front door, enlistment papers in hand.
You never know your own father, John thinks to himself, You can never tell what goes on in that head.
The irony of course is that every son becomes his father, and years later he has two little boys of his own.
John Winchester doesn’t set out to become the man who raised him.
It happens mostly by accident.
Like Dean, for example; they hadn’t planned for Dean. Dean was a blessing, a surprise, an inconvenience, a late night worry, a hushed and strained and tense discussion of, “Are we ready for this? Can we do this? We have other options, we should explore our other options.” And Mary’s belly still taut and silkily muscled, the indent of her waist and the flare of her hip, John’s fingers spanning the width of her supple frame – and inside, oh, inside the life they’d made together, growing.
John pressed his fingertips against Mary’s skin, and Mary’s breath came ragged like a sob or a jubilation, and John said, “I love you,” and if he were talking to his fiancée or to his unborn son or both, he never told and it never mattered, just, “I love you,” and that barely perceptible twitch of movement deep inside.
Love is never enough, John’s father knew that – love is never enough, but John hadn’t quite learned, still had the optimist’s hope.
And Dean was born, and Dean was loved.
John was loved, once, as a son, in the way that a father loves his son. A strict father, a rebellious son, a country that loves war and goes to war and dies for war, oh glory.
John was a son, stood rigid under the regard of his stern limping father – his diminished father, who spoke a handful of words carefully parceled out over the course of weeks, years; a father who sat in armchairs with newspapers hiding his face, a father who woke from dreams of bloodied oceans and wistful disembodied limbs, discarded like so much garbage, the extraordinary horror of the soldier who has seen too much. A father who walked on soundless feet to John’s bedroom door and creaked it open and stood, in the doorway, eyes old yet still keen, watching his sleeping son. Thinking, I made that, that is mine.
John grew, was sweet to girls, to his mother who left him, to his sister who stayed; John learned, taught himself to aim and shoot, brace his body for recoil; John ran, his young lean body strong in the morning light, down country roads. Dust rose up about his knees and he kept his head tilted upward, lungs expanding to draw in breath, eyes on the clear effortless blue of his southern sky.
Those days you didn’t go to college, you went to war. Only cowards were unwilling to die for the country – for honour – for freedom and justice and truth.
But whose truth? John Winchester’s father thinks, and doesn’t turn his head until John has almost left, and feels the need to speak but doesn’t. Silence a choking presence in the house.
“But whose truth?”
Sam’s brow wrinkles, his thirteen year old face contentious. Still round with baby fat, and so his frown marks deep dimples in the fat of his cheeks, he says, “What do you mean, ‘whose’? People don’t get to own truth, truth just is.”
John says, “Sammy, you ever think about how you and Dean tell me two different reasons about why you guys fight all the time?”
Sam scowls. “Dean lies.”
“He doesn’t think he’s lying. He thinks you’re lying. You understand? And sometimes you get a few details wrong, and sometimes he gets a few details wrong, but that doesn’t make either of you liars. It just means that both of your reasons together are the real reason for why you fight. And that’s the same, when we do casework, we have to find out a lot of different versions of the same story to find out what they all agree on.”
“I guess,” Sam shrugs, still frowning.
His frown is Mary’s frown, and John’s heart breaks.
No, his heart has been broken, remade, breaks every day anew. His heart is promethean. It undergoes the same torment again and again, but still keeps pace, steady measurement of day and hour and minute and second, oh god, each and every one away from Mary.
But he is at the frontline of a war. (For the second time, he is at the frontline, and this war has no end, has no protest rally, has no haven.) John keeps on moving the best he knows how.
The best they knew how, at the beginning, when Dean was just a baby, one who needed diapers and formula and new clothes, was to develop tunnel vision. See this far and no further, forget the past, focus on now, the needs of right now. That the only way to get through that first handful of months.
Never occurring to John how his father lived his days, incremental edges of dullness and despair.
Were John to ever ask his father and were his father ever to answer, the question would be, “Why have you never helped me? Guided me, taught me?” and the answer would be, “Oh, John, I have.”
Always at the heart of John’s lament: He never cared. He was never actually there.
Ironically, Sam, years later, I never knew my father. My father, the great unknown.
And Dean, beloved Dean, holder of Mary’s smile to Sam’s ownership of Mary’s frown, Dean slapping Sam upside the head and saying, You jackass, what the hell kind of thing is that to say? Of course you fucking knew Dad. Drama queen.
The third generation of
Dean saying, Next thing you’ll be bitching about is how you don’t know me.
Suicide a family tradition, but never the blatantly self-absorbed suicide, never the utterly selfish. Sell your soul to the devil, trade it for the life of another; let yourself fade away, working at minimum wage to pay off your third mortgage, cheque in your daughter-in-law’s bank account feeding your son and your grandson, your grandson you’ve never met and never will, dying at seventy-five just five hours shy of your second grandson’s birth.
Buried in a lonely churchyard under a southern blue sky, the wind rattling through dry grass, your skin a husk over your bones and no one there to say goodbye. A lonely death, which is how you would have wanted it, what you would have been satisfied with; not bothering anyone, tucked in the corner and out of the way, ungrieved. Never wanting to be a source of pain.
Sam was born an easy two hours’ labour, slipping out as slick as an eel, eyes blissful closed and then opening in wonder to gaze about the room. Even then, so curious.
Holding him the first time, John could have died for love. This little soul. This little perfect being. I made that, John thought, That is mine.
Ten days later he would finally hear of his father’s death, too late for the funeral, too late for last rites or goodbyes. Something about that strikes itself as fundamentally wrong to John, but he has his own sons now, he can’t focus on the past. The past is gone, ephemeral as dust, he has only this now. This boy in his arms, that boy by his side, his wife smiling from the bed exhausted and lovely.
Before Sam ever met Jess he had been to war, lived in war, breathed it in and out in steady cadence.
The most horrific thing he had ever seen was the rapid aging and then desiccation of a four year old little girl, sucked more than dry by an energy vampire. Sam had been held back, his father’s arms constricting, his father’s voice resounding in his ear, “She’s already dead, we can’t do anything more for her, so stop fighting me and get ready to follow this monster back to its lair. There may be more where it came from.” The little girl’s body as shrunken and shriveled as a ninety year old’s, still alive when John finally let Sam go, eyes open yet clouded with cataracts, and she looked up at Sam and whispered with her cracked and innocent voice, “Daddy?” and sighed out a long breath and died.
Sam could see how she died. The way her body compressed and lost that vital presence.
John rushing by, grabbing his collar, hissing, “Get a move on, come on Sam.”
Had fate never intervened and Jess remained alive, Sam at Stanford and then Law school and then, who knows, a highly lucrative professional career – had all that happened, Sam and Jess would have two beautiful children.
And Sam would wake in the middle of the night and lie stiff and still in bed, Jess a warm presence at his side, terrified. He would go to his children’s doorways and open the doors and stare. Just watch. The peaceful beautiful most amazing sight of his children breathing.
But of course that never happened.
The round he’s on, it may well be that Sam never has kids. John that that way, too, once, before Mary. Even with Mary, for a while, didn’t believe he could be a good father – didn’t subscribe to the belief that all that was required to be a good parent was to be a good man, his own father was a good man, but oh, John couldn’t wait to leave the house. And isn’t that the way it worked out with Sam? Sam who skulked, hid letters, made a rebellion out of going to college instead of staying to fight the good fight.
Only cowards, John thought, bitter.
But fear wasn’t why Sam did what he did – railed against John, fought him, pushed and pushed and never let up – did with noise to John what John had done with silence to his own father, all those years ago.
Yelling, the night he left. Snarling. His voice a growl.
“I’m not your soldier, I’m your fucking son,” Sam said, and John snapped, “Language.”
Dean between them. Always between them.
Sam left because of John, and John has to live with that.
Sam left and as he went, said, “I don’t know why the fuck anyone ever listens to you, why they believe in you – all you do is get people dead.”
And John flinches, because of course that’s true – Harvelle is proof, a lesson he’s taken to heart – and Sam stands triumphant in grim smug satisfaction.
“All that happens to the people around you,” Sam’s voice drops, intensifies, becomes almost tender, “is that they die. And I’m not going to be one of them.”
“That’s outta line, Sam,” Dean says, but neither Sam nor John look at him.
“You think so? That’s what you think? Fine. Fine. You go. But don’t even think about coming back. You hear me? You make this decision, you don’t come back.” Even as he says them, John knows his words are a mistake. They burn the air.
Sam laughs a short and unhappy laugh. He doesn’t say anything else, and the door doesn’t slam behind him as he goes.
In the months that John Winchester disappeared off the face of the earth and left his two sons desperate to find him, he found himself injured and without safe credit card to use, driving on autopilot and bleeding out.
Somehow he made his way back to his childhood home, the one he’d left behind for reasons that seem stupid now, and naïve. It’s been claimed by squatters – currently absent, their mark left by scorch marks on the walls and torn curtains. Some strange atmosphere crowds the air that John breathes in the old house, some strange shiver works its way under his skin.
He patches himself up the best he can and collapses on a rotted sofa, sleeps nearly a whole day through.
When he wakes up it’s dawn and the sun is bright in his eyes, and he can almost hear the dry rustle of his father’s newspaper shaking its pages in his father’s hands.
He doesn’t know why, but he feels young and like crying. He’s near fifty, and what he wants most is to break down weeping like a child.
John lies still on the musty sofa, still as death and closes his eyes and breathes deep from his gut to his mouth. The feeling will pass.
Before he leaves he wanders through the house. The old rooms he dimly remembers that have been defiled by others’ presence by now. The room that was his father’s, the taped-closed boxes he doesn’t bother to open – the leather journal with faded ink he does open – his father’s cursive curling out in tendrils of blue ink.
Most of the writing is gone now, sunk into paper and time. But traces remain, and John cradles the book in his large hands, held open, and reads the last words his father ever wrote.
I saw the child again, last night. She was crying for her mother. I knew enough to know that, crying for her mother and a taste of water. Her hair was gone and her naked skull looked see-through, I could see her thoughts running beneath that framework of skin and bones, and her skin was burning off her body.
The doctors say there isn’t much to do, that so many are dying like this. Everywhere I look – this is a dream, I know it’s a dream, but it was real once – everywhere I look there are those skinless weeping mothers and fathers and daughters and sons.
The child sees me. She strains her body toward me. I know this means she wants to reach to me. But she can’t move. She’s too weak to even move. If I touch her, the press of my fingertip on her bare skin will bruise.
Every time I close my eyes I see the child.
John burns the house, and everything inside of it.
Sam almost burns John’s journal one night in a fit of pique that it isn’t helping him find an answer to save Dean. What good is it? Its usefulness has passed. He douses it with gasoline and lights a match.
He holds the match until it burns down to his fingers.
The sodden journal is still in front of him, and he can’t bear to look at it anymore.
He throws it to the side of the room. By the time Dean comes back to the room, he has it back in the bag. Hidden, out of sight. Every word memorized, and each one useless.
It’s too late, Sam thinks, despairing. Too late to save Dean, too late to know John, too late.
Too late, John thinks, driving away from the inferno that is his childhood. Too late to know his father, dead more than twenty years, too late to excavate the past.
He lives his life on the frontline of war, and dies there too. Oh glory.