Summary: When the Winchesters settle in one place for a few months, Sam gets to know their neighbor.
Spoilers and/or Warnings: Through the pilot only.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Narandam, by vylit/vylit
Author's Note: Remix title taken from the Ben Folds song, Silver Street.
“There was a distance in her look
That made us look again;
And if she smiled, we might believe
That we had looked in vain.
Rarely she came inside our doors,
And had not long to stay;
And when she left, it seemed somehow
That she was far away."
-- Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Neighbors"
Huang was the youngest of five sisters in a family with no sons. She'd been disposable from the moment she was born, and everything she had she'd carved from the nothing she was given. She worked in a factory for five years, saving every dime and teaching herself English from books and tapes she had to hide in the evenings until she could move across the world and start over. She left behind a husband she hated and it took seven years of working for a bent-backed old curmudgeon before she managed to secure an official divorce and a promotion that left her a manager instead of a clerk.
She'd learned early and often that people weren't generous, and life never handed you anything. Horace was twenty years her senior, and he asked her to marry him nine times before she said yes. They moved into a house on Orange Blossom Lane, and Huang knew as soon as she saw the house that it would be her home until she died. When Horace was gone, she lived on the insurance and her only indulgences were the cat she fed real tuna and the Newports she'd smoked since the day she arrived in America.
She was old, now, and the street she lived on had declined, aged with her until they were both gray, worn replicas of what they'd started out as. Neighbors came and went and Huang was old enough that illusions of etiquette no longer seemed important, and she rarely spoke to them. They were transient moments in her stable life.
When the new family moved in, she took little note, but the window of her living room looked into the youngest's room, and when she sat and watched Telenova - which she liked because she never understood what they were saying, which made it somehow less frustrating than the English soap operas - and while she watched she saw him. He was thin and small in the way boys were before they grew big. She'd never had children, and she'd never wanted them, but she watched his head bent over books and saw his father leave and not return, and the restless swagger of the older one, and she wondered.
The second bedroom of Huang's house was filled with books she never read anymore because her eyes were bad from years of squinting and her head ached when she tried. When she saw the boy on the porch, she would try to look at the spine of his books to see what he read. She rarely knew the titles, but when she did she went to the bedroom and found the title, flipped through without reading and thought of what Horace might have been like, when he was young. She'd never thought to wonder that before.
She never smoked in the house, and when she stood outside if the boy was there, she spoke to him. Huang learned his name was Sam, and his brother's name was Dean. "Dean" was a word in every other sentence and he could never seem to decide whether he wanted to say it with reverence or with resentment. Huang smoked at the same times, every day, and Sam emerged every day. He was quiet and lonely, and those were things that Huang understood. She blew her lines of smoke away from his face and told him of China, of the one room she'd shared with her sisters and the husband whose name she never wanted to speak, like he was a ghost of the past who could be summoned with a word.
He told her about Dean, and about towns in Florida, hotels in Michigan, a priest who taught him how to play chopsticks on the piano. Always there were things he didn't say, and his eyes were older than his face. Huang never asked what it was he kept secret. He had his ghosts around him, too. She wouldn't make him name them. If she was the superstitious woman her mother had been, Huang would have said that he carried shadows with him. She didn't believe it, but still she made him orange juice, though the old juicer hurt her joints, and the sharp tang of the citrus smell cut through like sunlight through clouds, and made him seem younger and brighter, somehow.
He borrowed books from her room, and he spoke to their neighbors. Sam learned their names and told their stories and Huang caught herself watching them through her windows, waving when they pulled out of their driveways. When Sam told her Tom from down the street was sick, she baked him muffins while Sam carefully measured out the sugar for her and coated the ancient muffin tray with grease like it was a sacred duty. The smell of blueberries mixed with the heavy orange blossom scent from outside. When Sam said "I like it here," his voice was quiet and sad and Huang pretended not to hear, though she knew that he never packed away his suitcases, just left them in a corner of his room like he might pack them and be gone without warning.
His brother watched them, sometimes, eyed her like she might hurt the boy. Dean carried the same shadows, but they sat differently on his shoulders. He was proud to have them, while Sam tried to pretend they weren't there. Dean brought giggling girls who looked at her with wrinkled noses back to their house, sometimes. Sam would escape to her porch or his own and once when it was too-hot and the doors windows were open moans and laughter carried through the window, and Sam turned ten shades of red until she took pity on him and asked him inside to help her with some chore she didn't really need help with, turning the TV up loud enough that the sounds didn't carry.
When it rained, she bent her fingers to feel the ache of them, swollen knuckles cracking. The boy's hands would rub them, sometimes, and she never had the heart to tell him that it hurt more than it helped. It was the first time she'd been touched since she'd stood in worn black at Horace's funeral.
Sam read to her, sometimes, from the books he borrowed or the stacks he took from the library. Sometimes when she looked too closely, he hid the titles of the old books with cracked leather that he read. Sometimes he forgot. He read about devils and ghosts, and she told him about her father, who believed he had no sons because he was cursed by a Da Siu Yan. Days later she saw him squinting over a book written half in Chinese and half in English, and she smiled. Huang told him what she remembered of the legends and stories of her childhood, and he told her stories of monsters and myths with the laughing voice of one who wanted to seem as if he didn't believe in them. When his brother overheard, he took Sam inside and she heard the low hum of their voices, urgent and worried. After that, Sam spoke of school and people only.
His father came back like a storm into yellow skies - weather in a horizon that had been waiting for it to break. The brother, Dean, came awake as he packed the car, making her realize how much of him had been caught up in the waiting. Sam dragged his feet. When the black car drove away, she watched through her window.
The neighbors who moved in next were young with a fat-cheeked little girl who cried when her father left for work. The shades on her window were usually drawn, and Huang watched the soap operas she didn't really follow, and smoked her Newports on the porch. Her cat died before she did, which she'd never counted on and the neighbors moved without ever speaking a word to her. The neighborhood changed, and the names she learned because of the boy were lost again when houses changed hands. When she took in a stray cat she found at the market, she named her Sam.
Dean bought orange juice at ever rest stop, every McDonalds, every convenience store. He tried every brand and handed it wordlessly to Sam. Sam never drank more than half, and threw the rest away, if that. Even though Sam was gone now, Dean couldn't stop buying the damn stuff. He never saw the appeal in it, least of all fresh when the pulp sits heavy on his tongue and the bitter seems to overwhelm the sweet and the smell is too sharp and fills up his senses. Orange juice isn't a drink so much as sensory overload, and Dean liked his senses sharp and clear. But still. Every damn stop he bought a bottle swilled half and tossed the rest.
His father asked once ever two weeks, while they clean guns. Heard from your brother? The answer didn't change any more than the question did. Dean thought about calling every week, but he never did. He tailed his father's truck from town to town, did the jobs he was told to do. When John sent him away, Dean watched in the rearview until the truck's taillights disappeared, and then drove the opposite direction, toward wherever the hell John sent him. He thought if he called Sam, Sam might be dumb enough to come back, or Dean might be weak enough to ask him to, because the stretches between jobs with his father got longer and longer and the rides alone never felt right. So he didn't call. And Sam's a stubborn bastard. So he never called, and their dad's never going to be the one to cave first. Stalemate. He should have been used to them, by now.
His dad called from somewhere. Last Dean heard, he was in Milwaukee, and he was supposed to meet him there, but John sent him on a haunted house job instead. Kid stuff. Dean salted and burned and called it a day. He recognized the town though. It made him think of orange juice and cigarettes and the noxious smell of roof tar from mending leaks when they'd first moved in
The hotel he stayed in was shittier than most of them, and the only decent diner he found didn't have bacon. How you ran a freaking diner without bacon, Dean didn't know. It was too late to take off, too early to sleep. He called his dad, but got the message, as usual. He stared at Sam's number on his phone and then shoved it back in his pocket and went out to the car. He's surprised he remembered the way - Sam was better with directions in these crap towns. Dean remembered the highways and the exits, Sam always knew which bullshit tiny street held which house.
Seven p.m. and the sun was setting. Three out of the five streetlights on Orange Blossom Lane were out, and the house they used to live in had its windows boarded and a sag in its porch. Somehow though, Dean's wasn't surprised to see the tiny old woman with a cigarette between two fingers and a faded housedress. She stood on the porch, a calico cat between her feet.
Dean had no clue why he came here, but she was staring at the car, so he got out. He'd never felt comfortable around her - she'd watched Sam like she knew him, and fed him oranges and juice and muffins and talked about Chinese demons or some crap.
Mostly though, she'd just been there day after day. Dean didn't know what to do with people who were fixtures. They were foreign, and he didn't understand how they woke up, fixed their coffee, and went about the same life every day. He got it more, now. Or at least he could understand why people would want it more than he used to. But the actual living part - it was like the movies he watched. It had nothing to do with his reality.
"Hey," he greeted, and her lips might have quirked, but hell if he could tell. "You probably don't remember me-"
"Dean," she interrupted. "Sam's brother." The cat looked up when she spoke, and then hopped down from the porch, walking over to Dean to stare at him with big, expectant yellow eyes. Dean was more of a dog person, but he bent to scratch at its ears. He got the feeling he did it wrong, somehow. Like he was being judged by a freaking cat.
"Yeah. I was just around. Thought I'd look in on the old place. . ." Dean scratched at a cut on the back of his neck.
The old woman - Dean couldn't remember her damned name - pursed her lips, ashed her cigarette, and then shrugged. "Come in, then."
He followed her. The house smelled like sour milk and cat box. She shooed him into a rickety chair in the kitchen, and the floor creaked under his feet. The cat hopped up on the table, and she said. "Sam!" sharp enough to turn Dean's head. The cat flitted its tail and then jumps back to the floor.
Dean grinned a little, catching on. "The cat's name's Sam?"
"I found her by a dumpster. She pisses on everything," the woman told him dismissively. Dean was too busy laughing at the fact that Sam was a girl to worry if he was sitting somewhere a cat pissed. It wasn't like he hasn't landed it worse, anyway.
She was moving around, and after a moment she set a glass of orange juice in front of him. Dean hid a grimace. It wasn't fresh, at least. He saw her put the jug away. Maybe she saw him looking, because she shrugged small, frail shoulders and sat down opposite him. "They cut down the orange trees two years ago."
"You'd think they'd change the street name, then," Dean answered. He remembered how they smelled though, suddenly. And her name. Sam's voice when it hadn't settled yet, still cracking when he related stories she'd told. Huang had four sisters. Huang grew up in China. Huang made me orange juice. "You were nice to him."
She shrugged. "He was a nice boy. He read. Was quiet. Didn't bring girls around." Unlike you, her tone implied, but Dean didn't really mind, since she seemed more amused than really giving him a hard time about it. "He's not with you, anymore? Or your father?"
Dean shook his head. "He went to school. He's going to be a jackass lawyer." He wasn't sure if he was proud or if he resented the hell out of that, and she smiled at him suddenly, like he'd given something away.
Huang coughed then, a hard fit that bent her double, and Dean thought her spine might snap with the force of it. She was tiny and old, and Dean wished that Sam were here, abruptly. He got the feeling she'd have liked it if he were. Hell, so would Dean. "You okay?"
Her eyes were old and slitted small from years of squinting with bad eyes in bad light, but there was something still-sharp and alert in them, and the look she gave him made him sit up straighter automatically. She looked significantly toward the pack of cigarettes she dropped on the counter, and Dean changed his mind, glad Sam wasn't here after all.
Pots were dotted around the house, pools of rainwater in them. He watched as Sam-The-Cat went to drink from one, and then looked up at the stained roof. "I could patch that up for you."
Huang looked at him and then nodded. "You come back tomorrow, then." Dean didn't know why the hell he offered, but he let her shoo him out as quickly as she ushered him in, and he went back to crash at his crap motel. His dad didn't call, and Dean woke up early the next morning, hit the local hardware store and stole a ladder from a construction site. He takes the lot of it over to Orange Blossom Lane, exchanged an awkward good morning, and then hauled his ass up to the roof.
He spent the morning sweating and tarring and Huang left an hour after he got there. He was almost done when she got back, and when he climbed down the smell of tar is cut by oranges when she shoved a glass of fresh-squeezed juice into his hand. He still didn't like it, but it tasted better than usual, and the smell is welcome, for once. She fed him chili from a can and cake from a box, and talked to him about Sam. About what she used to tell him. She didn't say a word about what Sam said to her, and Dean liked her better for it. She kept Sam's secrets, even from him. Discretion is a pretty big virtue in the Winchester family.
She coughed through the meal, and when Dean left, she seemed tired. Sam-the-cat was eating from the chili bowl she didn't finish when the door closed behind him, and Dean couldn't smell the oranges anymore as soon as the door shut. He kind of missed the trees. The block was never exactly a tourist stop, but it seemed bare and sad without them. Her porch was empty when he looked in the rearview, and Dean caught himself wishing that it wasn't.
He thought maybe he got the appeal of things that didn't change, a little now. It didn't mean that stopped it from happening, though.
Dean called Sam that night, and it rang until the voice mail picked up. He didn't leave a message, but when his dad never showed up, Dean remembered that Sam called back and Dean didn't pick up, and he got in the car. He bought an orange juice at every stop until California.