Jessica woke in darkness with adrenaline flooding her brain. She sat up in the bed, shoving the sheet aside and getting her legs tangled in it before she truly knew she was awake. She fought the sheet as if it intended to harm her, crying out in panic. She had no idea what had woken her, but the adrenaline rush left her terrified.
Sam was already out of bed. He came to her, seeing her struggle, and grasped her shoulders firmly. “Jess! Calm down.”
Somehow, the sound of her name brought Jessica back to awareness of herself. She stopped fighting and looked into Sam’s worried eyes. The room was dark but moonlight streamed through the window and his eyes glittered in its silver light.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet.” Sam offered Jessica her satin robe. “Put this on, Jess. Just in case.”
In case of what? she wondered, but she took the robe from him. Sam was already wearing sweat pants. When did he have time to dress? They had both been nude in bed.
Sam headed toward the door, pulling a t-shirt on over his head as he crossed the room. Jessica had an irrational impulse to beg him not to leave her alone, but Sam stopped at the door. He laid one hand flat on the door and leaned close, as if listening.
The sound, when it came, was deafening. A huge BOOM echoed through the house. It seemed to shake the very walls.
Jessica stifled a scream. Was that gunfire? Surely not.
Sam raised his hand, signalling her to stay where she was.
It wasn’t gunfire. It was too resonant for that, but Jessica had no idea what she was hearing. She was still sitting on the bed, tangled in the sheet with her robe across her lap. She pulled the robe on quickly and tied the sash around her waist.
The sound was closer. Jessica was sure it was closer.
“Sam, what is that?” she asked. Her voice came out high and scared. She hated that.
“I don’t know.” Sam still had his ear pressed to the door. His fingers strayed to the handle but he didn’t open it.
She needed light. Jessica leaned across the bed, groped for the bedside lamp and clicked it on. She saw Sam jump as light filled the room. He was as edgy as she felt.
“Jess, my phone. Toss it to me!” Sam ordered.
Jessica obeyed him automatically. She rolled over to his side of the bed, grabbed his Blackberry and threw it. Sam caught the phone one-handed, hit two keys and held it to his ear.
It sounded right above them now. Jessica looked up but she was still on the bed so all she could see was the brocade canopy. She scrambled up, finally getting free of the tangled sheet, and ran toward Sam.
He gestured sharply. “No! Stay there. Dean? Where are you?” Sam nodded, evidently in response to his brother on the phone. “Okay.” He paused again, listening. “So far, no.” Then he ended the call and shoved the Blackberry into the pocket of his sweats. He began to walk to Jessica.
Jessica jumped and stared at the ceiling. She expected to see chunks of plaster falling. The ceiling was white, smooth and unmarked.
“Sam, what is it?” she asked again, panic lacing her voice.
Sam took her into his arms. He held her close for a moment and Jessica felt comforted. He drew back, kissed her forehead and looked into her face. “Jess, you look scared to death. What do you think it is?” He sounded faintly amused.
Jessica drew a breath to answer defensively but then closed her mouth firmly. What could she say? What was she thinking?
Sam glanced over his shoulder as another BOOM! shook the room. “I think you’re letting the ghost stories get to you. I don’t know what this is, but I know there’s a logical explanation.”
“Like what?” she demanded, disbelieving.
“I don’t know, but I’ll take a guess. This is an old house. It’s been renovated and modernised, but I’ll bet the old systems are still in place. Old pipes with rotten joints…”
“Pipes? You’re nuts.”
“Have you ever lived in a house this old?”
He had a point. “Well, no, but – ”
“Then trust me, Jess.” Sam turned to the door as someone knocked loudly. “It’s okay. Just wait.” Sam released her and went to the door. “Dean?” he called, his hand on the lock.
Dean’s voice came clearly through the door. “Zeppelin Rules!”
Sam unlocked the door with a grin. It opened and Dean walked in with Claire at his side. Dean was fully dressed as if he’d never gone to bed. Claire had come from her bed: she wore a cropped pink nightshirt and panties, nothing else. Her hair was mussed from sleep. Her face was white: she looked very scared.
Jessica held out her arms to her friend and Claire ran to her. They held each other tightly.
“It’s okay,” Jessica lied automatically.
“You stayin’?” Dean demanded curtly, looking at Sam.
Jessica looked up in time to see Sam turn to her, his expression torn. She could see he wanted to go with Dean, so she nodded. “It’s okay,” she lied again.
“Stay in this room,” he instructed.
Jessica nodded without really paying attention. She had no plans to leave. Sam met her eyes once more before he left, closing the door behind him. Jessica didn’t lock the door; she saw no reason to.
“Is this what you heard last night?” she asked Claire.
“Yes! God, you can hear it?”
“This time we can,” Jessica confirmed. “Let’s sit down.” She looked up at the ceiling, but it remained smooth and blank. No noise came.
They sat down on the bed together. Jessica couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. She wished she could believe Sam’s explanation of the sound, but she didn’t. Something rattling around in the disused pipes couldn’t be this loud. Sam said, Trust me, Jess and she wanted to. She did trust him…but her heart told her he was wrong about this.
If Sam’s theory was wrong, though, what better explanation was there?
You’re taking the ghost stories too seriously.
Except Sam had told them about this on their first night here: his story of a girl tormented by…by a spirit that kept everyone awake at nights by pounding on the walls. A poltergeist. Jessica caught her breath. No. That was ridiculous. It was impossible.
Someone knocked on the door. “It’s Brady!” he called.
Jessica ran to the door, checked that her robe was properly closed, and opened the door. She forced a cheerful smile onto her face. “Hey. Having trouble sleeping?”
“Oh, ha-ha.” he said sarcastically. He slouched against the door frame and his black robe fell open, revealing nothing but boxer shorts beneath. Well…not nothing. Brady himself was plenty. Another night, Jessica might have commented on it.
“Are you girls okay?” Brady asked.
“It takes more than a bit of noise to scare us!” Jessica declared bravely. She stood back from the door, inviting him in.
“Is Claire…?” Brady began.
Claire came to the door. “I’m okay,” she assured him.
Brady looked at her, his eyes taking in her nightshirt and what was beneath it. Jessica saw his eyes gleam appreciatively and she wanted to punch him. There was a time and a place for that and this wasn’t it.
“You girls want to have a pillow fight?” he suggested with an exaggerated leer.
“Screw you, Brady,” Jessica responded pleasantly. Then it dawned on her that the noise seemed to have stopped. “Wait,” she instructed, listening.
“It’s over,” Claire whispered hopefully.
“Maybe,” Jessica agreed warily. How long had it been since the last…?
It interrupted her thought: not that deep BOOM! this time, but a rapid series of raps like metal on wood. It seemed to begin some distance away, but came closer. It was coming for them!
More than anything in that moment, Jessica wanted to slam the bedroom door closed, lock it and maybe hide under the bed. Her fear was instinctive and irrational but very real. Her heart pounded. Her mouth went dry. Her breathing became irregular. Her hand tensed on the door…but Brady remained on the wrong side of the door. How could she slam the door in his face?
Jessica backed away from the door. Claire gripped her hand, breathing rapidly as if she’d been running. Brady looked around, seeking the source of the sound.
It stopped once more, just before the invisible…thing…reached the place where they stood.
“Oh,” Claire moaned, “please stop. Please let’s go!”
“Go? Go where?” Jessica asked.
“Downstairs,” Brady answered decisively. “All the noise is coming from above us. Let’s go down to the kitchen. It’ll be quieter there and we can make coffee or hot chocolate.”
Jessica hesitated. Sam told them to wait in the room. But Brady was right, wasn’t he? Downstairs would be better.
While Jessica vacillated, Claire decided for her. “I’ve got to get out of here. Let’s go, Jess.” Claire moved toward Brady, still clutching Jessica’s hand. Jessica had little choice but to follow her.
They were almost at the bottom of the stairs when it happened.
Jessica and Claire were walking hand-in-hand, going quickly down the wide staircase. The light was on in the hall below them, so Jessica could see clearly where they were going. Brady followed several steps behind them. Jessica didn’t know what happened. Brady was not close enough to have pushed Claire, yet Claire didn’t seem to trip. She was just suddenly moving forward, screaming, her fingers wrenched from Jessica’s hold. Claire flew toward the front door, airborne for what seemed like an unnaturally long time. She crashed into the floor, the impact cut off her scream but her momentum kept her moving. She slid across the floorboards until her body hit the wall beside the front door and lay still.
In the silence that followed, Jessica stood petrified. She literally could not move.
“Claire!” Brady shouted. He bounded down the stairs, shoving Jessica out of his way. Jessica didn’t think he even realised he’d done it. She lost her balance when he shoved her and grabbed the banister for support. It broke her paralysis and she stumbled down the last few steps to see what had become of her friend.
“Can you tell me what happened, Miss…?”
“Moore,” Jessica supplied. She met the doctor’s eyes unhappily. “The short version is she fell down the stairs.”
The doctor was a plump woman with kind eyes, the kind of eyes that must make her some kid’s favourite aunt. But those eyes held steel as she heard Jessica’s words. “And the long version?”
“We had been drinking,” Jessica admitted. “We all went to bed, but something woke us up. Some noise…air in the pipes, I guess.” Without thinking about it, she’d latched onto Sam’s explanation even though she didn’t truly believe it. At least it sounded logical. “Since we couldn’t sleep, we decided to make coffee. Claire was holding my hand as we went down the stairs. I don’t know how, but she just went flying.”
“Did anyone push her, Miss Moore?”
“No! The only one close enough was me and I wouldn’t do that! Claire’s my best friend!”
In her mind, Jessica saw the scene again. Claire lay crumpled on the polished wood floor, Brady kneeling beside her, repeating her name over and over. He was trying to roll her onto her back when Sam and Dean appeared. Brady called for a light; Jessica hadn’t understood, since the lights were on already, but Dean gave him a flashlight. He’d shone the light into Claire’s eyes and announced they needed to call 911.
Dean objected instantly. “That’ll take too long. I can drive faster than an ambulance can get here. Sam?”
The discussion was brief, and it ended with Sam and Dean taking Claire to the ER in Dean’s car. Jessica and Brady followed once they were both dressed. Jessica was sure the doctors must have questioned Sam and Dean before she and Brady arrived, but they hadn’t seen the accident. She had, so she was the one facing the doctor’s interrogation.
“I’m sorry, Miss Moore, but I have to ask. Claire’s injuries suggest some impact on her back. As if she were pushed or hit with something heavy and solid. She’s badly bruised.”
Jessica shook her head firmly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was there. I’ve told you what happened. No one hit her or pushed her. She didn’t jump. It was an accident.”
“There are bruises on her arms, too. They look older.”
Jessica knew what the doctor was thinking: it was there in her voice. She thought Claire was an abuse victim. “She had an accident on the cliffs two days ago. The bruises are from that.”
“Does she have these accidents a lot?”
Jessica frowned. “Not usually. I guess…in the past few days it seems that way.”
“I’ll order a CT and echo, make sure there’s nothing more serious going on.”
“Can we see her, Doctor?”
The doctor nodded, apparently accepting her story at last. “You can see her,” she conceded, “but one at a time. Claire needs to rest.”
Jessica went in first. Claire lay in the hospital bed, weak and pale. Her left arm was in a sling – the shoulder had been dislocated in the fall – and there was dried blood matted in her hair from where she had hit her head. But she was awake. She was alive. It could have been much worse. Claire tried to smile for Jessica, tried to speak, but Jessica quickly realised it was too much effort for her. She kissed Claire on her cheek, told her to get better soon, and left the room.
Jessica leaned back against the wall outside Claire’s room, and felt her tears begin to flow. Now she no longer had that horrible pounding haunting her, now Claire was safe and no longer needed Jessica to be strong, something inside Jessica broke. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes felt hot. Her knees buckled.
Sam’s strong arms caught her as she fell. His arms enfolded her. Everything Jessica had been holding inside swelled up in her chest and spilled out, but her cry was muffled against Sam’s broad chest. Jessica felt his hand stroking her back as he held her close. Sam was a rock. She felt his strength as she never had before. Not just physical. He was the support she needed in that moment and she knew, somehow, that he could stand against this storm. Whatever she threw at him, he could take it. She could let go.
Jessica had no idea how long Sam held her while she cried. She never knew who else was there, if Dean or Brady witnessed her breakdown. She didn’t know, or care who saw them. She needed that time so badly nothing else mattered.
Minutes or hours later Sam moved. He kissed her hair. He whispered something she didn’t hear. Gently, he led her down the corridor to a waiting area where they could sit. Sam sat beside her, but instead of putting an arm around her shoulders he drew her down into his lap. Jessica lifted her legs up onto the seat, curling up with Sam’s solid thighs as a pillow. She felt drained. Exhausted.
Sam stroked her hair gently. “It’s alright, my love. Claire’s going to be fine and I won’t let anything hurt you. Sleep now, baby.”
Jessica warmed to his words. Too tired to reply, she closed her eyes.
Jessica knew she must have slept, because Dean’s voice woke her.
“Hell if I know,” he said, and Jessica could hear the irritation in his tone. She felt Sam’s fingers combing through her hair. She kept her eyes closed, hoping to fall asleep again.
“So, what now?” Sam asked, keeping his voice low.
“We need to get everyone out of that house,” Dean asserted. “Make something up if we have to.”
“We don’t know for sure that this is…” Sam began.
“I know for sure that girl didn’t fall,” Dean insisted. “Why’d they leave the room anyway? The one place they were safe!”
In the silence that followed, Jessica processed Dean’s words enough to grasp his meaning, but she didn’t understand. What made the bedroom any different from the rest of the house?
“I don’t know,” Sam answered eventually. “I’ll have to ask Jess…if I can figure out how.”
Dean gave a derisive snort. “She’s a sweet girl, Sammy, but you know that ain’t gonna last, don’t you? She’s got no idea who you really are.”
Jessica could feel the sudden tension in Sam’s body. She was wide awake now, but kept her eyes closed, avidly listening to the confusing conversation. She felt guilty for eavesdropping, but she couldn’t bring herself to let them know she was awake. She sensed this was something Sam would never tell her about himself.
“You leave her out of this!” Sam hissed angrily. “This is not some nowhere town. Jess is not some chick I’ll ditch the second Dad’s ready to move on. This is my life now. If you do something to fuck it up for me, Dean, I swear to god, we are done.”
“Whoa, Sammy. What the hell?”
“What you and Dad do,” Sam went on, biting off each word, “is nothing to do with me any more. I’m done with it. I’m done with being afraid all the time. I’m done with watching Dad leave and never knowing if this is the night he won’t come back. That’s not who I am.”
There was a tense silence. “When you left,” Dean said eventually, “you told me you were just going to college. You said you’d be back.”
“That was my plan. Before Dad told me never to come back.”
“He was angry, Sam. You know he didn’t mean it.”
“Maybe he did, Dean. Most fathers, their son gets accepted to Stanford, they’d be proud. They don’t beat on you and kick you out with nothing but the clothes on your back. I thought about that after I left and…I miss you, Dean. But I don’t miss that life.”
“We used to be a team,” Dean objected. “You abandoned us – ”
“For a chance to get out for good.” Sam’s voice changed. “You should too, Dean. Get out before – ”
“I’m not gonna leave Dad when he needs me,” Dean said with finality.
What was their father? Jessica wondered. The way Sam was talking…was he some kind of criminal?
“I’m gonna call him,” Dean announced.
“God, Dean, no! We don’t even know for sure – ”
“I’m damn sure,” Dean growled, “and if you weren’t so out of shape you would be, too.”
Sam shifted a little. Jessica, still trying to pretend she was sleeping, sighed and moved with him.
“Say you’re right, Dean. Getting out of the house isn’t going to help.”
“Of course it’ll – ”
“Who’s out of shape? Think about it Dean. Claire fell the other day on the cliff. She fell – supposedly fell – tonight. Last night she was the only one who heard the noise we all heard tonight. If this something, it’s about her.”
“What do you know about her?” Dean asked thoughtfully.
“Nothing that would explain this.”
“Then I guess I’ll talk to her. She likes me.” Dean stood; Jessica heard the chair scrape on the tiled floor. “I need more caffeine. You want anything?”
“No. You don’t have to wait with us, Dean.”
“Yeah. I do.”
Silence fell and Jessica assumed Dean was gone, though she hadn’t heard him walk away. She heard Sam sigh heavily. His fingers stroked her cheek. “Jess,” he said, quietly urging. “Jess, wake up.”
Jessica turned her face into his touch and opened her eyes with relief. She truly was tired. Sam helped her to sit up and she yawned. Her body felt stiff and bruised.
“Hi,” she answered.
“The doc just went into Claire’s room on rounds. If she’s okay, we can take her home.”
Jessica came awake more quickly. “Rounds? How long was I asleep?”
“It’s nearly eleven.”
She was shocked. She’d slept far longer than she thought. “Where is everyone?”
“Brady’s in Claire’s room. He’s been with her ever since you left. Dean’s getting coffee.”
Jessica arched her back, feeling her bones pop. She groaned. “You make a nice pillow, Sam, but don’t let me sleep like that again. I feel awful.” She reached out to him, touching his unshaven cheek. “Did you get any sleep?”
Sam smiled. “No, but I’m used to it. All those nights in the library. As long as I sleep tonight I’m good.”
Jessica nodded, taking him at his word. “I’d better go and see Claire.”
The doctor agreed to discharge Claire as long as she promised not to dive off any more staircases. Claire promised. It took hours to get all the insurance sorted out and paperwork signed, and of course Claire had to call her father and assure him she was okay and that her friends would take care of her. Jessica wondered if Claire would want to go back to the house, but Claire wouldn’t hear of going anywhere else. She had her arm in a sling and was ever so slightly high on the pain meds, but she put on a brave face, insisted that it was a silly accident and they were all idiots if they let a few weird noises spook them.
It was a long drive back to the house and by the time they got there everyone was hungry. Jessica and Sam pulled together a meal by throwing whatever they could find in with pasta and a hastily-made tomato sauce. Jessica enjoyed cooking and she was pretty good at throwing together an “emergency” menu, so the meal wasn’t a disaster.
They ate around the kitchen table as usual, and talked about what they were going to do the next day. Travis, Adrianne, Matt and maybe some others were arriving the next day for the weekend, so there would be some preparation to do. Brady had already set up his improvised volleyball court on the lawn. Sam announced he wanted to try to get online with his laptop to check the weather forecast: there was no broadband or wi-fi but he thought he could use his Blackberry as a modem to do some research.
Jessica left the clearing up to the others and followed Sam to their room. She was still debating whether she should ask him about his conversation with Dean at the hospital, but she wanted a private moment with him regardless because she’d already decided she needed to spend the rest of the evening with Claire.
Sam reached for the bedroom door, but something on the carpet caught Jessica’s attention and she stopped him.
“Sam, what on earth is that?” She knelt down without waiting for an answer and touched the white stuff with her fingertips.
“Salt,” Sam said flatly.
Jessica brought a little of the stuff to her mouth and tasted it cautiously. “You’re right. But why is it here?” She stood up, meeting Sam’s eyes. Since he’d identified it so quickly…did Sam do this?
Sam didn’t quite meet her eyes. “Uh…it’s white. Easy to see in the dark.”
Jessica frowned. “You’re not making sense, Sam.”
“Last night, when I left with Dean, he did that so he’d know which room you were in. You know, just in case.”
In case of what? she should have asked, but what she blurted out was, “When you said Dean wouldn’t fit in I didn’t think you meant he’s crazy.”
“He’s not crazy! Just a bit…different. Look, it made sense last night, Jess. Things were a bit tense so I didn’t argue with him.” He turned the handle and pushed the door open. “Shall we go inside?”
“Sure.” She stepped over the salt line and Sam followed her into the room. “But do me a favour and clean it up before Claire sees it. There’s a vacuum cleaner in the closet at the end of the hall. Okay?”
“No problem,” Sam answered with his back to her. He was pulling his laptop case out of the closet. He unzipped it, checked the contents quickly, then straightened, lifting the strap to his shoulder.
“Sam…whatever you want to do with the computer will take a while, won’t it?”
“I guess an hour or two. Depends how much trouble I have getting a signal. Why?”
“Because I think Claire and I need some girl time tonight. Can you, Brady and Dean find, I don’t know, guy-stuff to do for a while?”
“Maybe. At least until about ten.”
Sam smiled. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
They headed back downstairs and Jessica told the boys they were on their own for the evening. When she used the same phrase she had with Sam – do “guy-stuff” for a few hours – Dean looked at her, a predictable gleam in his eye.
“Guy stuff ought to involve a girl-sized cake. I’ll bet you – ”
Jessica interrupted before he could take that thought to its obvious conclusion. “Dean, if you want to bake a cake, go right ahead. Kitchen’s got everything you need. But we don’t have a tin that big. Claire, are you ready?”
They escaped and headed up to Claire’s attic bedroom together. Calling it the attic made it sound like a dusty room full of cobwebs, but the attic wasn’t like that at all. A narrow staircase led to three rooms. The ceilings were lower than rooms in the main house and the oddly sloping walls made it evident that this was the roof of the house. It was also considerably colder up here than on the main floor, but other than that they were normal rooms. The first was a bathroom with an old-fashioned claw-footed bathtub but no shower. The second was a children’s playroom with all kinds of toys and shelves full of children’s books. The third room was Claire’s bedroom.
Jessica could tell that this was a much-loved room. The rest of the house felt a little like a hotel: the rooms were well-cared-for, clean, tidy and luxurious. This room was someone’s home: Claire’s home. The walls were painted pink and there were bright panels where posters had kept the paint from fading. Along one wall were built-in closets with an alcove for the window; the queen-sized bed was tucked into the alcove. There were still signs of the child who once lived there: stickers on the closet doors, a few stuffed toys. But mostly it was an adult’s room now: Claire’s clothing was folded on a chair, her hair products and makeup were on the vanity. And, of course, Claire’s ever-present magazines – Cosmo and Psychologies.
“I like it,” Jessica smiled.
“I spent more time here than at home when I was little,” Claire said. “Mom was sick so often…”
Jessica nodded. She picked up a teddy bear and sat down with the bear in her lap. “Are you sure you want to sleep in here tonight?”
Claire sat down on the bed. “What am I going to do? Just pick a different room?”
“It wouldn’t feel right. I mean, this is my place.”
“I’m not sure you should be up here alone,” Jessica began uncertainly.
Claire smiled. “Dean already made that offer. But I don’t think I’m in much shape for it.” She indicated the sling on her arm.
Jessica wondered when Dean had time to invite himself into Claire’s bed. It was a good idea, though. Claire shouldn’t sleep alone, and Dean knew she was injured, so he would be careful with her.
“Do you want him?” she asked with a suggestive smile.
“You said it, Jess. Come to Momma. But…wouldn’t it be weird?”
“I mean, you’re with Sam and Dean’s his brother…”
Jessica laughed. “That’s no weirder than me dating Zack last year. Claire, Dean’s only here for a few days. If you want to have a good time with him, you should go for it.” She gave her friend a knowing look. “If he’s half as good as Sam, you really should.”
Jessica set the teddy bear down. “Well, come on. Let’s make you irresistible.”
It took a little more persuasion, but Claire agreed to Jessica’s plan. While Claire took a bath, Jessica ran down to her room for her hairdryer and cosmetics. She settled Claire in front of the vanity mirror in her robe and styled her hair for her. Claire’s short, spiky hair didn’t need much work, just blow-drying to give it volume and wax for texture. She painted Claire’s toenails first, then her fingernails with a pretty peach shade.
While the nail polish was drying, Jessica went through Claire’s makeup.
“I don’t need makeup,” Claire protested.
“No,” Jessica agreed, selecting eyeshadow colours, “you don’t. But I promised you’d be irresistible.” She picked up a brush. “You don’t need any base, and we’ll leave your lashes alone because that’ll look terrible in the morning. But just a little.”
Jessica gave Claire a hint of blush and enough eyeshadow to give her eyes a subtle depth. Then she searched through her own case for a lip gloss.
“This one,” she decided, giving it to Claire. It was cherry-flavoured, perfect for kissing, with just a little sparkle.
Jessica selected Claire’s clothing as well: a tight, dark green wrap-around top with no bra because Claire didn’t really need one and it would hurt her less to dress and undress. A short skirt, bare legs and flat gladiator sandals.
She stood back, assessing her work. “There. You’re beautiful.”
Claire examined herself in the mirror. “Except for this sling,” she agreed mournfully.
“He won’t even notice,” Jessica promised. “Come on. Let’s go and join the boys.”