" You have to be kidding, " Dean said.
They both stared at the motel from the car. Well, from the dry safety of the car. The building was so visibly run down - even in the dark - that Dean was surprised there wasn ' t a ' condemned ' tag posted somewhere on it. A section of plywood siding had fallen off the front and was lying in a heap in the parking lot, leaving tar paper to flap in the wind.
" Is that a hole in the roof? " Sam said.
Dean squinted through the windshield. It was dark, and raining like hell, but no way was that just a shadow. There really was a hole in the roof. Not a single light was visible, in any of the windows. The only light came from the neon vacancy sign, which doused half the parking lot with a sickly dull orange illumination, flickering VA ANC .
There were no other cars. Not in the front, anyway.
" Rustic, " Dean said.
" It ' s gonna be in the thirties out here before morning, " Sam said. " So it ' s this, or another hundred and fifty miles to the next civilization. We ' re not sleeping in the car. "
Ever since he ' d turned sixteen, Sam had been taking stabs at garnering some authority. Their father had sent them after a poltergeist in West Virginia, and now they were headed back to meet him in Ohio. Sam was on spring break, but spring seemed a long time away.
" This is so cliche ' , " Dean said. " Spooky motel in the middle of nowhere. "
Sam shrugged. " I ' m not freezing my ass out here all night in BF Egypt. They ' ve gotta have some heat. "
" They don ' t have a roof , " Dean mumbled.
" If you ' re scared - " Sam said.
" You have to be kidding, " Dean said again, turning toward Sam but leaving both hands on the steering wheel. " The only thing I ' m scared about is getting, like, tetanus from touching the doorknobs. If they have doorknobs. "
Sam shrugged again and stared at the rain filling the beams of the headlights. " Either way, Dean. Drive on, or get out. "
Dean looked at him for a moment. Then, with a muffled curse, he backed into a spot past the end of the low one-story building. If the whole thing fell over, then at least their father ' s car would be safe. He cut the headlights but hesitated at cutting the engine. No way was this a good idea. They ran into enough trouble on purpose - who needed it in the middle of nowhere? He looked at his cell phone. No reception. " Check out any time you like, but you can never leave, " he said.
" If I wasn ' t so tired, I would seriously be ragging on you right now, " Sam said, then got out of the car.
Since he couldn ' t let Sam go in there alone, Dean followed.
Water poured in sheets from the edge of the roof, which had neither a decent overhang or gutters, so they were both soaked by the time Sam twisted the knob of the last door on the left. The window sported a sun-faded, handwritten sign: OFFICE .
It was dark enough that at first they couldn ' t even make out the counter. Sam flicked his flashlight on and ran it over the nearest surface, which happened to be several metal and vinyl chairs against the wall to their right.
" Hello? " Sam called. When nothing answered but the rain outside, Dean clicked his own flashlight on and played the beam over the counter and cash register directly in front of them. VISA, MC, Discover! , another handwritten sign announced. The countertop was scattered with papers and ledgers. A stapler lay on its side. A human head. A penny dish. A -
Dean jerked the light back a step. A partly bald head lay on the counter, face turned away. He grabbed the shoulder of Sam ' s jacket and yanked him a step closer, gesturing with his flashlight. Sam ' s eyes widened as he looked, and when his eyes met Dean ' s, they gave a short nod in unison. Then they both drew their guns, lining the flashlights along the barrels and checking the corners. Dean moved around to the other side of the counter and found the rest of the body perched on a barstool. No sign of blood, no gaping holes or claw marks, no missing limbs. It seemed to be a guy in his seventies who ' d just...tipped over. Sam picked up the land line on the counter. Dead. The cash register didn ' t look as if it had been rifled.
The boys shared another glance. Neither of them felt like being a witness to anything, but they couldn ' t just leave him. It didn ' t smell like he ' d been dead long. Dean leaned over and pressed two fingers to the guy ' s neck, searching for a pulse just to be sure. He was pretty cold...
One arm jerked up and slapped at him, and Dean jumped away with what Sam would later insist was a squeak . They both leveled their weapons on the guy out of reflex as he flailed upright, scattering papers everywhere with a shout. The stool tipped precariously, and he grabbed at the counter and blinked at them with tiny, close-set and disgruntled eyes. " I ' m being robbed! " he shouted, ducking out of sight.
" No, no hey! " Sam yelled as Dean vaulted the counter one-handed. " We thought - "
The guy reappeared with a shotgun.
Sam and Dean put their guns and flashlights on the floor and left their hands in sight while the old guy scrabbled with the phone for a moment and cursed when he apparently realized it was dead.
" Okay, " Sam said. " It ' s dark, you were laying on the counter, and the place is wrecked. We thought we were, you know, finding a body. We weren ' t gonna rob you. "
" Damn generator died again, " the guy said. He came out around the counter, grabbed their guns, and stalked off through a doorway to his left, muttering about what a crap generator it was and something about retiring.
Sam and Dean lowered their hands and stared at each other.
" Not leaving without my gun, " Dean said.
" At least he ' s not dead, " Sam said.
" That doesn ' t feel like the bright side of anything right now, sunshine, " Dean said.
There was a crashing somewhere in the back. Then the overhead fluorescent lights came on. They blinked around and found the place loaded with half-open boxes that they ' d managed not to trip on. A vending machine was jammed up against the wall on their left; the counter was glass-fronted and contained a variety of kitschy souvenir-type stuff. There were a few suspicious stains on the threadbare teal carpeting.
Dean cleared his throat and felt a cold trickle of rainwater work its way down his back from his hair.
The guy shuffled out of the back room, shotgun still in hand but not pointed at them. " Damn thing conks out all the time, " he said.
" So how come the sign out front - " Dean began.
" Still on city power, " the guy said. " Whole place is getting rewired, strip mall going in just up the road next year, so I bought the place to renovate it. Damn mess, is what it is. "
Sam glanced at Dean with one corner of his mouth pulled in. Dean ignored him.
" You boys in the habit of pointing guns at people you think are dead? "
Dean shrugged. " Well, uh... "
" Hell you doing out here in the middle of the night anyway? "
" Well, uh... " Dean said.
" You running from the law, I don ' t care about it, " the guy said.
" We need our guns back, " Dean said. When Sam cleared his throat beside him, he added, " Please. "
" On your way out in the morning, " the guy said. " Rooms haven ' t been aired in months but some are still good. No continental breakfast . They ' re all unlocked, so go pick one and see if you can get a radiator to work. Forty bucks. "
" For this rathole? " Dean said.
" You see a Best Western up the road, tough guy? " the guy said. " I gotta afford to renovate this thing, and shelter ' s shelter since it ' s gonna freeze. Forty bucks and guns in the morning. "
Dean stared at him for a moment to see if he was serious, then dug into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet.
" No cards , either, " the guy said. " All I have is that damn manual slidey-thing and that ' s nonsense. "
Dean fished out two twenties, leaned out, and held them out between his first two fingers. The guy grabbed them, then waved them out.
They ran along the side of the building in the rain, trying the first door they came to. When it swung open, Sam felt around for a wall switch. The room contained two beds that were overturned. Graffiti on the far wall mentioned something about several people and how much they sucked. They moved on to the next room, which had only one bed and was bearing the brunt of the roof leak. A bucket had been left under the drip and was overflowing.
The third room had two beds, no leaks, and a working radiator. Sam cranked it on high and then they spent a moment playing paper-scissors-rock to see who would have to run out to the car and get their stuff. Best two out of three meant Dean would get wetter and colder, which he did with a long string of grumbles.
When he returned with their duffels, Sam was at the door looking concerned. " You need to see this, " he said. " I think we might have a real problem. "
Dean tossed the duffels by the door. "What is it? "
" I can ' t even explain it, " Sam said. " You just have to look. We might have to call Dad on this one. " He turned and headed for the bathroom, then paused there at the open door.
Dean approached with caution because Sam looked genuinely concerned. Sam gestured into the bathroom while keeping clear of the door, and Dean leaned in to look at an angle. There, on the cracked and leaning glass shower door was a red slash of lettering.
Dean blinked, then placed the reference among the other pop culture tidbits that cluttered his head. Before he could say anything, Sam was leaning against the door, laughing and holding up a smeared tube of lipstick.
" Ooooh, spoooooky motel, " he said.
" That was dumb, even for you, " Dean said. " That your preferred shade, Francis? "
" Hey, it was already on the sink, " Sam said.
Too tired and cold to berate Sam over the lame prank, Dean shrugged out of his wet jacket and tossed it on the floor near the radiator. The latter was cranking away but wouldn ' t be changing the room ' s temp any time soon, so he stripped out of his damp shirt and jeans and went for a sweatshirt and sweats in his duffel. Sam did the same, and while they could both smell a hint of mildew it didn ' t seem to be actively growing on the beds, so they settled in after Dean checked the lock on the door twice and salted the place down.
When he awoke sometime later, he registered that it was still dark outside and he could hear it was still raining. The radiator was clicking.
Then Sam kicked his bed.
" Okay, " Dean said, closing his eyes again. " Knock it off. Haha, haunted room, I get it. Go back to sleep, Sammy. "
Silence, except for rain. Dean sighed and relaxed.
Thud . His bed moved a little.
" Sam, " he growled.
Dean ' s eyes popped open.
Dean sat straight up and looked over at Sam. That rotten-pumpkin smear of light from the dying sign outside offered just enough of a glow to show him Sam had burrowed into his covers up to his nose. He waited a moment, then leaned over and turned on the bedside lamp. It flickered, then caught. Dean listened, hard, until he could hear his own blood singing in his ears. His senses sharpened moment by moment as he became more alert and tuned them to hunting mode. He swept a hand under his pillow and came up empty. Then he remembered that everything was still packed in their duffels. The guy at the desk had their handguns, the extras were out in the car, and all their blades were in their duffels. He ' d salted the door but neglected to unpack a single weapon.
He started to swing his legs out of bed, and as his feet came within inches of the floor, a ragged and bony hand disappeared back under the bed.
Dean rolled back onto the bed, heart pounding.
Thud . Something hit the underside. Hard.
" Sam, " Dean said. " Sam! "
Sam lifted his head and blinked into the light.
" You gotta wake up, " Dean said. " We ' ve got a problem. There ' s something under the bed. "
Sam frowned. " That ' s the best you can do? " he said. " Whatever. " He rolled over, away from the light.
" Sam. I ' m serious. If you listen, you ' ll hear it. "
" C ' mon, Dean, " Sam said. " You ' re such a - "
Sam rolled over again to look at Dean. Dean was standing on his bed, watching the floor. Sam dropped his eyes in time to watch a mildew covered, skeletal hand reach out from under Dean ' s bed and feel along the floor.
A moment later, Sam was standing on his bed as well.
" Okay, " he said. " Possibilities? "
" Zombie, " Dean said. " It ' s solid enough to hit the bed and move it, and plain manifestations don ' t usually go for the corpse look. "
" Maybe a ghoul? " Sam said. " I mean, it's hanging around under beds, so it ' s looking for a snack. "
" Ghouls like their snacks already dead, " Dean said. " Nicely aged. We ' re kind of fresh. "
" Maybe we ' re not supposed to be, " Sam said. " Maybe it ' s found...snacks here before. "
" Like maybe people have died in the beds before, " Dean said. He looked down at his bed with disdain. " Aw, man. "
Something hit Dean ' s bed hard enough from beneath to move it by several inches. Dean windmilled his arms to keep his balance.
" This one ' s not so willing to wait, " Sam said. " What do ghouls hate? "
" Uh...light, " Dean said. " Light, and fire. "
Sam looked at the bedside lamp, then at their duffels by the door. Procuring the weapons meant risking a dash along the floor. Sixty watts from a standard filament weren ' t going to go far. " Okay, " he said. " Right now if it gets impatient, it ' s got four sides to gnaw on us from. We ' ve gotta put the beds together. "
Dean looked across the space between the beds. With the nightstand in the way, they ' d have to do some maneuvering. " The frames are on wheels, " he said.
Sam held a hand out across the space. " C ' mon. "
Dean grumbled a bit. " All those times when you were little ad you were sure something was under your bed...and I ' m the one who ' s stuck with it. "
They grabbed each other ' s wrists and pulled, managing to join the beds together at the bottom corners. As the head of Dean ' s bed came away from the wall, there was a scrambling noise underneath and then the sound of something grabbing on to exposed springs.
" It ' s your feet, " Sam said, still holding on.
Dean squinted at him.
" It smelled your feet and thought you were dead, " Sam said.
" This is hilarious, Sam, " Dean said, slapping him away. " I ' m glad you ' re enjoying it. "
After a little more pushing and pulling, the beds were side by side against each other. They used the top sheets to tie the headboards together and keep the thing from pushing the beds apart, and spread the blankets across the middle to keep any searching hands from snaking up between.
It was quiet for nearly a minute.
" Still about half an hour until daylight, " Dean said, checking his watch.
" Could be worse, " Sam said. " We could be in northern Alaska or something, where it ' s dark for six months. "
The bedside lamp went out.
" Or that could happen, " Sam said, but that time his voice went up nearly an octave.
" I hope that old nut notices the generator needs cranking, " Dean said, grabbing one of the pillows and getting ready to swing it. If the thing came out, they could distract it with a pillow-beating until one of them got to the door. No sense making a run for it until it was in sight and getting pummeled.
There came a steady hissing from beneath them that sounded like dry leaves scattering across pavement.
In the glow from the parking lot it wasn ' t hard to see a hand feeling along the edge of the bed, snagging cloth with edges of bone.
Dean remembered several warnings about ghouls being mean biters and he decided not to test it by yanking the thing out. Maybe if he could get a pillow case over the head so it couldn ' t bite -
He settled for hissing back for the moment.
The hand stilled, then withdrew.
" Okay, " Sam whispered, " If it gets brave enough to come out - "
" Then you jump on it and I ' ll get the guns out of the trunk, " Dean said.
" I jumped the last thing, " Sam said. " Your turn. Just toss a comforter over it like a net and hold it down. "
Dean hadn ' t thought of that. The pillowcase idea hadn ' t been bad, though. Really.
The hand felt around again, then tugged at the fitted sheet still covering Dean ' s bed. Dean gathered one of the comforters in his arms and waited.
There was a long minute of stillness. Then a dragging sound...and something with a head of a vaguely humanoid shape popped up at the foot of Dean ' s side of the bed-Pangea.
Dean jumped with reflexes honed for that very thing, and there was a flurry of thuds and yelling when he landed right on the ankle-grabber. It was stronger than he expected, bony angles shifting under the comforter while he sat right on it. Sam waited only long enough to make sure Dean had the upper hand, and he broke for the door, leaving it open as he went.
Dean could hear jaws snapping as it struggled. He used his full weight to grind it into the carpeting, and punched it a few times for good measure. He was glad to hear the trunk slam, to hear Sam ' s feet slapping across the puddle-strewn pavement, to see the beam of a flashlight streak toward him.
" Dean! "
Dean looked up in time to catch something Sam was tossing him, discovering it was their camping shovel. He jammed it hard into what he hoped was a solid point of the creature beneath, pinning it in place, then jumped to the side as Sam cocked the shotgun and blew the night open along with the comforter. He shot it twice more while Dean took chunks out of it with the blade of the shovel.
There was no movement beneath what was left of the comforter when Dean gathered the edges together and threw the package out into the parking lot. Dawn was making a faint gray appearance in the charcoal of the rain, and Dean slammed the door and waited. That guy was going to come yelling down the walk at them any moment.
" Let ' s get out of here, " Sam said breathlessly. " We ' ll just tell him there ' s rats, and we shot ' em. "
Dean nodded. They grabbed their duffels and Sam trained the shotgun on the ruined comforter as they opened the door again and moved along the side of the building. They couldn ' t tell from the way the material was gathered in the middle whether the thing was still under there.
When Dean whipped the office door open, there the guy was, laying on the counter again.
This time, though, he was dead. And had been for a long time. Wisps of gray hair trailed along the counter; shreds of tattered skin and tendons loosely held the partly mummified corpse together. Dean came close enough in the dawn light to confirm that there were marks left by the shovel on the shattered ribs and pits of scattered shot in the long bones.
Sam shattered the neon of the sign and used some of the paper to make handwritten signs that said closed for repairs while Dean found their guns. They searched the back of the building for anything else that might look like it needed a final killing, and found only debris. They burned the corpse right then and there, inside where the rain wouldn ' t put him out, and let the fire smoulder.
" No continental breakfast , " Dean said. Then they got back on the road.