Indulgent author's note:
This story is a short "Exile on Main Street" coda. It had two inspirations. One was the Talking Heads' song Once In A Lifetime which this episode evoked for me, and from whence the title of the story comes.
The second was the very final images of the episode. Dean is caught like a piece of flotsam with the waves of two lives washing over him.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the neighbors are dead.
As Sam’s Charger pulls away, Dean half raises his hand. Whether it’s in a farewell wave or to call Sam back he’s unsure and he aborts the gesture, pulling the hand behind his back.
He should call Lisa. Dean knows she’ll ask how he is and he’ll tell her everything is fine, a lie worn so thin from overuse both of them can see clear through it. Words are an important currency in the economy of their relationship, but not the only one. Lisa understands how hard he found it to cash in his feelings and trade them with her. She never makes him feel bad for not wanting to talk, but she also never stops asking him questions.
Later, he thinks. He’ll call her later when maybe he can find words that mean something. He owes her that; that and so much more.
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Sundays usually start with a slow session of lovemaking, followed by a breakfast of pancakes and the works. Dean loves the way the saltiness of the bacon merges with the taste of Lisa that lingers on his lips. Sometimes he’ll have around of golf with Sid and then spend time with Ben working on his truck, or they’ll go to the lake with Lisa’s sister and her family for a picnic. It’s what people do on the weekend, in the suburbs, and it’s starting to become what Dean does too.
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Dean looks over to Sid’s place. The grass is always greener there. He and his wife Val are, were Dean corrects himself, good people. Their lives had been, by most measures average - a bell curve across the axis of tragedy and joy. In Dean’s eyes, though, they were extraordinary; people who had found contentment in their love and satisfaction in the suburbs. Right up until Dean let the monsters in.
He wonders what terrors besieged Sid and Val before they died, what in their subconscious embodied their deepest fears. Was it being slaughtered in their home for no reason by creatures they thought fictional? The irony of their nightmare hallucination being the same as their reality is too dark to consider.
Dean isn’t used to dealing with the consequences of a hunt and is unsure what to do next. Usually Sam and he would drive off into the sunset, leaving the American dream lying bloody on the plush pile carpet. Someone else’s problem; they had enough of their own. People whose lives had been ripped apart by the supernatural, left not in peace but with police investigations and truths they couldn’t tell. But now it is Dean left with the corpses and the questions that will follow. Maybe he should’ve spent more time watching police procedurals and less time watching porn on pay per view.
He takes two steps across his front lawn, and then stops. Dean’s dealt with dozens of dead bodies in his life, witnessed horrors unimaginable, but right now the thought of seeing Sid and Val lifeless in the living room has him buckling at the knees and dry retching into the azaleas. After a moment he straightens, wipes a hand across his mouth, and tries to ignore the whisper of coward in his head.
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Dean considers the blank stare of the front door and windows of the house behind him. His house. Their home. After a year the idea still feels unfamiliar, like borrowed clothes. When the Campbells, and Sam, were mocking and rubbing grimy fingers across the fabric of his life he’d been angry. But not, he now realized, at them but at the part of himself that felt ashamed in that moment of the coffee table he spent a month restoring, or the golf clubs that represented many hours of quiet frustration.
He knows when he goes inside he’ll find shards of their lives scattered across the floor. Glass shattered across memories he fought hard to make good ones for Lisa and Ben. Sometimes they got close to being good for him too, but always the bile of bitter grief would rise in his throat tainting any taste of happiness. He expects he’d find his heart next to the sofa cushions, lying shredded where Sam had left it.
He thinks that if he hurries he could make it to the mall to buy a new lamp and replace the picture frames and the chairs. But Dean knows as soon as Lisa gets home, no matter how good it looks, she’ll know that things were broken. That he was responsible for breaking them.
Dean wished that life came in flat pack form. Tab A into Slot B. Follow the instructions, tighten the connections with an Allen key.
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Maybe, he thinks, he should burn both houses to the ground. Leave only ashes. Gas and a match; everything burns. Walk away. Start again. Drive off. Move on.
He feels something wet on his fingers, and uncurls a palm to see that the keys to the Impala have left tiny wounds there. Auto stigmata. He turns the bloody keys over in his hand. He could hop in the car now; Sam barely has a ten minute start.
Dean turns his back on the road.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the neighbors are dead.