The Most Precious Gift

By Kittsbud

 

The Impala’s wiper motor strained against the heavy snow it was being forced to constantly push from the ancient car’s windscreen. On every sweep, more and more of the white crystals had accumulated until it seemed all but an impossibility that anyone could see through the glass.

Dean Winchester squinted, forcing his eyes to keep refocusing in the hope that he might, just might, see if he was about to hit something. “Dude, I told you we needed a friggin’ map of Colorado, but oh no, geekboy gotta use his high tech, super gizmo phone and route finder…” The hunter shook his head. “Great, just great. We’re lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve with our asses stuck halfway round a mountain…” He gripped the steering wheel just a little tighter than normal as he groused.

“Do you ever stop griping?” Sam ignored his brother’s constant rant and scrutinized the tiny phone’s screen with increasing frustration. The GPRS signal had become erratic about half an hour ago, and since then the route finder had obviously become very unreliable. They should have at least sighted the next town’s lights by now, but instead they were pushing their way through a whiteout that seemed to have no end.

“Gripe? Me?” Dean finally dared to look at his brother before pointing at the Chevy’s gas gauge. “Now why would I gripe when we have SO much fuel?” he spat sarcastically. “Don’t I seem to recall you saying we could fill up at the next town? Except right now there is no next town, and it’s about minus twenty outside…”

Sam’s head dropped and he knew Dean was right. All of this had been his suggestion. If Dean had had his way, they’d have been in some less than cozy motel for the night with a six pack. Not exactly full of seasonal spirit, but safe, nevertheless.

The thing was, Sam had gotten an invitation from an old friend at the last minute, and it had sounded a lot more like a real Christmas than he’d ever been privy too – even as a kid. Of course, Dean hadn’t wanted to go, which in hindsight may have been the best decision.

“Have you tried your cell? Maybe you can get better reception than me?” Sam knew it was a waste of time, but once the Impala ran out of gas, that meant no heaters, and no heaters out here meant…

Dean shook his head but risked taking a hand from the wheel to tug his cell from his pocket. It told exactly the same tale as Sam’s. “No signal,” he admitted, tossing the device on the rear seat with a snort as the Chevy’s V8 began to cough sporadically. “Hey, it’s Christmas right? Maybe if we’re lucky Santa Claus will give us a tow…”

“Dean, that’s so not funny. I don’t even have a winter coat in the trunk…”

“Me either,” the elder Winchester admitted, letting the Impala roll to a stop as its engine died. “I guess we have two choices: Sit here and definitely freeze our asses off before morning, or walk for it and hope we find a house before we turn into Frosty the Snowman.”

“I’d rather walk,” Sam conceded, thinking that if they were at least moving it would afford them some warmth. Sitting in the car until it was an igloo didn’t sound too appealing. “Minus twenty?” He asked and winced, knowing it could very well be colder.

“Yeah,” Dean suddenly smirked. “Ya know, when I told you to chill out with the brunette waitress back at the diner, I didn’t mean literally.” He winked, and without waiting for Sam’s customary scowl pushed open the Chevy’s door. The immediate inrush of cold air and snow took his breath. “Sonofa…”

Sam followed out his own door, noting that his boots were already sinking in the slushy white mass well above ankle level. It was going to be a hard trudge anywhere.

Already feeling the chill, he pulled his collar up over his reddening ears and slipped on a pair of gloves his brother tossed from the trunk. “Got a flashlight?”

Dean nodded silently and then tossed one over, retrieving one for himself at the same time. “So, which way Mr. Oracle? We could do with a freaky vision right about now…”

“Dean…”

“Maybe you could find us some bar with cute “Santa’s helper” waitresses…” Another impish grin and slightly lewd gesture followed. “Call it a Christmas gift from you to me…”

“Dean! We’re freezing to death in the middle of nowhere and all you can think of is getting laid?” If nothing else, the elder Winchester was providing entertainment as they slogged through a particularly large drift. Entertainment Sammy could do without, but entertainment nonetheless.

“Okay, well can you think of anything better, Rudolph?” Dean swung his light around in the darkness, but there was little to see but streams of white rushing towards him as if he were in the Millennium Falcon as it hit hyperdrive. The snow was just coming down too hard to see much further than a few feet ahead.

Sam didn’t answer and Dean noted his brother had stopped moving and was now staring to their left. The elder hunter frowned quizzically and suddenly realized his eyebrows were stiff – no frozen. Time was running out. He patted his hair with fingers that looked almost blue. The normally carefully preened mop was frozen solid too.

“Sammy…”

“Dean! I think I see a house over there. Faint lights….” Sam didn’t wait for an answer but began to forge ahead. He was already losing the feeling in his extremities, and if they didn’t both find shelter soon they’d begin to get frostbite.

For once, Dean followed his brother with not so much as a word. Sam would be right; he had to be.

Within five minutes, the welcoming porch light of a small wooden house came into view and Dean sighed with relief. The cussing in the car, the waitress jokes, they’d all been a front – his usual one when things looked bad. Hell, he and Sam had fought off almost ever supernatural creature known to man, and he would have been pissed big time if they’d ended up dead in a blizzard at Christmas just because of some junky piece of technology.

“Next time, we buy a map,” he muttered as they at last stumbled half frozen onto the well-kept but slippery decking of the mystery house.

“Next time, we stay in the cheap motel with the six pack,” Sam acknowledged as he rapped at the porch door, his teeth chattering as he shook from head to toe.

Dean rubbed his hands together and grinned, realizing ice had formed on his brother’s stubble making it look like he had a white beard. When Sam scowled at his smirk he couldn’t resist. “Dude, you look like freakin’ Santa. All you need is a red cape. If these folks have kids you’ll be mugged.”

Sam rubbed at the ice and impatiently knocked again while he still had feeling in his hands. The gloves he’d put on were already soaked through, as were both brothers’ jeans and jackets.

“The lights are on, but nobody’s home,” Dean offered helpfully as he peered through a frost covered window to a darkened interior within. “Man, looks like they only got candles in there. Maybe the electric is out…”

Before he could pry any further, the large white door finally opened a crack and a tiny, weathered looking woman popped a head around the frame. She appeared to be about ninety and wore her hair in a bun, reminding Sam of Grandma Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.

“Excuse me ma’am, but do you have a telephone we could use? We broke down back on the road…” Sam didn’t realize how cold he was until he heard the muted sound of his own voice as he stammered out the words.

The little woman examined both brothers over her wire rimmed, stereotypical glasses for just a second and then tugged back the door further. “Why you poor things! You must be frozen! Come in, come in!”

Dean looked at Sam, obviously concerned that the frail old woman was inviting two complete strangers into her home without so much as asking their names. Still, she was right, they were frozen, and maybe once they got warm and dry they could offer up a little advice on home safety to the old dear.

“This way.” The tiny woman ushered the pair into a small parlor decked out in full Christmas décor. Two three tiered candelabras provided the only illumination save for a roaring open fire. “Now, you boys take off your clothes and get dry while I get you a warm cocoa.”

“Ahem,” Dean cleared his throat. “Ma’am, do you have a phone?”

“It’s Martha, my dear, Martha Whitaker.” She offered up a wizened hand. “Folks tend to call me Ma Whitaker around here.”

“Um, Ma…Mrs. Whitaker, do you have a phone?” Sam reiterated his brother’s question in his usual soft tones. “We need to get some gas for our car and a motel for the night.”

Martha shook her head apologetically and continued towards the door. “I never had use for those new-fangled things.”

“No phone?” Sam mouthed incredulously.

Dean couldn’t help but smirk. “See, even the old lady thinks technology sucks. I mean, come on, we wouldn’t be here right now if your phone…”

Sam rolled his eyes but knew it was no use arguing. Dean was going to be ribbing him over this fiasco for days. “So, Mr. Smart Alec, what do we do, stay here all night?”

A disembodied voice from the hallway answered, proving that Ma Whitaker may have been old, but her hearing was better than a bat’s sonar. “Why of course you can stay here. I have two spare beds all made up…”

Dean grimaced and glanced around the room. Ma Whitaker was just too nice. It was uncanny. I feel like I’m in one of those horror movies where you get invited in and then get chopped up.

Still, the house was endearing in its own way. It was so old fashioned it could belong in another century. And yet, somehow there was a warmth here, a feeling of love that made him want to just sit in one of the big old armchairs and snooze.

Sam must have read his brother’s thoughts and slid into the chair next to the fire, letting his hands play close to the flames until sensation in his fingers returned. “Man, that was close out there.” He looked up, noticing Dean eyeing the room. “Think Martha’s all alone out here? Kinda isolated for someone her age.”

“Yeah, remind me to have a talk with her about letting strangers in. Next time it might not be the nice Winchester boys knocking on her porch door.” Dean fidgeted as he watched Sam take off his jacket and flannel shirt and place them near the fire to dry. For some reason, it felt odd undressing in the old woman’s home.

As if psychic, Martha seemed to sense his thoughts and returned carrying two steaming hot mugs of cocoa. “This won’t warm you up unless you get those wet clothes off, sonny.”

Before Dean knew what had hit him, faster than a Wendigo, stealthier than a Shtriga, Ma Whitaker was at his side, prying off his jacket and shirt with the strength of an ox – no, a Bigfoot.

Dean instinctively jerked back and then felt his face blush the color of crimson. “I…I’m um, fine…”

Martha wasn’t convinced and carried on unabashed. “Nonsense, young man! You’re drenched. You’ll have pneumonia by morning if you don’t dry off!”

Dean looked pleadingly across the room as Ma Whitaker attempted to undress him like a baby. Sam however, had no intention of coming to the rescue. Instead, he was doubled over laughing at his brother’s helpless plight.

Ghost hunter, soldier of light, beaten into submission by an old woman with a cup of cocoa as her only weapon.

In the end, Dean conceded and pulled off the remainder of his shirt, folding it in front of the fire along with Sam’s. “I’m fine now, really,” he spoke through gritted teeth while sending another ice-cold glare at Sammy that said “you’re so gonna pay for that.”

Sam grinned but then cleared his throat as he caught the old woman staring at him with a small smile of her own over her glasses.

“You two shouldn’t bicker as much as you do. It’s quite obvious how much you care for one another…” Martha moved to stoke the fire and repositioned the boys’ clothes.

Dean grimaced, uncertain how to take the comment. “Um…ma’am, we don’t exactly swing that way. We’re…”

“Brothers.” Martha finished for him knowingly. “I knew it the minute I set eyes on the pair of you.”

“You did?” Sam took a sip of his cocoa and noticed that Dean was eyeing the nearby table that had a small buffet of Christmas fare piled upon it, as if ready for guests. Any minute now and the elder Winchester would make a dive for a drumstick, he was sure. Dean never did seem to quit eating if food was available.

“Yessir,” Martha turned, just in time to catch Dean’s hand straying for the nearest platter. With a swift move she knocked his palm clear and he blushed once again as if he’d been caught stealing something precious. “Sonny, don’t you have any manners? Ask before you take!”

Dean recoiled and winced. “Man, it’s worse than spending a night with Missouri Moseley,” he muttered through gritted teeth.

Sam almost choked with laughter but managed to stifle his chuckle by placing a hand over his mouth. Just because Dean was making an ass out of himself didn’t mean he had to. “So, what made you say we’re brothers?” He pushed, somehow needing to know.

Ma Whitaker picked up the platter of chicken and offered it up to Sam, who gratefully took a piece. She eyed Dean mischievously and then brought the plate around under his nose. As he tucked in, she finally answered the younger Winchester’s question with a small sigh.

“I have two grandsons,” she explained, looking at a small photo on the side dresser. “You two boys remind me so much of them. It’s uncanny.” Martha took a seat. “David and Shaun are in the forces. They’re away right now, but I’m so proud of what they do.”

“Iraq?” Sam queried, munching hungrily on a drumstick.

Martha’s gaze seemed to go distant and she didn’t directly answer. “So many boys out there that don’t come home…Davy and Shaun should have been home for Christmas, but now they can’t make it…”

“The food, the beds, all for your grandsons?” Sam was relieved. At first, the old lady had seemed too nice, and when the food and beds had been offered he’d inwardly had the same weird thoughts as his brother. He relaxed a little. “Maybe they’ll get home for the New Year?” he suggested helpfully.

“Maybe,” Martha still seemed distant, her eyes focused on the far wall rather than her guests. After a moment, she came to her senses and patted Dean’s knee unexpectedly.

The elder hunter almost choked on a chicken bone at her touch. Jeez, she’s after takin’ off my jeans now!

If Martha noticed his flinch she didn’t show it. “So, what do you boys do? Two strong young men like yourselves ought to have good careers ahead of you.”

“We um, we help people…” Sam didn’t know what else to say. Feeding Martha their usual spiel on Christmas Eve just didn’t seem right. She’d saved their skins, she deserved better.

Strangely, Martha accepted the weak answer without asking for more. Pushing up from her seat she looked at Sam with a faint smile. “Your brother is so much like my Davy. Definitely the rogue of the two.” She winked at Dean. “I just have something to find…”

Once Martha had once again vanished, Dean sat forward on his chair. “Dude, Ma Clampett is one freaky old mare. Missouri has nothing on this one.”

Sam chuckled. “You’re just mad because she had you pegged right from the start.” He leaned across, choosing another drumstick to tuck into. “Listen, man, I know she’s a little eccentric, but she’s kinda a sweet old lady too. You gotta admit this is the pleasantest Christmas we’ve spent in a long time, maybe ever…”

Dean’s eyes narrowed as he searched for Ma before taking more chicken too. If he was honest, it was kind of cozy in the old house. Just like living in a scene from a greetings card. He felt his shoulders relax and he sat back, taking in the sweet odors of the burning firewood, and lavender from some unknown arrangement on the window sill. Why couldn’t he and Sam have had a Grandma like Martha? Why couldn’t they have had a normal life like this? A normal family?

Dean felt his mind begin to drift away to sleep as the scene became just too perfect, but then, right on cue, Martha was back. Not wanting another slap, he quickly pulled himself straight in the chair and hid the chicken bones he’d munched on out of sight under a napkin.

“I have a little something for you boys,” Martha stated, one hand behind her back as if she were bringing in gifts for toddlers. “Something I want you to cherish always as a little gift from me.”

Sam instantly shook his head. “Um, ma’am, we couldn’t, really…”

“Now no arguing, young man! I had these made for Davy and Shaun, but I can’t very well give them to them if they’re not here. I know they’d want you to have them too. You’re good boys. I can tell.” Two small carefully wrapped boxes appeared in the elderly woman’s hands and she offered one up to each brother with a small smile.

“Really, we can’t…” Dean reaffirmed what Sam had already said, but his eyes were glued to the small package. It had been so long since he or Sam had been given a real Christmas present. Sure, they always bought one another a gift, but what could one guy give to another? In the end, it had always been weaponry – not exactly topical or appropriate on Jesus’ birthday.

“I insist!” Martha all but stomped.

“Well…” Dean’s fingers moved to unfasten the tiny ribbon on the box, his stomach churning as he felt a rush better than any hunt could inspire. A real Christmas gift, a gift neither brother had any clue about.

SLAP!

For the third time in a row, Dean felt his hand whacked away from its intended target. He looked up, eyes wide like a scolded child.

Martha wagged a finger, and chuckled. “Now even an unruly young man like you should know you don’t open your presents until Christmas morning!”

This time, even Dean’s face cracked into a smirk and he nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Morning it is!” He made a small salute from his forehead with his finger and slipped the little box into the pocket of his drying jacket. Sam did the same for fear he too would be whacked by the finger of geriatric doom.

“Now then,” Martha walked to a small cabinet. “Who’d like some eggnog before bed?”

Neither brother refused.

It was a strange Christmas Eve, one that Dean and Sam could never have expected, but it was fun even though their host was three times their age. No, it was more than fun – it was normal, it was something they’d never had.

Martha had no TV, no phone, nothing but her own brand of quirky humor and wisdom, but it was more than enough because it gave the Winchesters a taste of what a real family could be.

After two more drinks, all three retired to well aired, well covered beds, and as Dean and Sam sank into their quilts, both half expected the old woman to come in and tuck them in. She was the grandma they’d never had.

The linen smelled fresh, inviting, irresistible after months on the road, and in minutes both brothers were fast asleep, for once dreaming no dark, terrifying thoughts.



* * * *



Sam moved an arm in his slumber, expecting to have to shove the quilt away to stretch. He could still smell the freshness of the cotton sheets and the lavender from Martha’s window arrangement. Damn, it was hard to get up when something was so inviting. Still, as he nudged his elbow forward he realized there was no quilt on top of him.

Instead, there was a dull rapping noise that refused to go away, calling, demanding he open his eyes and be attentive.

Sam yawned and forced an eye open. What he saw made him sit bolt upright and suddenly become wide awake.

He was in the passenger seat of the Impala curled into the usual position he took when napping while Dean drove. At his side, the elder brother still snoozed, a look of deep contentment on his face.

“Dean?”

The knocking noise came again and Sam realized someone was banging hard on the Chevy’s side window. He tried to open it, but the mechanism was frozen solid. Frowning, the young hunter pushed hard on the door until it yielded to his strength.

“Thank the Lord! I was beginning to think you’d frozen to death in there!” A small stocky looking man in a Sheriff’s uniform stood back to allow Sam to exit the Impala. “How long you two be stranded here?” Without waiting for a reply, he walked around the Chevy, taking in how much snow had covered it. “You’re lucky you haven’t been here all night. Temperature dropped real low. Even lower than usual in these parts…you’d have been popsicles for sure…”

Sam frowned and noted that Dean was now exiting the driver’s door to join him, a look of utter confusion on his face as he rubbed at his eyes blearily. The elder hunter mouthed “what the..?” before realizing their company was a cop.

“There was a house…” Sam shook his head, looking around for Martha’s humble abode, but all he could see for miles were mountainous drifts of snow and the police cruiser’s snow-chained tire tracks.

The Sheriff’s brow creased. “Son, there are no houses around this stretch of road, at least, not since the sixties. Old Ma Whitaker’s place used to be right over there, but they bulldozed it years ago after she died.”

“Old Ma Whitaker?” Dean moved to his brother’s side, incredulous.

“Yeah, real nice old lady. I can still just about remember her.” The Sheriff’s face broke into a smile at memories long past. “Folks say she pined to death. See, her son and daughter-in-law died in a car crash and she brought up their kids on her own. David and Shaun I think it was…Anyway, those pair were real close. When the war in Vietnam erupted they joined up together. The story goes that their tour was supposed to be up just before Christmas, and ol’ Ma had the house all ready for their homecoming, Christmas presents and all. Then she got the telegram they were MIA on their last mission…”

Sam and Dean both looked to one another, but words escaped them.

The cop took their silence to mean they’d found his tale somewhat tedious and sighed. “Well, I guess I better go radio for Hank’s tow truck. No way am I gonna try pulling your car outta that drift with my cruiser, we’d all be stuck out here. If you boys will excuse me a second I’ll go call it in.” The Sheriff ambled back to his Ford and leaned through the window to unclip the radio mike.

Once he was out of earshot Dean scratched his head and whispered, “Dude, what the hell just frickin’ happened? Because last time I checked I was in some big ass bed all warm and snug!”

Sam nodded and fumbled inside his jacket pocket. There was only one way to know if they’d imagined the whole thing – even though he was pretty sure already that they hadn’t. After a moment, his spidery fingers touched something hard and he pulled out Martha’s gift. He looked to Dean. “You got yours?”

Dean tentatively checked his own jacket and retrieved the present from the previous evening. With a shrug he offered, “Well, it is Christmas morning now. I guess we should open them?”

Together, both brothers carefully unwrapped the shiny foil paper covering their gifts to reveal two small jewelry boxes. Simultaneously, they popped the lids to uncover two identical silver St. Christopher pendants.

Dean nimbly plucked his gift from its box and flicked it over with his thumb. What was engraved on the reverse side brought one simple, heartfelt tear to his eye.

Gulping, Sam dared to look on the back of his St. Christopher and instantly realized what could break his normally “tough nut” brother’s façade so easily.

Beautifully etched into the silver was Ma’s grandson, Shaun Whitaker’s initials. Sam’s initials. And with those letters a simple, perfect inscription.

Warriors, brothers, friends

Sam almost had to choke back his own tears as he took in the message from beyond the grave. He grasped the pendant in his hand, knowing Dean’s gift bore his initials too, and the same sincere message.

Martha Whitaker hadn’t given them a pendant each, but something so much more valuable. She had given them the most precious gift of all – the one thing she couldn’t give her own grandsons. Ma had given the Winchester brothers the gift of life.

Dean rubbed the stray tear from his eye and watched as Sam placed the delicate symbol of luck for travelers around his neck.

As Sam noticed his brother watching, Dean canted his head, acknowledging an unspoken understanding between them both.

No matter where their journey might take them, they would always remember the ghost of old Ma Whitaker, who had saved their lives one wintry Christmas Eve.


The End


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