Author: Guede Mazaka
By the time John meets her, she’d already been had and left with only a rundown shack of a bar that’d been condemned for two years running and still up only due to bureaucratic laziness, and a little dirty-blond scratch of a kid who’d done a number on John’s shins. He’d just been poking around the front windows, trying to see if anyone was even in, and apparently he or she had taken exception. John had hauled the screaming, nail-wielding brat off the ground and gotten a rifle jabbed into his neck. It’d stayed there till after he’d passed over his wallet with the pictures of his boys. And—
--he’d said nothing but “Yes” to her question, and he’d known by the way she didn’t ask anything at all, not even if his wife was watching the boys, that she was what he’d heard.
He put the kid down, but she ran him down the road anyway. John comes back that night, third night the place is open, and already he can pick out four or five faces huddled over maps or lounging across the bar, crosses and charms dangling from their necks and smiles flashing at her. She does a good business, obviously knows her way around a bar and around some eyebrow-raising comments, so he just gets himself a beer and a chair in the back and lets her get to it.
John is sitting by the backdoor, and he notices the odd drafts coming from it right away. It takes him a little longer to notice they’re being timed to go when Ellen’s back is turned, and then a second of using his glass as a mirror to catch a glimpse of one eye behind the cracked door. He pauses and the door immediately shuts.
After a longer moment, John buries his sour smile in his beer. He’s already called Jim and spoken to the boys; they’d be asleep by now, so no point in dwelling on them. At least, they’d better be asleep.
He’s listening for it by now, so he knows when the door is gingerly pushed open again. The kid looks even younger than Sammy and should’ve long since been in bed.
Something thunks down right in front of him and John looks up. Ellen turns to slap a damp rag over the table one over, then slides back to grab the ash-tray from John’s table and put it back. “You’ve been sitting there long enough. What’ll it be for you?”
John shrugs and pulls out his Sunday-school smile, lifting his beer to her. “Just this, thanks. And a two-hundred-year-old kris dagger blessed by a bomoh.”
Maybe he should’ve gone without the smile, because her shoulders stiffen. Then she shrugs herself and walks off. “It’s out on loan. Come back next week.”
The kid isn’t so careful then. The sound of the door closing isn’t loud enough to attract anyone’s attention who isn’t already looking, but it carries. Ellen’s stride breaks a little, then picks up again, and John thinks that it is her child, after all. He has his own to worry about, and God, does he. Hundreds of miles off, trusting them and Jim to handle themselves till he gets back.
“’night,” he mutters as he gets up.
* * *
“Pontianak?” The kris gets slapped down next to John’s beer.
“What?” His right shoulder aches from whipping shovelfuls of dirt out of the ground, and his ear still is ringing from Sammy’s shrieks as Jim had taken the phone away. John had managed to get home for a couple days in between jobs, but he hasn’t wrapped up this one yet and he can’t take the kids out on it. “Oh. Thanks.”
Ellen pulls a tall, foamy one for a loud-mouther who’s just slapped himself down on a stool at the other end. “I want that back by the end of the week.”
Dean may be almost old enough now, with the way he’d been quizzing John on tracking signs, but that doesn’t mean anything yet. He can’t come till he can handle Sam too, because hell if John knows how to most of the time, and the boy is only…a boy. “Sure.”
He lays his arm down on the counter and scoops the kris into his sleeve, then pauses. A sliver of head and two big eyes are sticking out from the shelves beneath the bar.
“You’re taking Daddy’s stuff,” they say in a piping, accusing voice. They’ve got almost the same look in them as Sam does whenever he starts asking again why they’re so different from other people.
This isn’t John’s kid, though, so he makes himself smile tightly while he digs around in his pocket for money to cover the drink. “I’m just borrowing it. I’ll bring it back.”
“You and everyone else.” The rest of the kid twists out of the shelf—rail-thin, knock-knees suddenly reminding John of Dean, and God, his eldest must be about ready to hit his growth spurt—and runs over to grab Ellen’s leg.
It’s a girl. John thinks.
“Don’t bother him,” Ellen says, reaching down to give her a pat on the head. She ducks away, but then grabs her mother’s hands and hangs onto it so Ellen’s got to do her next two drinks one-handed.
“Yeah, Johnny keeps his word,” calls a bystander.
John grimaces, then recognizes who it is and revises his idea of wearing himself out for the night by taking offense to the familiarity. He hasn’t seen Tom in over a year, and the man’s good in a tight spot and reasonable in a complicated one, so John invites him over for a drink. Tom’s on his way north to deal with the spring rising of wendigos, but he spares John a couple hours of ribald, serious, bitter conversation.
Afterward, when John steps up to settle the bill, he leaves a couple extra greenbacks and after a moment, a coil of leather around a charm he’s just weaseled out of a Navajo shaman. He figures that’ll cover the rent of the kris.
* * *
“Can have this back,” Ellen says curtly, slapping some money down in front of him. She frowns, looking around the empty place—hunters aren’t much more diurnal than the monsters they go after—and then comes back to him. Her eyes measure the odd hang of his coat on his left side and the shake in his hand as he takes up the bills. Then she nods towards the pool table in the back. “On second thought, give those back and get up there. Keeping the first aid kit stocked doesn’t come cheap around here.”
John gives her the dagger back in between adjusting the wraps on his arm to less hinder his elbow movement. He’s cleaned it good, and he can see the appreciation in her eyes. “Thanks, ma’am.”
“All taken care of?” She has her sleeves rolled up and while she’s tidying up, one of them starts to slide. When she pushes it back, he sees a jagged v-shaped scar, the right shape for some kind of jaw, on her bicep.
“Yeah. Thank you for the help.” John gets off the table and glances around.
Ellen snorts. “Jo’s at school. What do you want with her anyway?”
School. An image of Dean complaining about some school subject flashes into John’s head, and he spends a moment trying to remember which one before he manages to cut off the reflex. “I left her that—”
“Well, it was kind of collateral, seeing as I had one of her daddy’s knives. It…” John thinks now that this sounds mean and petty, and he should know better than to leave things he’s only got to take back later “…meant it for one of my boys. When they’re old enough for it to be useful.”
For a moment, Ellen looks narrow-eyed at him. Then she turns without a word and heads into the back, through the door in the wall.
After a moment, John follows a few yards behind. He can see a cramped apartment back there, sigils on the window-frames and dream-catchers—real ones, not the trashy tourist ones—on the walls. The smell of sandalwood and salt drifts back towards him. There’s a ragged old stuffed bear in the corner, a framed picture of a three-person family next to it, and hanging on the wall over it, a sawed-off shotgun.
“Here you go,” Ellen says, coming back out. She drops the necklace in his hand and keeps on moving, picking up a rag without even slowing a step.
John tucks it back in his pocket.
“I’ll tell her. You’ll be long gone before she gets back from school.” The way Ellen says it, it’s more of a statement than an accusation.
And it’s a true one, but it still doesn’t sit right with him. He doesn’t like people assuming things about him, he doesn’t like them telling him what kind of man he is, and he doesn’t like letting people down. He means to protect his boys and that’s what he does, and he means to be the best damn hunter he can to get that demon and that’s what he tries to do. And he means to remember, like he almost forgot in those first couple weeks after Mary’s death, that the difference between him and the other hunters he meets is that he’s got a clear idea of what he’s after. Lots of them are good people, but when it comes down to it, they don’t do much more than chase shadows in the dark.
“You saying you won’t be?” Ellen asks. It’s been a while and he’s still standing there, he guesses. She doesn’t sound like she’d really welcome either possible answer.
“No, I’m not saying that,” John replies, already on his way out.
* * *
Winter break’s started for the damned school that’s given his boys bad cases of the flu, so John trucks them over to Caleb’s, hoping the man’s girlfriend is still around. She seemed motherly enough to him, though he’s not that fond of her cooing over ‘pagan culture.’ It keeps her from asking much about what Caleb does with his gear at night, John presumes.
John kisses Dean and Sam on their fever-hot heads before he goes. Sammy’s been on-off sleeping, but his temperature’s been on a decided decline for the past two days; Dean would be the same way if even sick he wasn’t a hyperactive little br-boy and seemed determined to keep up his fever with all his jumping. But he’s been fed and rested as much as John can make him, and he should be all right, too.
“What kind of job is it?” Dean pipes up just as John’s leaning back, thinking it’s all as well as he can have it. “When are you coming back?”
“What?” Sam wakes up then, one eye slitting open. Then both widen accusingly and his whole face flushes even more. “Dad! Dad, Christmas is in five days, and—”
And the ensuing argument carries John over several hundred miles of road and through systematically blowing the heads off hodags in northern Wisconsin. Further, actually—he makes an emergency pitstop on the way back and has to go back to the truck before he can take care of business because he punches a rack of tourist postcards with cheery hodags on them that aren’t a damn thing like the bloodthirsty bastards he’s just been…
…roadhouse is pretty full, and apparently there’s been a peak in monsters lately because the washroom’s got a line and all of them are for hunters rinsing the kill off them. John gets to chatting with a one-eyed, chawing hunter about lunar cycles while he’s waiting, and finally starts to calm down as the wheels in his head start turning. Weather phenomena. Cyclic patterns in the supernatural.
By the time John gets out of there, the fatigue is starting to set in, and it’s just hard enough to keep his vision from blurring for him to know he’s not getting back out to the truck yet. He grabs a seat at the back and orders a coffee before he notices the breeze coming from the door beside him.
“You should go to sleep. Don’t make your mother worry,” he mutters with his first sip.
“Don’t tell me what to do.” The door slams loud enough to get heads turning.
Grimacing, John wonders if all young children sound alike when they’re mad. He works on drinking his coffee faster, but it’s scalding hot, even for him, and he’s still got a third left when Ellen swings by him.
“Sorry. She was in a temper today,” Ellen says. She has to make an effort to smile at him, frustration and tiredness limning her eyes.
John lifts one corner of his mouth. “I can imagine.”
Ellen’s smile flicks away like the nail she uses to send a stubbed-out cigarette butt sailing into the ash-tray. She frowns down at the scarred, chipped table one over. “How are your boys?”
What with all the traffic that comes through here, John’s pretty impressed she remembers. “Down with the flu.”
“And down on you?” She arches an eyebrow at whatever look he’s got on his face. “Your kids are sick and you’re out here?”
John puts his mug down carefully, then extends one finger and cracks his grimy nail against the handle. His throat’s gone too tight for him to answer right away, and even once it’s loosened up, he still feels like snarling. “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”
“No. No, you don’t. Coffee’s dollar-eighty. You can just drop it by the till.” She slides back to neutral and walks off.
She’s making it easy for him to go to the point where she’s practically got the shotgun out at him again. Probably why he makes a point himself, standing by the register so he can hand over the money himself. That and something extra.
Ellen raises her eyebrow again. “Thought it was for your boy.”
“I’m saving one for him. This is another one. Kids shouldn’t—”
“You leave mine be and I’ll leave yours,” Ellen snaps. She looks at it for another moment. Then a tired furrow digs its way between her eyebrows and her mouth twists. She throws the charm into the change basket of the register drawer. “Jesus, John, don’t you think I’d already have that on hand for my girl?”
It takes him a moment to get over the oddness of her using his name. “Well, you can never be too careful.”
“Or too bull-headed stupid.” Ellen reaches under the bar and comes up with a Styrofoam cup, which she hands over before John can answer. “One for the road. Get home to your kids.”
John bites it back for a second, which is more than he usually gives. “Settle yours down. Thanks, Ellen.”
Her startled, half-annoyed laugh hits his back. He’s already got his hand on the handle to the front door.
* * *
Ellen’s turns into a semi-regular stop when John happens to be in the area. It takes more than a couple visits before Jo stops scowling at him behind doors and comes out with a liturgical candle in one hand and her teddy in the other, but the bear’s wearing that amulet John left. The muscles back by his molars and jaw-hinge ache a little when he smiles at that.
Jo reminds John a lot of Dean, though she generally moves a lot quieter than either of his sons. She usually hangs around the edges, or half-naps on a bench while Ellen and John talk about where the hunters have been moving, what the new hot spot is. Whether John’ll be able to borrow something from the armory of Ellen’s dead man—one hell of a collection, the man had had—on this trip or if he’ll have to grit his teeth, go home and wait for some other hunter to bring it back. If they come back.
Ellen’s the county office of the hunters. She passes on information, holds mail, takes names…erases them. It’s not a job she seems to relish, but she does it with scrupulous care and impeccable accuracy.
“My baby’s got no daddy because of what he was doing, so you can’t say that I like you hunters all much now,” she tells John over roast-beef sandwiches. “But I can’t just take her and run. Doesn’t matter where we’d go—something’ll be out there.”
“Safer with all of us coming through?” John asks.
She quirks an eyebrow at him. “I do what I can. Funny that you say that, though.”
They talk a lot about their kids. John’s about the only hunter with an actual family somewhere—at least one with which he keeps in touch. Other hunters, they got into it because it got personal with them first and they couldn’t let it lie with the bodies in the graveyard, or they got into it because they’re good at hunting, but no good at being with people. And Ellen likes to spark him about that; woman doesn’t pull punches, for all that she understands what he’s doing with Sam and Dean.
He sparks her back for how Jo runs rampant around the place, kicking and biting and not having a peck of manners, it seems. It’s good for a girl to know how to fight—John’s no idiot about that—but he’s been brought up so that girls and boys should have a sense of…of what’s right and proper. Honestly, he’s never quite sure what to do with Jo and he’s pretty sure the girl knows it with the way she is around him. She never seems happy for him to come or go, though she quiets down considerably when he’s talking trade with Ellen.
“Yeah. Yeah, I went out with him. Had to fight him over it, because he was one of those real old-fashioned, protect-the-homestead types, but I figured better knowing what was going on than sitting at home.” Ellen’s got more scars besides that bite, and though John’s never seen her in action, she handles every weapon he’s asked to borrow like she made it herself. “Saw him die.”
“I’m sorry,” John says after a moment.
“Yeah.” She turns her head away for a few seconds. “Jo? Jo, I can hear you messing around back there—you leave that laundry alone or I’ll be teaching you to do the washing two years early.”
He tells her about Mary a few months down the line, after Ellen’s asked him point-blank why he’s dumb enough to go up against a demon when he’s never even said exactly what it was he needed all that extra information for. Ellen listens, but John doesn’t get to hear about Jo’s daddy for another three months. In the meantime, Jo gets old enough to start bringing the coffee over to him whenever he’s in that early in the night.
* * *
There’s once, a couple days after the anniversary and after Dean looking so damn much like Mary while asking John if they’re old enough yet to help. Something about the way the light hits him, and how much his eyes plead.
Ellen isn’t in the best of moods either for some reason that she’s never ever told John, and after which he’s never ever asked. He drives up while she’s slopping mop-water in the back-yard and they get to sniping at each other for other people, and then his hands are in her hair and she’s digging her fingers deep in his back-pocket, her hips moving harshly against the split-rail siding so it rattles. It’s cold enough for their air to condense around them so they can’t really see each other’s faces.
He might have had an earlier acquaintance with Jack Daniels, too. Maybe that’s in her mouth—John hitches, his old-man upbringing is still around enough to leave him a little bit shocked at that, and Ellen swears a blue streak as she wrenches herself deeper around him.
He’s pretty sure he doesn’t say her name. He knows she doesn’t say his, because that’s the first time she ever told him the name of Jo’s father.
John lets Ellen down off the wall and mechanically brushes them down till she slaps at his hands, her hair over her face and a constant stream of curses coming out from behind it. Which isn’t that long afterward.
He gets back in the truck and drives off—drives for miles and miles and finally accidentally ends up in a two-day ghost-hunt that has Sam angry at him for weeks later after he does make it home. He’d forgotten to call about the delay till the second day.
* * *
“We don’t serve bastards here,” Jo says. She gives the edge of John’s table a hard shove and keeps on walking.
Blinking, John looks after her, and then looks around and sees some of the younger hunters staring at her as well. The hairs on the back of his neck were still bristling when Ellen swung down in front of him, looking as close to sorry as she ever got. “I apologize for that.”
“’s all right. Though I guess I’m gonna miss my coffee,” John says.
Ellen narrows her eyes and tightens her nostrils. “You are one thick son of a bitch, John.” She taps her fingers on the table. “That better have been a one-night-stand.”
“That wasn’t even about you, or me.” It’s funny how he’s relieved and more worried all at once, kind of like how he feels about Sam a lot of the time. “Anyway, I didn’t hear you calling after me.”
“Yeah, well, if I’d known it’d take two years for you to show your damn face again…” She sighs and looks away, catching Jo staring at them from the bar. A grimace passes over Ellen’s face as Jo quickly drops her gaze to the glasses she’s stacking. “She’s grown up some since then.”
John chews on his lip a little, still not liking the looks Jo’s been getting. “I noticed. Maybe you should—”
“She knows how to use the shotgun, damn it. And she got a nice six-inch serrated hunting knife for her birthday,” Ellen snorts. She shifts in her seat, putting her arms down on the table-top to get more comfortable. “You start giving your boys something besides hand-me-downs yet?”
“Dean got his first rifle last—” And then John stops, having to think about how all of a sudden they’ve fallen in again. He looks down at the table, back up at Jo, and then down again, thinking now about how tall Dean is, how he didn’t really realize it when he was home but only now how his eldest is getting so broad in the shoulders. And Sammy’s getting that weedy look, ready to shoot up himself.
Ellen shoots him a glance from the side that’s sharp and bone-tired, weary and wary. “Jo’ll come round again. She just missed you, you know. You come back more than the rest.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I missed…” John digs his nail into the table, sliding it up beneath a splinter. He twists and the sliver of wood comes off, skipping along the surface. He’s just started out on this job, and all of a sudden he wants to be back with his boys again. They’re near old enough, maybe, much though he sometimes wishes they’d stay young forever. “…she knows what I am.”
“We both do, John.” After another moment, Ellen pushes herself back and stands up, on to the bearded cock-of-the-walk who’s easing up to her daughter now. “Doesn’t make you any less of a bastard, though. What you want with the coffee?”
“Saffron and sassafras,” John says after a moment. He’s too far out to turn around and pick them up now, and anyway he needs to let this sit a while in him. “And a side of his conceited ass.”
He jerks his chin at the braggart laying it on to Jo, who’s smiling too much for John’s liking. Or Ellen’s—he knows by the way Ellen’s hands twitch by her sides, like she wants to swing them around in fists—but Ellen stands her ground. And after a moment, Jo sends the idiot off with half the place laughing at his ignorant ass.
“She’s not yours,” Ellen says. And quieter: “Not all mine either—that’s what happens with bringing them into it. Leave it be, John. You aren’t around enough to have a claim. But I’ll get you that coffee. And the rest.”
Like usual, Ellen leaves John not sitting all that comfortable. But she does bring him the coffee, and after a few more false starts, they do have a talk on what he’s missed, good enough for him to get over his annoyance and start thinking about working this area more often. Ellen’s been saving up a lot of information that’s pointing to the demon, and lately John’s been feeling a little more pressure, a little more push back to his pushes so he’s thinking he might be getting there, finally.
“You left this,” Jo says when he goes to pay. She pulls up the amulet from the change drawer. “I’m not old enough to worry that Teddy needs one now, thanks.”
“Well, leave it anyway,” John replies after a moment. “Sam and Dean, they’re okay too.”
Jo twists her mouth like her mom. “Great for them. What, you wanna leave it as collateral or something? You just put us clean out of saffron.”
“Sure.” John takes his change and turns around. He doesn’t get anything tossed at him, and after a moment, he hears something soft clink down with all the coins just before Jo closes the drawers. By then he’s at the door, and he has to get moving if he wants to make Wichita by tomorrow morning.
* * *
It’s as all right as it can be for a while after that. A couple of times it occurs to John to maybe mention Ellen to the boys, but the hazy, shameful memory of that once when he almost trashed himself and someone else back to the dark days before he had a reason keeps his tongue quiet. He fights enough with Sam as it is, and he doubts even Dean might understand everything, even if John could explain it all. Anyway John rarely makes it out to Ellen’s now that he’s taking the boys around with him.
He gets out often enough so that Jo does come round, though she’s old enough to have that measuring look in the back of her eyes no matter what John does. He’s a little proud of her for it, even as his hackles take a while to get used to it. But she doesn’t bring him coffee again till the night Ellen drops the final piece of the puzzle in front of John.
It’s a good cup of coffee. It’s the last cup of coffee he ever has there.
Ellen and Jo are both busy that night, and they’ve long since gotten used to him putting the money in the till himself when he’s busy. He has to swallow hard as he takes out the amulet from the change compartment, but his walk out the door’s steady enough. They know who he is, and Ellen knows he’s got his demon to hunt.
Doesn’t stop her from calling. John tosses that phone in the trunk—it’s about time he got a new one, anyway.
* * *
John’s grateful he never talked about Ellen and Jo, at the end. He’s done his best for his boys, and they always come first. But he’s done what he could for Ellen and her girl, too—left them be—and he feels as if he’s settled that debt, too. It’s a little bit off his back, since he’s only in a position to pay off towards Dean and Sam right now and he’s going to, without hesitation, so any other debts he might’ve incurred over the years he’ll just have to default on.
But he’s paid in full to them. There’ll be nothing from that corner to worry his sons, and so John can walk out of Dean’s room with a clear conscience.