A Life Less Ordinary
Most of the time John Winchester thinks he does pretty well, considering.
Of the three guys he'd been best buddies with in the war -- not because they were such great guys, really, but just because they all arrived in the same week and all miraculously came out alive two years later -- Chuck is dead from a heroin overdose, Mitchell's in prison, and Dave, they claim, is all right as long as he takes all his pills every day. John had a few bad months in 1973, and that was it.
He'd fought for the American dream, and now he lives it. First a job, then his own business. A wife whose smile makes him forget there were ever blood and death in the world. Two perfect children. A house. No one in his family has ever owned a house. John knows a hell of a lot of guys who are doing a hell of a lot worse, guys who hadn't even seen what he'd seen or done what he'd done. So yes, most of the time John thinks he does pretty well.
The first few weeks after Mary's death are the worst. Everywhere he turns, people watch him. Some watch with pity, some with suspicion, others with a sick, morbid sort of curiosity that makes him want to smash faces into walls. Mike and Kate watch with concern and growing impatience. They've been kind -- still are kind -- but he knows they're waiting for him to pull himself together, to function, to stop inflicting his grief on their ordinary, peaceful existence.
Dean watches too, with eyes full of fear and confusion and something else, something that takes John several days to identify. Expectation. Dean is waiting, silently and patiently, for his father to make it all better.
John can't make anything better. His dreams are filled with images he doesn't understand. Drops of blood on Sammy's pillow. Mary's broken body on the ceiling, her face twisted in agony. A spreading canopy of fire moving above him like a living, malevolent thing.
The dreams and the watching eyes pursue him, and he escapes head first into a bottle of Jack Daniels. The alcohol settles him for a while, makes him feel as if the solution to all his problems is so close, almost within reach, just one more drink away. But it's always one more drink away, no matter how many he has, and he ends the night passed out in Mike and Kate's kitchen, slumped forward in a hard plastic chair with his head on the table.
He wakes up with a crick in his neck and a head that feels as if someone's taken a baseball bat to it. Mike puts him to bed, brings him aspirin and water, but his kindness is tinged with disgust now.
"You have to stop this," he says after the third time. "If you won't think of yourself, think of the boys. They need you."
Kate gives him a business card belonging to some shrink whose wife is in her church group. "Get some help," she says. John thanks her politely and drops the card into the first trashcan he passes the next time he goes out. A shrink won't bring Mary back. A shrink won't tell him what killed her.
He stops the drinking on his own, because Mike is right. The boys do need him.
Ten days later, walking home from the grocery store, John spots the sign for Missouri Moseley, Psychic Advisor flickering in pale blue neon in the window of a perfectly ordinary house. He doesn't know why he's never noticed it before, or why he suddenly feels the urge to go in, he simply does.
When he walks out two hours later, the world looks different. He's different. The rage inside him is cold and sharp as a knife blade, but it's better than the impotent confusion of the previous few weeks. There are still questions to be answered, but the bare truth is there. He hadn't imagined the things he'd seen that night. Something killed Mary. Something not human. Something that's still out there. And for the first time since his perfect life went up in flames, John Winchester has a purpose again.
The first few days of November are always a bad time for him. He expects it, prepares for it, shores up his mental defenses for weeks in advance against the memories that he knows will come crawling from the shadows. Sometimes all the preparation actually helps. Other times it doesn't.
For a while, it's the boys who save him from himself. It's easy -- well, easier -- to look past his own pain when two tiny lives are depending on him for everything from food and shelter to bedtime stories to clean underpants, when all his time and energy are focused on the effort to build a life from pieces that don't want to fit. His shopping lists say things like "rock salt, baby food, bullet molds, diapers." On a vampire hunt in Oxford, Ohio, he reaches into the back seat for a shotgun and comes up with a yellow plastic baseball bat. He's had to remove filled-up pages from his journal and paste in new blank ones to make room for all the important, lifesaving notes he keeps making. Demons flinch at God's name. Zombies can cross salt circles. Sam is allergic to bananas. It's all weird enough, thank you very much, without adding booze into the mix.
By the time Sam is six and Dean is ten, John's got the practical aspect of their life pretty well figured out. He's become an expert in exorcisms, homemade explosives, French toast, and fourth-grade math. He knows how to time their frequent moves in a way that minimizes the impact on Dean's school performance. He knows twenty-three protection charms against werewolves and eleven ways to kill a vampire. He knows exactly how long the boys can be left alone, and how to find a reliable baby-sitter for times when a hunting trip is likely to run longer than that. What he doesn't know is how to keep himself from falling apart when he actually has time to think in November.
It's been raining for four days. The tiny Baton Rouge apartment where they've been living since late August smells like mold and feels like a prison cell. The Impala is in the shop with a busted transmission, and the only distraction within walking distance is a tiny strip mall with a 24-hour convenience store, a discount hardware store and a bar. By the end of the fourth day, John feels as if the walls are closing in. The shadows whisper at him, and his dreams are full of fire. If he opens the windows, the rain blows in to make puddles on the floor. If he closes them, there's not enough air. John puts the boys to bed an hour early, pours a line of salt in front of the door to their room, and grabs his coat.
The bar smells of cigarette smoke and cheap beer. Johnny Cash is cry, cry, crying on the jukebox. John plants himself on a bar stool and orders a glass of whiskey to raise in Mary's memory. Which turns into two glasses, and then three, and then… we'll, he's not sure how many, exactly. He just keeps ordering until the bartender shoves his money back at him and says, "I think you've had enough, buddy."
John is inclined to disagree, but the bartender has two heavy-set bouncers to make his case for him, and the fact that they actually manage to toss John out is a sign that perhaps he's had enough after all. He reconsiders his plan to go back inside, picks himself up out of the puddle they tossed him in, and staggers home. By the time he gets there, he's soaking wet and shivering, and it's all he can do to peel off his coat before collapsing on the living room couch.
It's early afternoon by the time he wakes up, and his clothes have dried to mud-caked stiffness. Someone has removed his boots, put a blanket over him, and stuck a pillow under his head. John tries to sit up, quickly thinks better of it, and falls back onto the pillow with a strangled moan. A few seconds later, the door to the boys' room creaks open, and Dean stomps out in a huff. Sam follows a moment later, pale and big-eyed with worry.
"Dad?" Sam squats next to the couch. "Are you sick?"
"'M'fine," John mumbles. Over in the kitchenette, Dean sniffs rather loudly and bangs some dishes around. John figures he probably deserves that.
He shifts into a marginally more comfortable position on the couch, and his elbow bumps into something soft and lumpy. Closer investigation reveals it to be a blue terrycloth rabbit with mismatched button eyes and "Clancy" written across its belly in indelible black marker. John holds it by one foot and blinks at it in confusion.
"I thought you should have him for a while," Sam explains solemnly. "He made me feel loads better when I had the flu last year."
Dean gives another derisive sniff and slams the door on the kitchen cabinet. The noise makes John's skull vibrate. He winces, and hands the rabbit back to Sam.
"Thanks, kiddo, but I don't think Clancy's gonna want to take a shower with me. Why don't you hang on to him until I come out again?" He musses Sam's hair with a shaky hand and escapes to the bathroom just in time to vomit into the toilet. He can hear Dean's voice through the closed door, too faint to make out the words. Presumably, Dean is enlightening his brother about the difference between sick and hung over. It's not a pleasant thought.
He climbs into the shower, rests his forehead against the tile wall, shuts his eyes and tries not to think about what might've happened if he'd gotten himself hurt or arrested last night. I'm never doing that again he tells himself. At that moment, he believes it.
Arizona in early June. Sun-baked earth and dusty sky. They've been on the move for nearly three months, ever since a Wendigo case in Montana led to a run-in with the state police. John's not sure if the authorities really believe he killed those two troopers in Fort Peck, but a trip to Mexico seems like a good idea, just in case.
The air conditioning in the Impala is on the fritz, everyone is sunburned and irritable, and Sam, following some chain of reasoning that could only make sense to a ten-year-old, keeps complaining because he didn't get to finish out the school year. It's too hot to drive and fight at the same time, so John just cranks up the stereo, drowns out the grumbling in the back seat with Zeppelin and the Stones, or the occasional headbanger tape Dean keeps throwing into the mix.
Money is getting tight, to the point where even the cheapest roach motels in the middle of nowhere are no longer quite cheap enough. They stop at a campground just outside of Tucson and find a spot behind some boulders, sheltered enough so that no one's likely to come by and socialize or to wonder about the salt circles around their two battered tents. There's a small general store just down the road from the site. John buys hot dogs and the makings for s'mores, and they all spend a few hours pretending to be a normal family on vacation. Later, when the sun's gone down and the heat is starting to recede a little, John drives into town to scrounge up some funds for the rest of their trip.
Opportunity arrives in the form of a pool bar and a quartet of road-tripping frat boys. They're so drunk, and so utterly clueless that John would probably feel bad about hustling them if he hadn't just blown the family budget on marshmallows. He wins the first game, then loses a couple just so they know it can happen, then starts racking up the wins in earnest. Two hours later, he's three hundred bucks ahead and the frat boys are starting to lose their enthusiasm for the game, so he excuses himself and wanders off to get a refill on his beer.
A woman with long blond hair smiles at him as he reaches the bar, and sweeps him with a slow, appraising glance from the toes of his boots to the top of his head. He's well used to ignoring such looks, but this time, something about her smile and the tilt of her head stirs a response in him. It's been a damned long time after all, and even though it feels like it sometimes, he's neither an old man nor a monk.
So he smiles back and buys her a drink, puts a slow song on the jukebox and asks her to dance. And he knows almost immediately that it's a mistake. Her laugh is all wrong, her scent is all wrong, and their dance is marked by countless little bumps and missteps – the sort that happen when two strangers try to move together. He escapes as soon as the song is over, without ever learning her name.
He spends an hour just driving before he feels settled enough to return to the campsite. He gets no sleep that night, and is tense and ill tempered in the morning. The boys, used to his moods, pack up the tents in silence and climb into the back seat together, leaving him alone in the front to brood while he drives. Later, when they stop for gas in Nogales, Dean hands him a bottle of water and a sandwich from the vending machine, and murmurs, "Did something happen last night, Dad?" while Sam is out of earshot.
"Nothing that matters now," John grunts. Dean watches him with thoughtful eyes for the rest of the day, but doesn't ask agai
The waiting room at the trauma center smells of sweat and antiseptic, and all the surfaces are painted beige. The cheap plastic chairs seem specially designed to catch every scrape and bruise on John's body, no matter how much he fidgets in his futile attempts to find a comfortable position. Assorted doctors and nurses stride past, all of them looking harried and annoyed and much too busy to stop and talk to a terrified father. Not that it matters – all the people who could actually tell him something useful are still in surgery with Dean. John knows this. It doesn't make the waiting any easer.
To distract himself, he borrows a pen from the receptionist and pulls out his journal. "Never corner a banshee near a plate glass window," he writes. It looks like the punch line to a really bad joke, except he can't think of anything less funny than the memory of blood bubbling in Dean's mouth. A chestful of broken glass, it turns out, is not so different than a chestful of shrapnel. Not a sight John had ever hoped to see again.
Sam is slouched in the chair next to him, staring fixedly straight ahead and gnawing on his fingernails. He looks even more uncomfortable than John feels, long limbs drawn in at awkward angles to fit into a chair much too small for him. Everything's too small for him these days. He's grown five inches since his fifteenth birthday, and shows no sign of stopping. His jeans flap around his ankles and the sleeves of his jacket don't cover his bony wrists. It makes him look younger somehow, or maybe it's the fear in his eyes that's taking the years from his face. John wants to reassure him, to reach over and ruffle his hair the way he did when Sam was still Sammy and could be reassured by a word from his father, but they don't do that anymore. Anything John might try now would probably just lead to another rant about how this whole mess was his fault. That's not exactly new; over the past couple of years, everything that's gone wrong in Sam's world has seemed to be John's fault. But this time it's close enough to the truth that John doesn't want to hear it.
The harassed-looking woman from the reception desk approaches him with the inevitable questions about insurance. He goes over to deal with it, trying frantically to remember which of the five fake credit cards in his wallet has the highest limit. Less than a day ago, he was bitching about the expense of having to stay at a Sheraton because all the cheaper motels in the area were full. Now, the hotel bill is just a small drop in a very big bucket, and John's panic over Dean is supplemented by a nagging, background worry about how they're all going to eat when this mess is over.
John answers the receptionist's questions, fills out more forms, and returns to his chair feeling even more drained than before. He stares at the clock on the opposite wall, but the slow creeping of the second hand begins to drive him crazy before the first minute passes. He hates this passive waiting, this knowledge of his own uselessness. If he just had something to fight, or at least something to do, he could deal.
"Why don't we go back to the hotel?" he says to Sam abruptly. "Shower, eat, get out of these clothes. They'll call us if anything changes."
"I'm not leaving," Sam says flatly. His eyes narrow, and John knows that he has once again established himself as a Bad Father Who Doesn't Care. Well, fuck it. He's not going to do Dean any good by sitting here in his bloodstained clothes, slowly going crazy.
"I'll be back in a bit," he tells Sam. "Want me to bring back a change of clothes for you?"
"Okay," Sam mutters. And then, after a long and uncomfortable pause, "Thanks."
Outside in the parking lot, it's cool and drizzling. The fresh air makes him feel a little calmer, until he opens the car door and is hit with the smell of blood. There are dried reddish-brown stains all over the back seat, on the floor, on the wadded pile of towels behind the driver's seat. All the panic John has been holding at bay for the past few hours suddenly hits him at once. He clutches his belly and doubles over to vomit onto the rain-slicked pavement.
Eventually, the spasms in his gut stop, but the thought of actually getting into the car and driving is intolerable. The hotel is just over a mile away. John turns up his coat collar, shoves his hands into his pockets, and walks.
He's shivering by the time he reaches the hotel, and though he tries to tell himself it's just the cold and the damp, neither a hot shower nor a change of clothes actually help. Or at least, it doesn't help nearly as much as the mini-bar in the bottom of the TV cabinet. John empties it out slowly and systematically: first the vodka, then the whiskey, then the brandy, then the really crappy red wine in the back. He stacks the little bottles in a neat row on top of the TV until he runs out of room and puts the rest on the floor. Somewhere along the way, he does recall that he promised to bring a change of clothes back for Sam, but another mile-long walk seems like far too much effort, and he thinks maybe it would be better if he just lies down for a few minutes first...
He wakes up coughing and flailing his arms, spitting curses at the sudden burst of wet cold that seems to hit him out of nowhere. It takes him a moment to remember where he is, another moment to focus, and then he finds himself blinking dazedly up at his younger son, who's just dumped an ice bucket on his head.
"Dean's awake," Sam tells him in a tight voice. "He's been asking to see you. But I see you've had more important things to do."
The makings of an epic fight are all right there, but they're not going to have it right now. Right now, John's head is pounding, an ice cube is sliding down the back of his shirt, and all he can think is, Dean's awake. Dean's awake. He pushes himself up to his feet and Sam hands him a dry shirt.
"I have a taxi waiting outside," he says.
"Thanks," John mutters, and follows Sam out of the room.
They don't talk at all on their way to the hospital.
Even a smart and experienced hunter can be blindsided sometimes. Especially by his own children. All the years of fighting, the angry silences, the shouted accusations, and it still never occured to John that Sam might actually leave. Just get up and go, with one battered duffel and the clothes on his back. When Sam storms out of the house and Dean goes after him, John is absolutely sure that they'll come back together. Dean has always been able to talk sense into his brother. But an hour later Dean comes back alone, and John feels as if something's ambushed him from the shadows and ripped his heart out.
Dean takes off his jacket, hangs it on the hook by the door, and turns to face John with a wary, shuttered expression.
"I dropped him off at the bus station," he says.
"Good riddance," John growls, and the bitter rasp in his own voice makes him wince.
Dean winces, too. "You don't mean that."
"Like hell I don't." John rubs his face. "Idiot. Stupid, stubborn idiot... doesn't know how to listen... serve him right if he gets himself killed."
"He'll be all right." Dean sits down next to him on the lumpy sofa, claps one hand on John's back. "Sam can take care of himself. We taught him that, if nothing else. Besides, when was the last time we hunted anything around Stanford? Maybe it's a safe place."
"No such thing." No safe places in the world, not for them. Not until he finds out what killed Mary, and why, and how to stop it if it ever comes again. For eighteen years, John Winchester has gone to sleep every night not knowing if he or his children would still be alive in the morning, and now his younger son is out of his sight, out of his reach, out of his protection. Out of his life. Stupid, stubborn idiot.
"Hey, Dad, come on." Dean's arm is wrapped tightly around his shoulders. "Don't do that. It'll be okay."
Like hell it will.
Two months later, they make the two-day drive to Stanford together. They rent a car, because Sam would surely spot either the Impala or the truck, and they make sure to arrive after dark. John has called in a favor from a computer hacker of his acquaintance, and they come well armed with information. They know the location of Sam's dorm room, his class schedule, the name of his roommate, the fact that he's already declared a history major and a political science minor.
They find the right dorm building and park across the street. It's a long wait until all the windows go dark, and they have to move the car twice to avoid the campus security patrols, but eventually the coast is clear. Dean stands lookout while John takes out the protective charms he'd prepared back home and buries them under the steps to the front entrance.
The next day, they watch Sam walking out of the campus coffee shop, surrounded by a laughing, chattering group of fellow students. Sam is laughing too. He's got a knapsack slung over one shoulder, and he's getting powdered sugar all over himself from the donut he's eating.
"Donuts for lunch," John grumbles. "I knew he shouldn't be allowed out by himself."
"You know, we could just go up and talk to him," Dean says. "Or you could call his cell. Tell him to eat some broccoli."
"No." John's hands tighten on the steering wheel. Protective charms are one thing, but he still has his pride, and the memory of that last fight still stings. If Sam wants to mend fences, he can damn well pick up the phone himself. And if he doesn't...
If he doesn't, John would rather not know.
Dean doesn't mention it again. They leave Stanford and head toward home, stopping for dinner a few hours later at a truck stop off Route 5.
"He looks happy," John says as they sit in their booth waiting for their order.
"Yeah." Dean smiles crookedly. "I told you it would be okay."
And maybe it's true after all, John thinks. After all, he's still here and Dean's still here. There's a possible werewolf to be investigated in Sacramento, a possible poltergeist in Reno and a possible demonic possession in Roosevelt, Utah. And just a few hundred miles away in Stanford, little Sammy is on his way to becoming the first Winchester ever to get a higher education. When all is said and done, John decides they're doing pretty well, considering.