There's nothing like getting bitch-slapped by a bunny on Christmas Eve. This was written in less than 12 hours and is barely beta'ed. Sorry for any errors contained herein. Recognizable characters are owned by people or corporate entities who are not me. Feedback is love.
Names mean nothing. The man tending bar knows this well. He's spent most of his life wearing names that were not his own. His current driver's license does not match his birth certificate, and they're both at odds with how he's commonly known. The patrons of the shabby roadhouse he runs address him as Frank; there aren't any old-timers who remember how that started as a reference to Frankenstein. Everyone who knew his true name is dead or gone, and what strangers call him doesn't really matter.
His career as a hunter of the supernatural ended painfully, mauled by a bear spirit. There are six titanium pins in his left leg, and he walks unevenly. His left elbow doesn't have full range of motion. His right profile shows that he was once a good-looking man; now the left side of his face is streaked by several long, parallel grooves gouged from his hairline to his upper lip. He counts himself fortunate to still have both eyes, but he seldom uses them to survey a mirror.
On this mid-December afternoon, he's washing a sinkful of last night's glasses behind the bar, methodically, staring toward the silver tinsel hanging from the fixture over the pool table without really seeing it. His green-eyed gaze sweeps toward the door as it swings inward, but it isn't trouble, just Carole, the most regular of his irregular clientele.
Her usual is a wine cooler, and he has it ready for her as she approaches the counter. "Haven't seen you in in a while," he remarks. For Carole, who holds down a steady job as a personal trainer to finance her hunting, it's unusual not to see her for more than a week or two, and she hasn't been around since before Thanksgiving. He can't help but be concerned when any hunter drops out of sight, but Carole is closer to him than most, and he knows too well how dangerous the life is, how easily things can change between one heartbeat and the next.
"Trying to hustle a little extra money," she says, nursing her bottle. "You know how it is. Lead is cheap, but silver gets the job done."
Back at the sink, he nods. Carole's been coming around for at least ten years now, and he's watched her evolve from a breathless neophyte who blurted out the story of her first encounter with a chupacabra victim and puked into an empty pitcher, to an efficient, steady hunter. Most of the time, anyway; one December, he saw her punch out a man who'd made suggestive remarks about Christmas Carole and how he'd love to make her sing...the joker had ended up wanting his two front teeth, and maybe a new nose to replace his bloody red one, by the time she'd finished.
Back then, she had mink brown hair that rippled to her waist...today her hair is a tidy bob that won't get in her eyes, and it's about half silver. At that, she's still about a decade fresher than he is. "I saw an old picture of you," she says suddenly. "You were...a lot younger."
Younger, he thinks, is a tactful way of saying not messed up. Not Frankenstein. Then it occurs to him to wonder where she would have seen such a thing. Like the people who knew his name, images of him from his earlier life are all gone---aren't they?
"Are you sure it was me?"
"It looked like you, but it was from a long time ago. You were leaning against this old, black car..." At that, his head comes up sharply and he whips around to look at her. "What?" she says, startled. "I figured you probably knew him from back when you used to hunt..."
"Knew who? Who is this guy?" he wants to know. "Do you have a phone number?"
His sudden intensity makes her nervous; Carole fumbles out her phone and beams the number to his portable. By the time the unit chimes its tone of 'data received', he's dried his hands on the bar rag and cross-searches for a name and address. The results are astonishing. "Elroy McGillicuddy?" he says in disbelief. "The writer?"
"He gives grants to hunters," she says defensively. "Pays for interviews, if someone's got a good story, medical stuff, too, sometimes, and my knee---"
"Hold the fort," he orders, and limps out of the room. His studio apartment is down the hall behind the kitchen, and one of the shelves lining the room is all McGillicuddy. There are nearly two dozen volumes there. No great literary merit, in his opinion, but the man knows his stuff when it comes to killing things that go bump in the night. From bar-room chatter, he isn't alone in thinking that McGillicuddy is really writing primers for hunters. He reiterates the basics in every book, and there's always a fresh take on an old problem in between his hero's other exploits.
This is the first time he's paid attention to the fact that there's no picture of McGillicuddy on the jackets of any of his books. Who is McGillicuddy, really? How could he have come by that picture?
"Carole, describe McGillicuddy to me. Age, hair, height, weight, identifying marks---everything." When she's through, he stares at her, but there's no way she could know: his brother has been dead for more than twenty years...hasn't he?
"Frank, what's wrong? You're scaring me."
Six hundred miles away, he thinks. Less distance than they used to cover in a day, once upon a time. He could have family again, if it's really him... He doesn't remember what the old argument was about; it could have been anything or nothing, depending which of them was in a pissy mood on that particular day. That doesn't matter any more than the common name they once shared, the name that neither of them uses any more.
"You want to make some money, Carole? Keep an eye on this place for me until I get back."
"Back? What? Where are you going?" She follows him back down the hall to his rooms and stands in the doorway as he pulls a decrepit duffle bag out from under his neatly-made bed.
"I need to talk to McGillicuddy," he answers, packing rapidly. It's been a long time since he's done this, but the habits of his youth return as if he's eighteen again. He knows exactly how much the old canvas bag holds, how much---or how little---he really needs. "Carole, whatever you do, don't call ahead to him, do you hear me?"
"Do you mind telling me what the hell is going on?" Her voice is sharp.
He reaches into the drawer of his bedside table, takes out a shirt box that's gone ivory with age, packs it carefully on top of everything else.
It could be his brother.
It can't be his brother.
"Unfinished business," he replies, and makes certain he has a spare clip of silver rounds.
He isn't as young as he used to be; his damaged leg protests after two hundred miles sitting behind the wheel of his truck, forcing him to find a motel where he can lean against the wall in the shower until the hot water runs tepid. His lodgings are an eerie echo of all those rooms he spent his youth in, decades out of vogue with colors and patterns that seem to haunt him with the Ghosts of Motels past. If he looks at his surroundings, and his possessions---the duffle is open on top of the bureau---he could be twenty-something again. Whether they were looking for something nasty to kill, somebody to help---there was always another battle to be fought, the next adventure in a quest whose beginning is as blurred as a roomful of flames.
The shirt box contains a book bound in leather, its pages brittle as autumn leaves. He looks at it for the first time in...how many years? Just seeing it hurts. Maybe he shouldn't have brought it; maybe this is all a fool's errand.
When he calls the Roadhouse to check in, Carole dismisses his concern for how she's doing. A quiet night; no one is going to give her a hard time, she assures him. But what about him? She's worried, what if something happens to him? He tells her where he keeps the paperwork, just in case, which freaks her out even more.
There's never been anything between them, which is more his idea than hers; she's hinted now and then. She probably thinks she'd be doing poor Frankenstein a favor. He admits to himself that he likes her, but he's lost enough people throughout his lifetime that he no longer forms attachments easily.
Women who hunt are rare; women who survive as hunters are rarer still. This isn't sexism; he's met dozens of hunters during the course of his life, and fewer than twelve of them were women. Of those, Carole is the only one he's seen last beyond a couple of years. Some of them probably drop-out, wind up trying to drown their memories in a bottle or a cloud of smoke---he's seen plenty of both sexes go that route. Many of them die. Carole, fortyish, is ready to quit fighting; not because she's given up, but because she knows she's losing her edge.
It's a smart hunter who knows when to say when. If he doesn't come back from this...trip...she can take over the Roadhouse. He inherited it a couple years after his accident, when Ellen Harvelle retired to go back East to live with her daughter and son-in-law and grandbabies. He still remembers the night Ellen told him the story of how she and Bill took the Roadhouse over from an elderly ex-hunter who'd been a bootlegger during Prohibition; its history before that was hazy. Still, the place has been a hunters' watering hole for over a century---that shouldn't change. Ellen died in her sleep a few years ago, and he never hears from Jo these days, not even Christmas cards.
The pretty little Ohio town where McGillicuddy lives is in farming country, not the suburban utopia he vaguely imagined. It's a two-story house on a corner lot in a row of similar houses, not identical to begin with, but all probably built within a decade of each other. Most of the houses are decorated for Christmas. This one has a wreath on the door, but no strings of lights. He sits in the truck for a moment, looking at Elroy McGillicuddy's home, idly wondering how well warded it is.
A black sports car blaring loud music turns in at the driveway. It's an Impala, one of the new ones---not the car he wants to see, but it reminds him of why he's here. Daydreaming is a good way to get yourself killed, old man, he thinks, and opens the door. Since his last rest stop, his pistol has rested in the small of his back, under his jacket, and he resists the urge to check for it, a tell-tale that anyone watching would see. He picks up the shirt box, holding it a little awkwardly in the crook of his impaired arm.
When he get close enough to see details, he observes that the wreath is fiber-optic, and decorated with candy canes. It frames, but doesn't obscure the door's peephole. There are three steps up to the front porch, and he has to hold on to the railing with his good hand. There's a crystalline line in front of the door, he notes with approval, and as he's about to ring the bell, a female voice hails him from the driveway side of the porch. "Hi, can I help you?"
Not old enough to drink legally, is his reflexive thought when he sees the speaker. Probably not even eighteen. "I'm looking for Mr. McGillicuddy."
"The Professor? He'll be back soon, it's his day to volunteer at the library."
"Professor?" he repeats, trying not to gape.
"He's not really," the girl says, coming closer, "but I'm too old to call him Daddy, and he's got all those books, you know?" She hops up the porch steps, all long legs and the boundless energy of youth. If there was any doubt in his mind before, this girl wipes away with a flash of white teeth. She's got her father's nose and cheekbones, her grandfather's eyes, and the smile he hasn't had in years. "You a hunter?"
"Not lately," he answers. Clearly, she's led a much different life than the one they did at that age...but not a total innocent if she knows about hunters.
"Come on in," she invites him, unlocking the front door and preceeding him inside. She punches a sequence into the home alert system by the door as he crosses the salt line and limps inside. "Can I get you something? Coffee?"
"Thanks," he says, glancing around. It's normal, comfortable-looking. Not fancy, but a lot less run-down than his own accomodations. There's a fully decorated tree in the living room by the front window. He smells pine, and remembers the year he decorated the motel room they were in with pine-tree air fresheners. This is the real deal.
"I'm Celia," she announces, striding from the foyer toward the back of the house. "I help my dad with research when I don't have to do school stuff. I graduate in June, then I'm gonna be able to do that full time. He keeps talking about me going to college, but I could always do that online. How do you take your coffee?"
The kitchen is at the back right-hand corner of the house. To its left is a room probably intended for use as a dining room, but now it's lined with shelves from floor to ceilings, and the visitor stops in his tracks. Incredible. He's drawn inside as if pulped wood can be magnetic. There on a shelf is the picture Carole described; that's him, alright, when he was about fifteen---how did she even recognize him from such an old likeness? He's changed so much.
A flash of blue at the window shows an SUV gliding down the driveway. "Oh, good," Celia exclaims. "Here he is now." There must be a back door; a moment later, his hostess says, "There's a hunter waiting in your study, Professor."
"I saw the truck at the curb," rumbles a voice he thought he'd never hear again. It can't be him.
It's been almost twenty-five years, and the last few seconds are the hardest. He waits, mouth dry, until a man appears in the doorway and stops, looking thunderstruck. For a moment, neither of them says anything; they stare at each other in disbelief.
"You're dead," the other man mutters, barely a whisper, then at higher volume. "Celia!"
The hunter-turned-bartender gives him a distorted grin. "Yeah, and you're looking good for someone who was supposedly a fireball in Colorado. What the hell happened?"
"Coffee's coming," the teenager responds.
"Rock salt," her father barks loudly. "Now!"
Celia comes in with a container and hands it to her father. This is apparently not standard protocol for visiting hunters; she looks from one man to the other in concern. "Hope you don't mind if I take precautions," his brother asks him with mock-courtesy.
"I'd worry if you didn't, under the circumstances."
"What's going on?" Celia asks, and the bartender flashes on Carole asking the same question less than twenty-four hours ago.
"Code Canada," her father says, and the girl looks stricken. "Just do what I said. Now, sweetheart." There's enough steel in his voice that his daughter obeys him, looking scared and confused. She walks out of the room, and a moment later comes the sound of someone rummaging in a closet. A moment later, she passes the study door, carrying a red backpack.
Neither of the men says anything as the backdoor opens and closes, and the little black sports car's engive revs up. When it zooms past the window, her father speaks. "Keep your hands where I can see them."
It's been a long damn time since he's had to exorcize anything, but he remembers the words as if it was yesterday, and obligingly chimes in as his brother circles him with salt and starts chanting in Latin. "Holy water chaser?" he suggests when the ritual concludes. "I know! Christo!"
"Can't you be serious?"
"If I get serious, you're gonna have a...what did we used to call it? A chick flick moment. You're gonna have a full-on chick flick moment on your hands."
"Whatever," his brother says, huskily, and embraces him. "Dude, I missed you! Look, I'm sorry, it was all my fault, I was an asshole."
"Nah, don't worry about it. I don't even remember what it was about, anymore. Merry Christmas." Smiling crookedly, he extends the box to his brother, who accepts it gingerly. "Just the thing for the man who has everything."
When he sees what it is, the other man breaks down. Waving away offers of assistance, he sets the precious volume down on his desk. "Just a minute," he says hoarsely, taking a step into the hall, after tissues or a paper towel or something, thinks his brother. Then his newly-found brother goes from overwhelmed to pissed in record time. "Celia Jane McGillicuddy!" he bellows. "What do you think you're doing? You're supposed to be on your way to the Halvorsens!"
"I'm not a baby!" Celia yells back. "You were hunting when you were younger than I am now!"
"That's not the point! If I can't trust you to follow orders---"
"Orders? I'm not in the Army, Daddy!" The bartender eases over to the doorway to survey the arguement. Father and daughter are toe-to-toe, shouting at each other. Celia has a pistol in a two-fisted grip, muzzle safely lowered. She must've sneaked back in during the exorcism.
"This isn't a democracy!" her dad roars, and he can't help it; he laughs. How many times did they hear that growing up? "You're not helping," his brother snaps.
"It's like hearing his voice coming out of your mouth," chuckles their visitor. "Don't mind me, I'm totally going to stay out of it." He's defused the situation somewhat; Celia works the slide and unloads the gun, which her father snatches with a "we're going to talk about this later" expression.
"I think the coffee's ready," she says brightly, stepping around them and going into the kitchen.
"You, stop smirking." It's a good thing he's got his back against the door frame, because that's the only thing holding him up, he's laughing so hard. He can't remember the last time anything was as funny as this vignette.
"I wish I'd recorded that. It was priceless."
"I guess that means you don't have kids."
His brother elbows past him, back into the study. He doesn't have much of anything, but he'll be damned if he's gonna say that. "I took over the Roadhouse when Ellen wanted to retire."
Pausing with the book in his hand, his brother raises an eyebrow. "I heard some guy named Frank was the new owner."
"It's short for Frankenstein," grimaces 'Frank'. "I've read all your books. Hot stuff. All that debauchery, wow, I didn't know you had it in you."
"What's that?" Celia asks, looking at the volume her father holds. She sets a tray with coffee mugs and a plate of cookies on the desk. "Grimoire? Book of Shadows?"
"It's your grandfather's journal," says the man with the book in question.
"But I thought you said---" She stops. Looks at the framed picture, then at their visitor. "Oh my God! Oh my God! It's him!" She's squeals ear-piercingly as only a very enthusiastic young woman can squeal, and talks a mile a minute as she hugs her new-found uncle. "This is so cool! Are you gonna stay for Christmas? Where do you live now? Do you still hunt? What happened to your face? Do I have cousins? Can they come visit? What was my dad like when he was my age?""
Definitely cool. He has family again. "So, how did you find your way to my doorstep?" his brother wants to know when the girl pauses for breath.
"Someone recognized me in that picture," He nods at the shelf, "and told me about it. I figured I'd better find out where it came from."
"I'll bet I know who. That woman that was here a few weeks ago, Carole something. She was all kinds of interested in that picture. That should've tipped me off---you only look like that at pictures of people you know. And if she recognized you from that---is she sweet on you? Is that it?"
The question takes his breath away for a moment. If she could look past 'Frank' to see that innocent teen-aged kid, maybe...
"Is she your girlfriend?" Celia is highly interested.
"Go pick up the guest room," says Celia's dad, and she pouts but doesn't put up an argument. "She's a good kid, most of the time," he says at the sound of footsteps cantering upstairs, "although some of the stuff she calls music...Corporal Dandruff? Gallbladder Bubblegum? What every happened to the classics? If it gets too loud, just bang on the wall. She'll turn it down...at least for a little while."
"Your wife won't mind? I can always get a motel room."
"My wife died when Celia was nine," his brother answers. "Nothing freaky about it, just your garden-variety inoperable brain tumor." A muscle in his jaw works for a moment. "I still miss her, but there's nothing I can take it out on, like Dad did. I understand him a lot better now...all I can do is the best I can."
"It looks like you're doing pretty good. I hear you bankroll some hunters. And your books are why I brought that." He indicates the journal his brother is still clutching. "You'll get more out of it than I will. It doesn't do anyone any good sitting in a drawer."
"Thank you. It's great to have it, but---it's good to see you, man. Hell, I tracked down what I thought was your grave out in Idaho, salted and burned what was left of some poor bastard---mind telling me what the hell happened?"
"It was a couple years after we split up. I was up in Washington state, and got attacked by a bear spirit---I got clawed up pretty good and tossed into a ravine. I had Dad's journal under my jacket when I was attacked; you can still see some bloodstains on the back cover. I managed to crawl back to my car and drive out to the main road, and couldn't make it any farther. As far as I can figure, someone came along, dumped me by the side of the road, jacked my car, and managed to wrap it around a telephone phone near Pocatello a couple days later.
"I woke up in a hospital, had four surgeries to get my leg screwed back together, and when I was released, I hitched my way to down Ellen's and somehow, I never left. What about you? I thought you and the Impala died together like Bonnie and Clyde."
"A possessed asshole drove it off a cliff," answers his brother tersely. "I managed to bail just before it went over the edge. What the hell, it got me out from under a few old warrants and I tried to get out of the life for a while."
"Tried?" His brother may not be hunting any more, but he's not completely out of the life, either.
"I got ID for McGillicuddy and a nine-to-five job at an oil-change place in Dayton. I was living in a crummy little apartment building and one of my next-door neighbors kept having these problems...classic restless spirit---tied to a really hideous old lamp---anyway, I helped her out, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was a family man. Beth talked me into writing down some of the stuff I told her about...a friend of hers from college worked at a publishing house, and between the two of them, they managed to sell my first book.
"I thought, okay, I wrote a book, cool. Uh-uh---they wanted more. It was a three book deal, or nothing, and we needed the money, so I racked my brains some and cranked out a couple more stories. The first two did okay, but the third one really took off, and that was that. Hunters read them, and a few of them tracked me down. I would've run out of ideas years ago, if I didn't have them to turn to. They help me with plots, and I help them with money. Tell you the truth, I still don't believe it."
"That makes two of us. My brother, the 21st century Stephen King? Whoa."
"Yeah," the other man says quietly. "Y'know, most of the hunters out there today have never even heard of the Winchester brothers, or their daddy, John. I've asked."
"I know, I know. How long did we hunt before we made it to the Roadhouse? The ones who do get there, maybe I see them once or twice, and they're gone. Dead, or quit or locked up for running scams or burning down something that needs to be ended or killing something that looks human. Believe me, I've heard it all."
"Ever think about writing a book?" his brother asks slyly. "If I can do it, you can do it. Call it your New Year's Resolution."
"I'll think about it. But I need to get back before that. Things usually get a little wild for New Year's Eve. I don't want to have to rebuild the place on January second." Writing a book is going to take time. He'll need someone to cover for him behind the bar. Maybe Carole, maybe she really does care about him...
"You know, it would be pretty lame if I helped out stray hunters and didn't do anything for my own brother. You need anything? New roof? Plumbing? Whatever?"
"I'll make a list. You can come out during spring break and see how I'm spending your money. Bring the kid." That gets him the look he was expecting, and he snickers, happier than he's been in two and a half decades. "Child labor," he says, and they both laugh.
That night, when he's stretched out on the most comfortable bed he's slept in in years, he calls Carole. "Are you all right?" is the first thing out of her mouth, followed by, "When are you going to be back? What's going on, Frank?"
"Don't worry, everything's great. We're gonna get the place fixed up after the first of the year. McGillicuddy---" My brother. "---is contributing. Start making a list of everything we need. Can you come aboard full time? Please?" He takes a deep breath and says, "I need you."
Carole sputters for a moment; and he grins lopsidedly. "Do you mean that, Frank?"
"I mean it," he says. "We're going to have a lot to talk about when I get back." And because it matters, now, he adds, "For one thing, my name is Sam."