STIRRING THE ASHES - Riverbella

When Ellen reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the flask to take a swig of peppery whisky for the third time in half an hour, she finally realized how truly fucked up she was.

The first half of the journey hadn't been so bad. She'd kept her mind occupied talking to Bobby about the demon army that had flowed out of the open gate to Hell in the middle of that Wyoming cemetery and what it was going to take for the hunter community—such as it was—to deal with it.

But the closer they got to their destination, the less she was able to concentrate on the conversation, until she finally fell silent altogether. Bobby let her be, for which she was mostly grateful. His solid presence in the driver's seat was a comfort; overt sympathy

would have been more than she could bear.

She couldn't stop thinking about the damned pretzels. What a stupid thing it was to owe your life to something as meaningless as a lack of snack food to fill up the bowls on the bar. She could still see the flames reaching for the sky when she got back to roadhouse a bare fifteen minutes after leaving, Ash's panicky voice on the phone still echoing in her ear. The shock had been so great, she couldn't even get her head around it, had simply sat in her car watching a big piece of her life burn to the ground, taking a lot of good people down with it.

But not her. And, thank God, not Jo.

"Ellen?" Bobby said, breaking the long silence as they headed down the last few miles of road before the turnoff. "You sure you're ready for this?"

"No," Ellen answered. She looked over at him. "But I'm doing it anyway. I have to."

"Not alone," he said, not as much a statement of the obvious as a gentle reminder. I'm here. Lean on me if you need to.

Not just Bobby either. Ellen looked in the rear view mirror at the black Impala keeping pace behind them. For all they'd been through—and all that was facing them—Dean and Sam were with her in this too. They hadn't even said anything, just piled in the car and followed Bobby's truck like it was a foregone conclusion.

Ellen thought about the way Dean had held onto her when she stumbled into him and Bobby in the salvage yard, about how that had grounded her in a way she wouldn't have expected. It was the first time she realized that Dean Winchester had accepted her into the vanishing small group of people he thought of as family.

It was an honor.

And a burden she wasn't sure she was up to dealing with on top of everything else. Her heart twisted in her chest every time she thought about what Dean had done, ransoming his soul for his brother's life. Still, she hadn't even been all that surprised when Bobby told her on the way back to his place from the cemetery. Maybe she understood better than most because she was a mother, because she knew what it was like to have a single, shining person as the center of her universe. Because she knew how black and cold and empty that universe could be without its center—and her's was only elsewhere, estranged by Ellen's own doing, but not…dead.

Bobby turned onto the gravel road that lead to the roadhouse and stopped the truck. The Impala pulled in right beside him. Ellen stared at her hands in her lap for a long moment, steeling herself. She had been back once since the fire, back in the night to retrieve the contents of the safe from the rubble. Ash's last request. Her mind was blessedly foggy about that terrible night. Here in the light of day, there was no escape from the horror.

Bobby's warm, rough hand landed on top of hers and squeezed lightly. It gave her just enough strength to raise her eyes to the jagged, blackened ruins of the only home she had known for most of her life.

"Ready, babe?"

"Hell, yes, I'm ready, William Harvelle. I've had this damn blindfold on for more'n an hour."

"Okay, okay. I'm taking it off…now!"

Ellen Jessup Harvelle stood beside her husband of less than a year and stared at the slightly run-down wooden building at the end of a short, gravel drive. She narrowed her eyes and tipped her head up to gaze at her big, grinning husband.

"Well?" she demanded. "What the hell is it?"

"It's our new home, baby," Bill announced. "And our new living, too."

"What?"

"It's a roadhouse," he replied. "It's got a bar and a kitchen, a basement for storage, and plenty of rooms in the back for us to live in. Needs some fixin' up, but it's going dirt cheap and it'll pay for itself in no time once we open for business. It'll be our very own place. You, me and the baby."

Ellen looked down at her bulging stomach. Eight months pregnant and she looked like she'd swallowed a hot air balloon. Kept asking the doctor if he was sure she wasn't going to have twins.

"Wait just a damn minute, Bill," she objected. "You want me to raise our kid in a bar? You out of your mind?"

"Aw, honey," he said. "Don't be like that. It's not a bar. It's a roadhouse. A place where people can come and have a few beers and some good food and feel at home. Safe, you know?"

"By people, I suppose you mean hunters?"

"Well, not just hunters," he temporized. "But, well, it'd be good for hunters to have a place they can go to rest up, maybe meet up and trade information. Other folks'd be welcome, too, of course."

Bill had always been straight with her about what he did. About the hunting. About the evil things out there in the world and the few people who knew and tried to do something about them. She was afraid for him, but she was also proud. And she could no more have stopped herself from loving him and wanting to be with him than she could have stopped the sun rising in the morning.

He looked at her with his sincere, gentle eyes and took her by both shoulders. "If you really hate the idea, we won't do it," he said. "We'll get a trailer and park it in my daddy's back lot or something. I just thought…I'd like to give you and the baby a real home. Something that's ours. A way we can all be together."

Except when you're off hunting, Ellen thought but didn't say. Still, the idea was growing on her. She could run the place herself easy enough when Bill was away and she wouldn't have to put the baby in the hands of strangers while she went off to work in some diner or restaurant that belonged to someone else.

"Let's do it," Ellen said suddenly. Indecisiveness had never been one of her weaknesses.

Bill wrapped his long arms around her from behind and hugged her hard enough to lift her off her feet, baby-belly and all.

"That's my girl," he crowed. "I knew you'd love it. First thing I'm gonna do is paint us a big sign. Harvelle's Roadhouse. I can see it now…."

Ellen pulled away from Bobby abruptly and got out of the truck. If she didn't start moving soon, she was going to be spilling tears and that wouldn't do anyone a lick of good. She strode purposefully toward the burned-out remains with Bobby and the boys trailing in her wake.

The worst part was the smell. Something about a fire left an odor in the vicinity that lasted for a long time, dark and oily and sickeningly sweet. At least part of it was the lingering stench of burnt flesh, once smelled, never forgotten. The actual bodies were gone, of course. Bobby had called in a few favors and gotten some folks over to deal with the dead before they arrived. Ellen was grateful for that, but the smell still lingered.

Breathing shallowly, Ellen picked her way gingerly into what had once been the barroom of the roadhouse. Spars of burnt wood crumbling to ash, broken glass, and twisted bits of unrecognizable metal littered the floor. A fall in here could be deadly.

Ellen was vaguely aware of Bobby, Dean and Sam poking around in the rubble, searching for anything meaningful or salvageable—especially the weapons a lot of her clientele tended to have on them that might have survived the conflagration. She was pretty sure there wouldn't be much. Demon fire burned hot and fast.

It had to be done, though, just in case. The fire had gone unreported and the roadhouse was far enough off the beaten track that it hadn't been seen. Any casual passers-by would assume it was over and done long before. Hunters would know, and wouldn't call the authorities even if they didn't. But if anyone did ever come looking, there should be nothing telling for them to find.

Ellen had another objective; the rooms behind the kitchen where she, and her daughter until not so long ago, had lived. She didn't expect much to have survived there either. Furniture, clothes, books, photographs, none of those accompaniments and records of lives lived would have made it through the fire. But there might still be one or two keepsakes still intact. Small things that held an infinitude of memories.

She picked through what had been her own room first, came up with a crystal jar, dingy with smoke but intact, that her husband had given her for their first anniversary. The sweet herb potpourri she had kept in the jar had crisped away to a thin layer of soft ashes. She dumped them out unceremoniously but held on to the jar.

In Jo's old room, she found a framed photo of Jo and her father when Jo was a toddler. The glass was broken and the frame slightly warped from the heat. But the picture had fallen behind a heavy oak dresser which had shielded it from the flames for a while. Amazingly, the photograph itself was mostly intact. Ellen hugged it to her chest. She was beyond grateful that Jo had been nowhere around when the fire occurred, but Ellen missed her daughter like a lost limb. All Ellen had left and her own damn fault she had lost her.

Then she found the music box. Given to Jo by Ellen for Christmas the year they lost Bill, the hexagonal painted porcelain box had been Jo's favorite possession throughout her childhood. Ellen remembered hearing its tinkling rendition of Lara's Theme many a night after her daughter had gone off to bed. Jo had always kept it on top of her dresser, but now it was on the floor in the middle of the room, half-buried in the crumbled remains of the bedroom ceiling. But apart from a tiny chip off one corner, and the inevitable oily streaks of smoke residue, it was in one piece.

Ellen picked the box up and ran her fingertips over the top gently. She put the photograph and the jar down carefully so that both hands were free and opened the top of the music box. But the heat must have damaged the delicate mechanism that made music and the box remained silent.

It was not, however, empty. Inside the box, a velvet-lined depression, intended for jewelry, perhaps, contained three items. The first was a medal Jo had won playing softball in elementary school. Her school had been too small for a girl's team, but that didn't stop Jo. She was the only girl on the boy's team and by far the fastest runner. For a while, she had been the star.

The second item was an old oval locket, sans chain, that had belonged to Bill's mother. Jo's grandmother had died long before Jo was born, but she had left this one keepsake for her son to pass along to his daughter, if he ever had one. The locket contained a picture of Loni Harvelle on one side and Bill as a chubby-cheeked infant on the other. It invariably made Jo smile.

Ellen didn't recognize the final item in the box at first. It was just a piece of yellow, lined paper, folded in half. She pulled it out and unfolded it carefully. The note revealed was scrawled crosswise to the lines in a hand Ellen recognized immediately.

You know what it is that you want. You're just afraid to admit it because you're afraid of failing. Fuck that. Fuck your fear. You know what you want which is a hell of a lot more than most other people so don't be afraid or ashamed just go out & fucking get it.

Ash had written this. Ash the genius. Ash the drunk. Ash the loser. Ash who took laid back to a whole new level and rarely gave any indication that he cared about much of anything beyond where his next beer or doobie came from.

Ash the enigma, who knew more than most people about a lot of things he never talked about while he babbled on and on about everything else. Who played the fool to protect who knows what secret history. Who had appeared much too self-absorbed to worry about the dreams and fears of the young woman he had largely ignored ever since he first insinuated himself into lives of the Harvelle women.

Ash had written this, sometime or another, and given it to Jo, who had treasured it and finally acted upon it. Jo wanted the hunt, wanted to honor her father's memory and fight evil and prove herself to the world, her mother, and herself most of all. She had always seemed so fearless, but Ash had clearly seen through that pose to the insecurity beneath. Hunting had taken her father's life. How could she not be afraid. Maybe of failing to live up to his memory, maybe just of failing period. So in his own quirky way, Ash had reached out to Jo and given her the sole bit of encouragement she had received from anyone.

And what did I do? Ellen asked herself. I left her out there on her own with nowhere to go and no one to turn to if she needed someone.

"I was wrong," Ellen said aloud. "I was wrong and Ash was right. And now he's dead and my home is gone and I need someone. I need you, Jo. I'm gonna find you, baby, wherever you are, and ask you to forgive me. I won't ask you to give up what you wanted so bad you gave everything else up for it. I just want you to know that wherever I end up, you'll have a home to come to."

"Ellen? Hey, Ellen. You need any help back there?"

Dean's voice startled Ellen out of her reverie. She tucked the note back in the music box and scooped up her other finds.

"No thanks, Dean," she called back. "I'm good."

"Okay. We're gonna start loading up the truck."

"I'll be right there."

Ellen left the sad remains of Jo's room without a backward glance. It was just a room, after all. She'd lost a building, a livelihood, a familiar place to lay her head. But she had her life, her memories, and, most of all, her daughter. Home, she realized, never really was a place to begin with.

As she had expected, the guys hadn't found all that much that needed to be salvaged. What there was, they were loading in the back of Bobby's truck, wrapped in old newspapers Bobby had brought along for that purpose. Ellen snared a few sheets to wrap up her finds and laid them carefully on the floor of the truck. She was halfway between the truck and the roadhouse on her way for a final look when she heard the recognizable whine of a motorcycle engine.

A shiver of expectation ran up Ellen's spine, her instincts catching on before her brain caught up. She turned back toward the road in time to see an electric blue bike turn onto the gravel and pull to a stop to the left of the other vehicles. The slim, jeans- and leather-clad rider dismounted and pulled off the concealing helmet to reveal a fall of yellow hair.

Ellen felt frozen in place, able only to watch as Jo began to walk toward her deliberately. She stopped briefly as she came abreast of the truck and glanced at the three men gathered there watching her in silence. She gave them a brief nod, encompassing but, for the moment, dismissive. Then Jo turned her face to Ellen again and Ellen watched as her daughter started to run to her.

Ellen welcomed her home with open arms.