The Excellent Glass of the Body
It takes a while for Jo to get pretty. As a kid she's all rough elbows and flyaway dirty hair, teeth like piano keys in her perpetually shouting mouth. Her mother sees her every day and loves her fiercely, loves her blindly and with no regard for the passing of time, and so it's a shock when Jo comes to her with wide eyes and a rust-red stain across the crotch of her underwear.
"You're a woman now," Ellen says as she shows Jo how to fold the wings of a pad, and she says it without thought because it was what her mother said to her all those years ago. But later they sit across the table from one another, Ellen with a stack of invoices for beer and Jo bent over her sixth-grade math homework, and Ellen watches her daughter pull back her blonde hair with a mindless, practiced gesture, fix it into a ponytail and toss it over her slim shoulder. It's such a tiny thing, so brief, but Ellen's heart gives a wild lurch and seizes tight like a vise, and she wishes suddenly that she could hold Jo in place forever and never let her go. Even though it hurt.
"Hey," Ellen says, pushing up from the table and going to put her hands on Jo's shoulders, leaning down to kiss her soft head. "We should take a break and celebrate a little. You want ice cream?"
"Yeah!" Jo says, wriggling out from under her mother's touch and throwing down her pen, and whatever moment of adult grace Ellen had glimpsed is gone. "Don't tell Dad about – it, though, okay?"
"Honey, your dad is—"
"Don't tell him!"
But of course Ellen does. She tells him later that night as they're undressing for bed, Bill wincing a little as the stitches in his side pull tight.
"Let me," she says, reaching to tug his shirt off for him.
"She's a woman now, I guess," Bill says doubtfully, and Ellen shakes her head.
"Don't know why people say that," she says. "Twelve years-old is not a woman. Hell, she still sleeps with all her stuffed animals."
"Gonna be sleepin' with other kindsa animals pretty soon," Bill says darkly, and Ellen swats him across his ass.
"Hush your damn mouth. She's still a kid."
"I'm just sayin', it's not always gonna be werewolves and ghosts I point my shotgun at. She's growin' up beautiful. Just like her mama."
"Get off me," Ellen mutters as Bill strokes a hand down her cheek and cups her neck, but she doesn't pull away. She lets him draw her closer, lets him fit his mouth over hers, and she leans into the heat of him and remembers when he was twenty-five and full of earnest passion, with a slim waist, smooth skin and a head of thick, black hair. He's going grey now and has a network of ugly scars running over his body, is bulkier from muscle but also from middle-age, and his face is all rough stubble as he trails his lips down to the pulse point below her ear. She loves him more like this than she ever had when he was young and fresh and perfect.
"Bill," she murmurs, "baby," though she knows that he isn't.
Ellen knows the other mothers talk without her. Talk about her. Jo's been best friends with the same four girls since middle school, and Ellen knows them well, down to the sound of their footsteps on the floorboards upstairs. Sarah clomps around in heavy Doc Martins while Rita, though heavy, treads lightly, as if afraid to impose upon the ground. Alicia runs wherever she goes, and Maggie shuffles and slouches.
She loves these girls because Jo loves them, and also because when Bill died they showed up at the house even though they were only thirteen and absolutely terrified of grief, and they circled Jo and held on to her and let her be as quiet as she wanted. Long as they're still coming around with their lip gloss and stolen cigarettes and Nirvana C.D.s, Ellen can believe that Jo will grow up to be the kind of woman who doesn't keep a knife under her pillow and a running tally of her scars.
Ellen is friendly only with Rita's mother, Diane, and it's Diane who calls her up one summer night and says, "I've been talking to some of the other mothers, Ellen, and I want to be straightforward with you."
"All right," Ellen says, and puts down the glass she'd been cleaning and steps back from the bar, hooks herself a stool and sits down. She glances up at the customers in the corner, but they're not looking at her or listening, and she says, "What's on your mind?"
"I know you don't let the girls into the bar," Diane says. "Rita says you don't, you say you don't, and I believe you. But the fact of the matter is that sometimes Rita smells like booze when she comes back from staying the night at your place, and the other morning Susan found a bottle of gin in Maggie's purse. We all know they've been drinking over there with boys, and we're – concerned, Ellen. We want to rest easy knowing our daughters are somewhere safe, and frankly –"
"What the hell do you think I want?" Ellen demands, from wary to furious in seconds.
"I'm not attacking you," Diane says calmly. "I'm just telling you that we're not sure your house is the safest place for our girls. They're over there twenty-four-seven, and we all want to be 'the cool mom,' Ellen, but—"
Ellen tries not to spit out the fuck you she's dying to. "Diane," she says, measured, steely, "our daughters are seventeen years old, and they're beautiful."
"Right," Diane says, "which is why—"
"Right now they're in Jo's room," Ellen says. "And yeah, there are some boys over. They're listening to Led Zeppelin – I can hear it from down here. Are they drinking? Probably."
"For christ's sake—"
"No, Diane, listen to me. They're seventeen. Do you remember what you were like at seventeen?"
"I was pregnant at seventeen, Ellen."
"I know that. Me, I was drinking my way from South Dakota to New Mexico. My point is — it's not about being the cool mom, Jesus. It's about – when they're here, I know they're here. I know they're not off somewhere I can't keep my eye on them, doing god-knows-what with who-knows-who until fuck-knows-when."
Diane is quiet, sucks in a breath like she's going to speak, but doesn't.
"They're gonna do this somewhere," Ellen says, kneads her forehead and sighs. "They're teenagers. They're gonna get drunk and flirt somewhere, and I'd rather it be here, where they don't have to drive home or anything. Here, under my roof, where I can watch them. Keep 'em safe."
After a moment, Diane says, "Well. Alright. I don't want to say I approve but… I see your point."
"Thank you," Ellen says, grateful despite herself, and she realizes that this is the first time since Bill died that she's discussed parenting with another parent. Her anger rushes away and is replaced by an exhausted kind of doubt. "So you – I'm not crazy or dangerous, then?"
"Come on, Ellen, you know I never thought you were dangerous. I just – whenever she's outta my sight – I can't turn it off, that little voice, you know, what's she doing, where is she, is she safe? So do I think you're crazy, yeah, I do – but I guess we're all a little crazy."
"These girls, I swear… they just want and want and want… and they're gonna get it, too, don't you think? Whatever it is. God, I just want to give them anything they want. And I wanna smack them across the face at the same time."
"I hear that," Ellen says, and finds herself smiling a little.
"Thank you," Diane says. "Thanks for talking to me. I can't say I feel better, precisely… I won't feel better 'til she's back here and I can reach out and grab her, but you've set my mind a little at ease."
"Are we – are we alright? You and me?"
"You know, if you need someone to talk to – I know it can't be easy, without Bill, but—"
"I appreciate it," Ellen interrupts, "and I might take you up on that, but someone's just come into the bar and I've got to tend to them."
"Oh – sure."
"See you around, Diane." Ellen hangs up the phone and settles it back in its cradle, looks at it for a moment. The bar is dusty and empty save for two men in the corner booth arguing over a game of cards in low, unhurried drawls, and the jukebox is silent. Been a slow week, always is this time of year, Mid-August and everything is sluggish and sweaty. The bar is pretty far-out from town, and civilians avoid it, as if they can sense how removed it is from their world.
"Can I trust you fellows alone for a second?" she calls out.
"What the hell you think we're gonna do, Ellen?" one of them asks. "Make off with your whiskey?"
"Steal your pool table?" the other adds.
They cackle, and Ellen grins briefly before heading through the back door of the kitchen and up the crooked flight of stairs that leads to the inside of the house. It's true – she doesn't let kids into the bar, and all Jo's friends use the private entrance around back. Their house is small, cramped but well-lit with wide windows on the South side, and Ellen weaves her way through the living room and down the hall to Jo's room, following the thud of bass and the sound of laughter.
She knocks once, twice, and hears scuffling, hears someone turn the music down.
"What?" Jo shouts.
Ellen pauses, caught. She can't remember exactly why she came up here. "I thought I heard a crash," she lies. "Everything all right?"
"Fine," Jo hollers back. "Nothing crashed!"
"Okay," Ellen says, feels foolish talking through the wooden door, and she lays a palm on it, drums her fingers lightly. "Let me know if – you need anything."
"Okay!" Jo shrieks, irritated, and Ellen gives the door one last pat before she steps away. After a moment the music is turned back up and the laughter resumes.
"Anything you want," Ellen says, and then turns to go back downstairs.
The Winchester boys have grown up in ways she never would have imagined. Sam is a head taller but hangs behind Dean as if his brother is the giant, and Dean is all sharp edges and dark circles, a thick ridge of healing gash on his forehead. They're both moving carefully, gingerly, and once Ellen finds out what's happened, she knows it's not just their injuries but also the weight of grief that makes them drag their steps.
Jo gives Dean a bloody nose and holds her calm, but Ellen senses the excitement jumping just below Jo's hip-cocked cool. Jo has been dying for conflict lately, has been sneaking out late at night and coming home with her clothes full of grave dust, and Ellen feels out-of-control in a way she's never experienced before.
"I think these are John Winchester's boys," she says, lowering her rifle and grinning, but the truth is it hurts to say the name. Hurts, too, to see Jo's appraising glances, because Ellen knows her daughter better than anyone and she can read Jo like an open book. There's desire in her eyes, and maybe some of it is because she's gunnin' for Dean, but the bulk of it goes deeper than plain lust. In a way the boys are a lot like Jo, just three kids who miss the hell out of their fathers, and Jo is thinking, They're doing what their Daddy did. She's thinking, I could do that, too.
Ellen looks at her daughter, at her curved cheeks, soft hair, strong teeth, and she looks at the Winchesters – no less beautiful than Jo, but already Ellen can see the hardness setting in. Fine lines around Dean's eyes, furrows to the set of Sam's mouth. Sam pushes up his sleeves and Ellen looks at the burn scar peeking from below the cuff, sees how Dean has a tiny hitch to his step, massages his left knee when he thinks no one is looking. Her chest is tight with how young they are.
"I should have gone with them," Jo says after they've left, almost too quiet for Ellen to hear. "Maybe helped out a little."
"They don't need your help," Ellen says, her voice sharp with fear, but all Jo hears is the sharp. She tightens her mouth and looks away.
A week later Jo sneaks out and comes home with a jagged cut running down her arm, and Ellen has to wait to stitch her up because her eyes are too blurred with tears. She leaves a handprint across her daughter's cheek, something she's never done before and will never do again.
A year later Jo sneaks out and doesn't come home.
Ellen has never remembered her dreams very well, not like Bill, who used to shake her awake in the mornings and bore her back to sleep with epic descriptions of the things he saw while sleeping. She used to be jealous of his ability to recall even the smallest detail, the smell of forsythia on the breeze while they sailed down a river that Bill swore up-and-down was the Nile, but it didn't bother her too much because she'd never put much stock in dreams.
After Jo leaves, Ellen starts keeping a dream journal. She scans her entries for hints, tells herself, If she were hurt, I would know. I'm her mother and I would know. Postcards come from all over the fifty states, and Ellen dreams about buffalo and Mt. Rushmore and bright, hand-tinted flowers and birds. She dreams that Jo comes home without hair, with tiny gun-barrels for fingers. She dreams that Bill comes home with Jo asleep in his arms, and she wakes up weeping.
When the Roadhouse burns down, Ellen goes to live with her sister in Minneapolis for a while, and Jo comes to stay for two days. She has a bruise on her temple and new muscles on her arms and she's squeaky-clean in a way that suggests it's not a common state for her.
"Hey, Mom," Jo says, drops her duffle by the door, and Ellen had promised herself she wouldn't be soft or forgiving, but as soon as she has her daughter in her arms she loses her resolve and buries her face in Jo's hair and holds onto her so tight she can feel the pulse of blood through her warm veins. God, she missed Jo with her whole body, missed her with her hands and her arms and deep inside her chest, and she doesn't ever want to let go.
"I'm not staying," is the second thing Jo says, and Ellen recovers some of her anger, then.
"Ash is dead," Ellen says bluntly, wants to see the pain in Jo's eyes but feels awful as soon as she does.
"I know," Jo says, "I know. God, Mom, I – I'm really glad you're okay."
It's a joy to have Jo around but it's a pain, too, and things are awkward between them, always hovering on the edge of an argument. Jo is tense and jumpy in the same way that hunters are always tense, back to the wall and eyes to the dark corners, but she's not as rigid or fight-lined, and Ellen is glad for that. They snap at one another and are crueler than necessary, each one trying to get little digs in whenever they can, and Ellen thinks she'll be relieved when Jo leaves and everything is calmer.
But as soon as the door closes, Ellen starts longing for her again.
What a fuckin' shitshow, she thinks.
Kids always underestimate their parents.
Jo grew up in the Roadhouse, has witnessed firsthand how quickly information and rumors travel between Hunters, and still her mouth drops open when she sees Ellen framed by a doorjamb behind a raised shotgun.
"Get the hell out of the way, Jo," Ellen says, and for once her daughter listens, rolls to one side and jumps to her feet as Ellen pumps the advancing spirit full of rocksalt.
"His bones are in a graveyard outside of town," Jo calls, "so if we can get the fuck outta here and make it there, we're home free!"
Jo has a Jetta, pine-green under a layer of rust, and it rattles and spits as Jo spins them away from the old museum and down the gravel drive. Ellen has her breath back now, is sucking in lungfuls of air and staring at Jo's profile, while Jo is staring straight ahead at the dark road, her face still and smooth like marble. A car passes them and her eyes shine for a moment in the headlights, hair lighting up in a halo around her head.
"How the hell did you find me?" Jo asks finally, and Ellen lets out a breathless laugh.
"Been tracking your ass since Reno, sweetheart. Roadhouse may be gone, but I still have my contacts."
There's quiet and then Jo says, "Okay. You found me. What the hell are you expecting, Mom? You gonna drag me home? Knock me out, lock me up?"
"Would it work?"
Jo snorts a laugh. "What do you think?"
"I'm thinkin' no."
"So what then?"
"Well," Ellen says slowly, tastes her decision before she solidifies it. "Don't we have some bones to burn?"
Jo blinks once and her mouth parts and Ellen is proud that after all these years she can still shock her daughter.
It's hard work, digging up a grave, but Ellen finds that the movements are still familiar to her from the times she'd helped Bill. Jo has an extra shovel in the trunk and they work side-by-side, quiet save for the steady thunk-shhh of the metal cutting through dirt. Jo is strong and intent and ignores Ellen for the most part, until the last moment when the grave is opened and the salt is laid and Jo takes out her lighter.
"Here," Jo says, and hands it to Ellen.
The flames beat up into the sky like flickering wings, and Ellen closes her eyes against the stench of burning bones and gasoline. She's smelled that so many times on Bill's collar and in his hair and now it's on her again.
Jo drives them back to the motel she's staying at and takes two beers out of the fridge and sits on the bed, Ellen on a chair across from her.
"If we're gonna do this," Jo says finally, "it has to be equal. Okay? You can't be my mom out there, can't boss me around and can't freak out if I get hurt. I have to trust you, have to trust that you'll trust me."
"I think I can work on that."
"And you have to realize," Jo says with a little toss of her hair, "I'm a grown-up. I go to bars and drink and stuff. I stay out late."
"I won't wait up."
"I get laid," Jo says with a defiant glare.
"So do I," Ellen shoots back, and Jo recoils.
"Thought you said we were equals?"
"Well, yeah, but…" Jo screws up her nose, but she's grinning, and then she's laughing, all bright eyes and flashing teeth like the beautiful, dangerous kid that she is.
Ellen grins back at her and then they're both doubled over, beer in one hand, other hand laid across their stomachs, mirror images huffing and snorting and shaking their heads.
"We'll start a rubber-band system," Jo chokes out. "Oh god."
It took a while for Jo to get pretty, but she grew up beautiful. She grew up brave. She grew up.
"Mom," Jo says, and she's smiling and Ellen wishes she could see it better but she's crying too hard. "This might literally be your last chance to treat me like an adult. Might wanna take it?"
And Ellen remembers a lot of things – remembers the moment she'd felt Jo leave her body, remembers brushing her blonde hair and how she'd scream when the brush hit a snarl, remembers purple snowsuits and Jo asleep in the car and how Bill carried her like he was carrying his own heart outside of his chest – and in a brief snatch she remembers that conversation with Diane, so long ago.
Here, under my roof, Ellen had said. Where I can watch them. Keep 'em safe.
Anything you want, Ellen thinks, and she thinks, I can build another roof.
"You heard her," she says finally. "Get to work."
And she sits down by her daughter.