I disliked John Winchester twenty-seven seconds after I laid eyes on him.
Of course, I discovered later on that that was practically a record – for the longest amount of time it took someone to dislike him.
It was August and I was in the middle of our annual Parish Lawn Fete. The church yard was filled with rides, games, barbecue, and people of every age enjoying it all. I was expecting the Winchesters in the early evening, after the Fete had closed down.
Caleb brought us into contact with each other, and all he told me about John was that he drove a twenty-year old Impala and hunted with his two boys. So when an old Impala pulled into my church parking lot and a young man in his late twenties or early thirties got out, I assumed he was one of the sons.
Then the back door opened and two boys – little boys – spilled out.
I decided right then and there that I disliked John Winchester.
The hunting life is hard enough for a grown man with no attachments. Bringing two small boys in to the mix was incomprehensible and – I thought – cruel. His youngest couldn't have been any older than three, and the older one, even from a distance, looked like a too-old first or second grader. Whatever John Winchester's reasons, obsessions, or motivations were for taking on this life, it couldn't even come close to how important his sons should be to him, their health and welfare and state of mind.
I decided right then and there that I was going to have a thorough discussion with John Winchester about getting his boys out of this life.
The littlest boy – Sammy, I learned – had on sneakers that looked too big, shorts that were too long, and a t-shirt that was too old. He leaned against his father's leg and wrapped an arm around his knee, like he was bored or had just woken up from a sound sleep. He needed a haircut.
Dean, who was seven - and a half I would be informed - stood on the other side of his father and took his hand. He was dressed similarly to his brother; his jeans and sneakers and short sleeved shirt were a little old and worn and ill-fitting.
I decided right then and there that I was giving them a free trip through the Parish thrift shop.
They were looking around, Dean was looking at the rides and food kiosks, John was probably looking for me, and I walked over to greet them. All three of them looked exhausted.
"John? I'm Jim Murphy. It's good to meet you." I offered my hand. He took his hand off of Sam's head to shake mine, then put it right back there.
"Sorry we're early. We made some time coming through Eau Claire."
"No, it's perfect timing. You can get something to eat and the boys can have some fun on the rides. Here…" I ripped a couple arm-lengths of tickets off the roll I carried and handed them to John. "We won't start shutting down for another hour. It'll give you a chance to get the road off your back and relax. I'll come find you when we're done."
"Thanks." John took the tickets from me and took Dean's hand again and took a step toward the line of food vendors. Sam didn't let go of his leg though, so John reached down and scooped him up to rest against his shoulder. Then he gave me another smile of thanks and the three of them walked over to the vendor tents and picnic tables.
"Cheeseburgers!" Dean cheered, and Sam lifted his tired little head off of his father's shoulder to cheer too.
"Cheeseburgers it is." I heard John say as I turned back to the Lawn Fete.
I admit - I kept an eye on the little family. I told myself I was just making sure they didn't need anything or have any questions or any difficulty. But – uncharitably and definitely not in the spirit of a good Christian – I knew I was watching for any sign that John was not treating his boys well. I wanted more proof, more ammunition, more reasons to give him to get his children out of this life.
I was disappointed.
John kept hold of his sons as he placed their orders at the Cheeseburger Hut. Then while they waited for their food, he took a seat on the top of the nearest picnic table. He kept Sam in his lap, and Dean sat close beside him, pointing at all the rides he apparently wanted to ride. When the food was ready, John set Sam on the table, and Dean moved in immediately to put his arm around his brother and keep him steady. He leaned in close and whispered to him, still pointing to the rides.
While John was getting the food, every few seconds he turned to look at the boys and give a casual but I could tell expert scan of the area around them. Whenever one or both of the boys met his glance, he'd smile at them, and when Sam waved and shouted "Hi Daddy!" every single time, every single time John waved and said, "Hi, Sammy," as though it was the only time he'd said it.
When John had the food back at the picnic table, he sat on the bench and scooped Sam into his lap again. Dean stayed sitting on the table top. Both boys ate like they were starving, and John ate like he was more than weary, but same as before, whenever one of the boys smiled at him, he smiled back like they were his whole world.
My attention was called away then and when I found the little family again, Sam was in a boat in one of the 'little kid' rides and Dean was on a motorcycle on one of the 'big kid' rides right next to it, and John had placed himself between both rides, keeping an eye on both boys at the same time.
Dean looked like he was having the time of his life. Sammy looked happy but tired and when the ride was over and John scooped him up, he stayed tucked at John's shoulder and they followed Dean to the inflatable slide, where Dean happily kicked off his sneakers and climbed on.
For awhile then, it was Dean on the slide, and Sammy dozing on his father's shoulder, and John looking like at least a little of the world had eased off his back. I turned my attention back to the Fete. Soon, I was busy with all the details of closing up shop, and lost I sight of them again for awhile.
My attention was brought sharply back to them when I heard Sammy's scream. As I turned to the sound, I saw Dean jump over the side of the slide and run to John, who was kneeling on the ground with his arms around Sammy, who was pressed tight and desperately against his father. From the tiny jerks of Sam's tiny shoulders, it looked like he was sobbing his heart out.
"It's okay, it's okay." John was saying as I hurried over to see what was going on. "I've got you. I've got you."
" 'way! 'way!" Sammy was crying. "Go 'way!"
Dean pressed close behind Sam, with his arms out and around both his brother and his father as though blocking something from getting to Sammy. He stared toward the church.
"It's okay, Sammy." Dean echoed his father. "It's okay. He's leaving. He's gone. It's okay."
I followed Dean's iron glare towards the door of the church where Al - the parish's new CFO and the Fete's perennial Clown - stood with an apologetic look on his grease-painted face. He met my eyes and shrugged and gestured that he didn't know what he did or how to make it better. I shook my head and waved him on. If he hung around, it would only make it worse. The sooner he was out of costume, the better.
"Is he okay?" I asked John.
"He doesn't like clowns." Dean informed me, the edge in his voice implying I ought to have known that and taken all necessary precautions. He hadn't moved from his post at his brother's back.
John gave Dean a look and Dean gave me a 'sorry', and I had to smile at Big Brother's protectiveness.
"He's gone now." I told them. "You won't see him again."
John smiled me a thanks, Dean cocked a 'you better be telling the truth' eyebrow at me, and Sammy coughed out a few more sobs and burrowed closer and locked his skinny arms and legs around his father as John stood up.
"I think somebody didn't have a long enough nap today." John said into Sam's hair.
"C'mon, then. I'll show you your room. You can get the boys settled in and we can talk after."
I turned and gestured them to the rectory. John led the way, carrying Sammy, and Dean stayed close, still glaring – though not at me – watching his family's back, daring anything or anyone to get too close, even though he was all of seven and a half years old.
After a quick stop at their car to grab a couple duffel bags, we went in the side door of the rectory, which led to the kitchen. From there, I led the way to the front room and up the open staircase to the second floor. The guest room was down the hallway, just past the upstairs bathroom. It had two big windows and two big beds, and two little boys who looked like they'd need those beds sooner rather than later.
"I appreciate your offer to stay here." John said. He looked like he needed a bed, too. He set the duffels down, then let Sammy slip down to the floor, and Sam went willingly into Dean's waiting arms. They stood there, next to their Dad, Dean with him arm around Sammy, Sammy with his head on Dean's shoulder.
"Why don't we wait until tomorrow to talk?" I offered. "You three all look like you need a good night's sleep."
"We've got to be in Dubuque tomorrow night." John said, and I noted the 'we'. I was just about to offer the boys stay with me for a day or two, but I noted the way Dean looked up at his father like being with him was the only thing there was. And Sammy looked up at Dean like being with him was the only thing there was. I realized there wasn't a force on earth that would come between them.
"Well, then - you can get the boys settled and come on down. There's fresh towels in the bathroom if you boys want to take a shower."
"They do." John said pointedly at Dean, who screwed up his face but didn't say no. He did say,
"You should take a shower first, Dad. Then you can talk while me and Sammy take a bath."
John sighed, but it sounded like weariness and not aggravation. He put his hand on the top of Dean's head.
"Sounds like a good idea, Tiger. I think I will." He turned to me. "If that's OK with you."
"That's fine. While you're doing that, I wonder if I could show the boys our Community Closet downstairs? We just received a huge delivery of kids' clothes and things. It'd really help me out if you could take some of it off my hands."
I expected Dean to look to his father for permission, but he gave me another appraising look before nodding. It was only then that he looked to John.
"I'll see what he has." He said to his father. He sounded like he expected to find our stores lacking. "I know what we need."
"All right. You take care of things. I'll be down in a little bit."
"Okay." Dean nodded and looked down at his little brother, still attached to his side. "C'mon, Sammy. Let's go have a look."
Sammy nodded and took Dean's hand and I led the way back to the first floor and the 'in-law apartment' that Sr. Henry had set up as our Community Closet. There were shelves and racks of clothes and shoes and toys and books and appliances. I opened the door and let Dean and Sam go in first.
"Take as much as you want." I told Dean. "There're shopping bags there in the corner."
"We don't need much." He told me over his shoulder. I thoroughly disagreed with him, but I didn't say that out loud.
"Still - take as much as you need."
He nodded and led Sammy to the clothes first, grabbing one brown paper shopping bag on the way. Once at the clothes, he let go of Sammy's hand and quickly and expertly sorted through the piles, separating out what seemed to be a couple of sets of clothes for each one of them, John included. He folded them all into separate piles by size and then set each pile into the bag.
While he did that, Sammy stood there, patiently and quietly, his eyes trained on his big brother's face. Then - same as with John - when Dean looked over, Sammy's face lit up with a huge smile. Dean smiled back then took up his bag, took Sammy's hand, and led them to the toys section.
When they got there, Sammy put his free hand around Dean's arm and leaned in close to him, as though he were overawed by the sparse display of used toys and books spread out before them.
"It's okay, Sammy." Dean prodded. "Go ahead, have a look. Pick out any one thing you want."
And Sammy bestowed that blinding smile on his big brother again and freed up one hand and one hand only from his brother to reach out to the toy closest to him, a fuzzy, furry, little brown ball of something.
"This." He said and clutched the thing close to his chest.
"You sure, Sammy? You don't wanna look around some more?"
"Okay, but - that's kinda small." Dean said. "Why don't you get another something else, too?"
And Sammy gasped and beamed and whispered in total awe, "Really?"
"Really, Sammy." Dean beamed back at him. "You take two things."
So Sammy somehow tucked his brown fuzzy prize into the hand that still held Dean's hand and reached out again. And again it only took a few seconds for him to pick up something else - a book this time, 'Harold and His Purple Crayon'.
"Will you read this to me?" He asked Dean. He sounded hopeful and hesitant and I had the distinct impression that what would be read to him was nowhere near as important as who was going to be doing the reading.
"You bet I will." Dean said. "That looks a like a really good book."
"Un hunh!" Sammy agreed, enthusiastically. "What you gonna get, Dean? You get two things too Dean okay Dean?"
"Well, we'll see, Sammy. Let's go over here and look."
Still hand in hand, they moved over one table to the bigger kids' toys and books. Dean set his paper bag down and used his free hand to sort through the scattering of comic books. In a minute or less, he pulled a couple of Batman comic books out of the pile and slid them into the paper bag.
"That should only counts as one, Dean." Sammy told him. "'Cause is both Batman. You get two things, too, Dean."
And Dean sighed and pulled two more comic books out, Star Wars this time, and tucked them into the paper bag as well.
"There. Happy?" He asked, and even though he sounded grumpy, when Sammy grinned and nodded, Dean grinned too and pulled him in for a fast one armed squeeze. Then he picked up his paper bag and turned to head out of the room again.
"Now we both gots two!" Sammy declared to me as they walked past me. Then he added proudly, "Dean always says I should gets two!"
"Does he?" I asked. Sammy nodded but Dean kept his eyes straight ahead and didn't comment.
John was just coming down the stairs as we got back to them, hair damp and clothes changed, he'd apparently taken one of the world's fastest showers.
"Hi, Daddy!" Sammy greeted him again, yet again, as though he hadn't just seen him ten minutes before. He held up his treasures. "Look! Dean let me gets two!"
"Dean always lets you get two." John answered, smiling, and asked Dean, "Did you get something too, Tiger?"
"I got comic books."
"Good. Okay, you two go on up and have a bath and then get to bed. I'll be up in a little bit."
"Dean's gonna read me this!" Sammy proclaimed, and held out his book.
"Huh, Harold and His Purple Crayon, I read that when I was a kid." John said. "All right, get going. I'll be there in awhile."
As the boys passed him, John reached out and ruffled each head in turn, and as the boys walked up the stairs, we heard Sammy ask Dean, with no small amount of disbelief,
"Daddy used to was a kid?"
"Of course Dad used to be a kid, what'd you think? " Dean answered, and then they were gone down the hallway.
"You've got two great kids there." I told John.
"Yes, I do." He said, finally turning his gaze away from the hallway long after the boys weren't visible anymore. "I hate to think what I'd be now, if I didn't have them."
I had an idea where he'd be - I knew many too many hunters who had no family, no ties, no hope of anything anymore. They were in their own personal hells. It was likely - more than likely - that without his boys, John Winchester would be there as well.
"Well, let's go out to the porch." I said. "It's cooler out there in the evening than in the house. I've got everything printed out that I think you'll need."
I led the way to the shaded side porch, just off the dining room. John took a seat on the couch, I sat in the overstuffed chair across from him and for a very short while we discussed exorcisms and prayers and Latin pronunciations. Once we finished the shop-talk, I planned to start my counsel to John on the effect of this life on his boys, but we were still talking about the job when a call from the front room reached us.
"Daddy? Daaaaaaadeeeeeeeee? Where are you, Daddy?"
It was Sammy. He only sounded confused, not scared.
"Out here, kiddo." John called back and in a few seconds Sammy appeared, sporting one sock, a pair of underwear I recognized from our Community Closet, and a huge red bath towel haphazardly wrapped around his shoulders. His face lit up when he saw Daddy, and he climbed into John's lap and threw his arms around his neck.
"Daddy! I missed you!"
"I missed you, too, kiddo." John said, wrapping his arms around Sammy.
We heard Dean then, calling for his brother.
"Sam! Get back here! I told you to wait for me! You need the rest of your clothes!"
John called to Dean as well, and he came out onto the porch, holding clothes for Sammy in one hand, and a comic book in the other. His hair was wet and he was dressed.
"Sammy! You were supposed to wait for me!"
"He's okay, Tiger." John said. He patted the couch cushion next to himself. "C'mon, sit down with us for a little bit. We're almost done here."
Dean glared at Sam for a few seconds, which earned him a quiet 'sorry, Dean' from his little brother. That melted the glare and he set the clothes on the arm of the couch and sat next to his Dad. He sat with his back against John and read his comic book while we cleared up the last few details of the ritual.
As we talked, as I talked and John asked questions and I answered them, I looked closer at this little family group. Without taking a break in the question he was asking, without even seeming to notice he was doing it, John crossed his foot over his knee, creating a hollow that he re-settled a now-dozing Sammy into, making sure he was all wrapped up with the towel and secure in his lap. In another few minutes, Dean closed his comic book, and squirmed around until his head was on John's thigh. He pulled John's arm around himself and closed his eyes.
All thoughts of talking to John about their situation went right out the window. This family not only needed to be together, they wanted to be together.
Our talk lasted another half hour, by which time both boys were sound asleep.
"Well, I guess it's time I got these guys in a bed." John said. With one arm, he lifted Sammy up to his shoulder. With the other arm, he nudged Dean, "Ready, Tiger? Time for bed."
Dean blinked and stirred and stretched. He took hold of his comic book and Sammy's clothes from the arm of the couch, then he knelt up on the cushion and put his arms around John's neck. Then John, with an ease that spoke of long practice and belied the weight in his arms, stood, lifting both boys with him.
I didn't even consider offering him any help.
"Thanks. We'll see you in the morning."
When I walked past the guest room later that night, the door was open and the bedside light was on. All three Winchester 'men' were in one bed, sound asleep, John in the middle with Sammy tucked into one arm, Dean into another, and Harold and His Purple Crayon open across his chest. He'd apparently been reading it to them when they all fell asleep.
I decided I liked John Winchester after all.