Envy Eats Asphalt
It’s past midnight when John crosses into Nebraska and already he’s second-guessing his decision to leave the boys behind with Bobby. It doesn’t feel right. The interior of the Impala is cold with the absence of his son’s two warm, sleeping bodies. Sammy, especially, is better than a propane heater. And though Dean gripes about his brother invading his space, John smiles at how close Dean will cuddle to Sammy in his sleep. Kid needs some kinda warmth in his life; it might as well be body heat.
That’s how he imagines them right this moment, curled together like puppies in the twin bed Bobby set up for them in the washroom. Oblivious to the fact that their father—who hasn’t let them out of his sight for the last 18 months—has finally broken the chain.
“It’s the first honest-to-God lead I’ve had since Mary…”
“Can I trust him?”
“Harvelle’s young, but he’s damn good. Learned at his grandfather’s knee. If he says he’s got somethin’, he’s got somethin’.”
“But the boys…”
“They’ll be safe here with me. You got my word on that.”
“It’s the first time I’ve...”
“I know. So get your ass gone and back before you pussy out.”
“Take care of ‘em, Bobby.”
When he finally turns off Route 83 to start making some lefts and rights, he feels like he might actually be driving toward something rather than away from his sons, and the guilt he’s feeling takes a backseat to queasy anticipation. After all, Bill Harvelle found him. Called him up, didn’t know him from Adam, and said the tale of Mary Winchester had reached him. Said he had information to share. Did John wanna meet up? Go over what they both knew?
“Gimme an address.”
John brakes sharp, almost missing the turn-off. Had it not been pushing 3 a.m., the cabaret-esque “Harvelle’s Roadhouse” sign would have been shining like a beacon. As it is, he can only just make out a yellow light through a side window. He cranks the Impala’s wheel to the left and pulls into the dusty front yard, his eyes trained on the little light.
The motor idles and John takes a moment to judge if he can do this. For a year-and-a-half he’s been chasing down any lead that can get him closer to finding out what killed Mary. All while keeping his boys within an arm’s reach. And along the way he’s gotten himself a real fast education; met some hard-ass teachers. They schooled him on rock salt, silver blades and Latin, while he came armed with a back-catalog of Marine hoo-rah and an unquenchable, obsession-fueled fury. He was becoming a real driven mother-fucker, according to Caleb. Dangerous, too, if he wasn’t careful. But for all their experience, and his baptism-by-fire, no one was offering up the leads that mattered the most.
John pulls the keys from the ignition and hauls his stiff body out of the Impala. His breath whitens in the January night. Harvelle better not be shittin’ him.
“You John Winchester?”
The voice comes from the front door that he didn’t hear open. There’s no backlight to show who’s talking. Just a woman’s voice.
“I’m John,” he confirms, slow and low. “I’m looking for Bill Har—” and before he can finish a porch light snaps on, bouncing off the black hood of his car and into his eyes.
“He’s runnin’ late. Come on inside. I’ve got a pot on.”
John complies with the voice, which is gone by the time he reaches the door. Stepping over the threshold, he pauses, waiting for some guidance. When a low light flickers on across the room, he finally catches sight of her. She’s standing behind the bar. Mid-20s. Brown hair down the middle of her back, tied in a thick braid. A wide mouth and sharp eyes. Tight-strung body, or he guesses as much from what he can see of it through a man-sized flannel shirt. Striking in a one-wrong-move-and-I’ll-cut-you kinda way. She’s either a hunter or a groupie. Another hard look at her and he amends that. She’s too wary to be a hanger-on.
He wonders what she would have made of Mary’s heart, always on her sleeve.
“Shut the door or leave a fiver for the oil man,” the woman says as she fishes a coffee mug from under the bar. He closes the door behind him as she pours black caffeine, then reaches behind her on the shelf and grabs a bottle of Johnny Walker. Without asking, she adds a jigger’s worth and pushes it across the counter to him, just as he saddles up.
“Thanks,” he says, the whiskey hitting his nose before his throat.
She waits until he’s taken a long pull on the doctored coffee, and his eyes meet hers again.
“Pleased to meet you, Ellen.”
She glances past his head at the door, and he cranes his neck to follow, turning on the barstool. The doorway remains empty and when he looks back at her, her face flashes anxiety but she stuffs it away under his scrutiny.
“You need a bed for the night, I s’pose?”
“If you got one,” he rumbles, and Jesus that’s some strong-ass coffee. “If not, my car’ll do just fine.”
“We got space in the back. S’long as you don’t care about sharing a bathroom.”
John shakes his head 'no' and watches her watching the door, waiting.
“When were you expecting him?”
She slips and lets some worry show as she glances back at him. “He called from a truck stop on 80. Said he ran into a ‘roadblock.’”
She’s edgy, so John treads lightly. “How long ago?”
“’Bout three hours.” She bites her lip.
Clearing his throat, he asks, “He say what kind of ‘roadblock’?”
At that, her teeth flash and he gets the idea that this has something to do with him. And with Mary. And the information Bill Harvelle was going to share.
He has a sick feeling in his gut that he’s bringing trouble to their doorstep, and he’s not ruthless enough in his hunt for information—not ruthless enough yet—to catch this woman in the crosshairs of his drama. He sets the coffee mug down quietly and begins to rise from the stool, about to tell Ellen he’ll take a loop back out to the interstate and see what he can see before heading off, when the door bangs open and in strides a man looking like he’s just come off an ad campaign for Stetson. As tall as John minus 50 pounds, he’s the kind of lanky sonofabitch you can’t ever pin down in a fight—which he’s clearly just been in. He’s smeared with blood that looks to be less his and more in the “other” category to which John’s become accustomed. But even if the blood isn’t his, the limp is, and John guesses from how he enters the room that he’s gritting his teeth to fake it for Ellen.
Ellen, who’s skittering ‘round the bar with a face that could peel paint, making a bee line for the guy John nails as “Bill.”
John waits for the punch—sees Bill’s waitin’ for it, too, ready to block—and then Bill has his arms full. Literally. Apparently Ellen’s ire only takes her so far and instead of decking him, she’s hugging the shit out of him. Climbing him would be a more accurate description. And just like that Bill’s face breaks open with a rockling laugh and he’s kissing into her neck and getting nothing but hair and shirt collar and John hears him murmur, “S’okay, baby. I’m all in one piece.”
John turns his head and look out over the pool tables, not because he’s embarrassed, but because he’s trying to swallow a chunk of his aorta that’s suddenly crawled up into his throat. And for a countless time, his mind starts down a desolate path. If Mary were alive...
John clears his throat and looks back up to see Ellen has unwrapped herself from Bill and is wearing a scowl that doesn’t reach her eyes. She’s back to putting on a tough front, but the relief and joy can’t be hidden as well as the fear could. As for Bill himself, he’s beaming across the room at John.
“That’d be me,” John says, pushing thoughts of Mary and God-I-missed-you-I-don’t-know-if-I-wanna-screw-you-blind-or-kiss-you-stupid embraces back into the achy corners of his mind.
Bill’s smile stretches even wider as he crosses from the door with a bounce in his step, his hand outstretched. He’s bow-legged and cock-sure and not a day past 25, and when he grips John’s hand to shake it, his eyes are dancing. Which is when it strikes John: Holy shit. This fucker loves the job.
“Billy Harvelle. And don’t mind Ellie, she’s worrying for two these days,” he offers, and then cringes like a beaten dog before Ellen’s hand even makes contact with the back of his head. When the smack comes, Bill laughs on either side of an “ow” and grins. “Shit, woman.” And then to John, “It’s damned good t’ meet you.”
John wants to return the greeting, if not in tone than at least in sincerity, but he can’t find the words just yet. He’s too busy watching Ellen move back around the bar, her flannel shirt now askew and showing—how could he have missed it before?—a very pregnant belly.
Bill—or Billy, John amends—is peeling off his jacket and sending up a cloud of dust and cobweb, talking as he goes. “Damned haunted attic. Just once,” he plucks a strand of particularly nasty web out of his hair, “I’d like to find a ghost shacked up in a friggin’ penthouse. Some place real fancy. Like in Vegas or some shit like that.” John finds himself nodding and grinning in an automatic way that feels utterly false, but he’s swept up in this guy’s bustle. It’s unsettling enough for him to wonder if the man’s sporting a persuasion charm around his wrist. “I’ve heard a lot ‘bout you from hunters that pass through here,” Billy presses on, leading John back to the bar. “Every one of ‘em says the same thing. Says you’re the fiercest sonofabitch they ever come across.”
John’s heard this before. But usually “fiercest” is replaced by “craziest.” And he’s been getting it from both Bobby and Jim that he’s gotta take it down a notch or he’s going to make his boys orphans. So he’s trying to be more measured. More in control. Less reckless with his own life as long as Dean and Sammy are counting on him. Less hell-bent for immediate gratification. More acknowledgement that this ain’t gonna be over fast. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Mary would have said he was ‘maturing.’
Billy’s still talking and part of John is registering it, but when he finally does find words, they’re for Ellen, who’s pouring her—John glances at her hand for the first time and notes the gold ring—husband the same ‘house blend’ she offered John.
“How far along?”
She snaps her eyes up to his, then to Billy, before squinting back at John. He gets the idea most men who belly up to this particular bar don’t ask anything beyond, “Got nuts?” In fact, he can’t think why he’s asking either.
“Six months,” she answers sharply.
And without meaning to, “You know what it is?”
Ellen looks over John’s shoulder with raised eyebrows and John can sense Billy shrugging behind him as if to say he has no clue why John cares. Which is fine. John doesn’t know why he cares either. Or rather he does, and doesn’t want to think about it too much.
“A girl,” and her voice gets a little softer at that.
John gives a little “hmph” and remembers how Mary had been dead-set against finding out if Sammy would be Samuel or Samantha, even with the doctor trying to persuade her to embrace technology.
John had implored on Dean’s behalf. He could know if he was going to have to share his toys.
“It’ll spoil the surprise—and he’ll have to share them, regardless,” she’d insisted while they assembled Dean’s ‘big-boy’ bed.
John had listed the benefits. No blue and pink debates.
“We didn’t know with Dean, and he wasn’t scarred by wearing green and yellow,” she’d smiled across the table at him as she added up the books from the garage.
Out of decent reasons, John had landed a low blow. They could find out if something was wrong.
“Would you have done something different if you’d known what would happen to…her?” she’d demanded before slamming the door of the Impala in his face and leaving him to hitch a ride back to their house in a rainstorm.
John nods back at Ellen, feeling the fog around his head lift. There’s no use thinking about that kind of crap anymore.
“You got something for me, Harvelle?”
If Billy’s disappointed that John isn’t as chipper as he is, he doesn’t show it. Just nods to Ellen who pulls a weathered journal from behind the bar—much like the one John started keeping after November 2, 1983—and hands it to her husband.
“It was my granddad’s,” Billy begins and John starts to get the idea that this goes back a hell of a lot further that he thought.
“John Winchester!” she calls out from behind the bar. It’s packed and she’s slinging beers for a crowd that’s two rounds past rowdy, which makes John cast his eyes about for Bill who is, predictably, absent. Not for the first time since John’s taken up stopping in at The Roadhouse when he’s within a half-day’s drive does he wonder how Bill can stand leaving Ellen the way he does. It isn’t that he doubts she can take care of herself. But John knows for damn sure that if Mary were waiting for him, he’d turn his back on the “family business” and send up a big f-you to the demonic world.
Of course, if Mary were waiting for him...
Hindsight, being what it is.
“Hey, Ellen,” he rumbles hoarsely, because he hasn’t spoken to a soul in a day of solid driving. He’s left Dean in charge in Fort Douglas, Wisconsin, and under strict order not to leave the motel room. But something unidentifiable s’been nagging at him to get his ass back there. He’s learned to listen to that feeling. So he’s just here to get some laced coffee and a burger before pulling another 12 hours behind the wheel.
She’s pouring before he reaches the bar. He hasn’t seen her in about a year, which qualifies this as a regular visit in John’s nomadic lifestyle. She hasn’t changed a bit.
“Where’s your good-for-nothin’?”
Ellen snarls and angles her head in a westerly direction. “Got wind of a harpy in the Teton Pass.” She fills a new drink order as she talks, brushing a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “Left yesterday. So of course, that’s when the ‘convention’ comes to town.”
John surveys the room a second time and recognizes most of the scarred and stony faces. It’s a rough crowd but Ellen keeps an 870 Wingmaster beneath the bar and he’s seen her pump and level it in one fluid motion.
“Can’t be bad for business, though,” John comments absently, sinking into the cup of hot whisky-bitterness. He can feel his shoulders unknot even before the drink hits his gut.
Ellen shrugs. “Pays the bills. ‘Course, if that fucker comes back with windburn and stinking of hot chocolate, I’ll nail his ass to the dartboard with his ski-poles.”
John snorts into his coffee as Ellen fights a grin.
Ellen’s got things under control.
Or she does until a little barefooted thing appears at the usually locked door at the back of the saloon.
“Mommy?” the voice carries impossibly over the din of drunk hunters.
It’s a sleep-soaked sound John knows well. Lately Sammy’s been waking up in the middle of the night and creeping out into the living room where John wages little wars with insomnia while writing in his journal.
“Shit,” Ellen breathes in a tired way John recognizes; a parental dialect they both speak. She meets his eyes once, balefully, before transforming her face with a warm, wide smile. The smile she reserves for family. She jets out from behind the bar calling, “Joanna Beth, what are you doin’ up?”
John hasn’t seen Billy and Ellen’s daughter in a year either. And the times he has seen her, he’s tried not to look at her too hard. Or talk to her. Or make any contact with her at all. Little Jo Harvelle makes him think of too many what-ifs, and he has enough of those in his life.
What if Dean could actually stay in a school longer than six months and make a friend who wasn’t already his kid brother? What if Sammy could have that puppy he’s been begging for non-stop ever since he caught Lassie, Come Home on the Sunday morning movie?
What if instead of two, there were three?
He’s snapped from his reverie by Ellen’s curse, this time sharp and urgent. John knows that tone, too.
He’s already rising from the barstool when she turns to him with a frantic look.
“What is it, Ellen?” he’s asking, taking long, even steps to reach her. As he gets closer, he can see Jo’s pale face has two flaming spots on her cheeks and her eyes are glossy behind long eyelashes. Kid has a fever, he deduces even before Ellen says as much.
“She’s burning up,” Ellen moans, pulling Jo into her arms and lifting her up. Jo curls her arms around Ellen’s neck and the two parents lock eyes over the sick girl’s shoulder. “This ain’t a normal fever...” she murmurs and John sees real fear settle over Ellen’s fiery features. “Shit, John...” she whispers, the hardness and age she projects just falling away and exposing her for the young mother she is, experiencing her child’s first serious health crisis.
For him and Mary it was Dean and pneumonia at age 3.
“You take her to the hospital,” John says quietly. “I’ll run things here.”
Ellen doesn’t even say “thank you” as she grabs her keys, wraps a coat around Jo and dashes out the front door. And John likes her even more for that fact. And he likes Billy a little less for it, too.
After Ellen’s gone, John rings the bell above the register to call “last round” but doesn’t get the place cleaned out until nearly 4 a.m. He keys off the register and leans into the counter, contemplating his options. He’s too beat to drive now. He’d run off the road for sure. So he finds an empty bed in the back and intends to sleep for an hour but crashes for five instead. Before he hits the road at dawn, he tapes a sign to the front door of The Roadhouse saying it’s closed for repairs. On the bar, he leaves a note for Billy in a sealed envelope that cryptically updates him on the hunt for the demon, and in between the lines he makes it clear he thinks Bill’s a selfish fuck. And he calls Ellen at the hospital. She sounds just this side of holding it together, but she doesn’t ask John to come to the hospital so he doesn’t. He prefers to think she’d know she could ask if she really wanted him there.
“It’s pneumonia,” she tells him, and his throat tightens because he can see Mary with her head resting on the hospital bed, her hand spread wide over Dean’s tiny fluid-filled chest.
He drives straight through to Wisconsin without a break because the nagging feeling is back full force. As it is, he’s only just in time to order Dean to the ground and get off a full round at the striga feeding on Sammy, but misses the chance to actually kill it. He snags the boys and throws them in the car, terrified at how close he almost came to losing Mary’s youngest; how easily he’d made it Dean’s fault. As they drive eastward through the night, John knows he’s a selfish fuck, too.