I watch Bobby pour another shot of whiskey and push my glass forward, dislodging the papers scattered across the table between us. He takes the hint and fills both glasses. I’ve lost count of the number of shots I’ve downed tonight, but the bottle is looking suspiciously empty. I raise the glass to my lips and empty it in one, enjoying the smooth burn of the whiskey going down. The room sways a little and I know I’m gonna pay for this in the morning.
Who the fuck cares?
“So,” I say, and though I’ll admit I ain’t the best judge tonight, I don’t think my voice is slurred, “you got another name for me?”
Bobby squints at me over his glass. “You want one?” He pours a fresh shot for me.
“Every time we come here, you send me to someone else,” I remind him. “I’m just wondering what the endgame is.” I’m hoping he’ll be impressed I figured it out. I’m disappointed.
Bobby takes off his filthy trucker’s cap, scratches his head and replaces it. He downs his last shot, leans back in his chair and nods. “When someone who ain’t part of this world runs into the supernatural – or it slams into them – they can deal with it in a lot of different ways. Most like denial. Pretend it never happened, or it was some kind of temporary insanity.”
I already know this, but Bobby’s going somewhere with his little speech and I’m drunk. So I shut up and let him talk.
“The ones who believe it, well, they can go two ways. Some of ’em will be scared for the rest of their lives. They’ll pick up bits of lore from books and horror movies. Some of it’ll be right. They lock themselves up, scared of shadows. Some of ’em go crazy.”
He sees the bottle is empty and produces a silver hip flask to refill his glass. He pours me a shot, too, which I take without a word. Bobby sips his own glass more slowly, this time, his eyes on me.
“Then there’s the ones like you, John. The ones who need to do something about it. Those ones stumble around in the dark for a while, but eventually they’ll always run into a hunter. If they don’t get themselves killed first.”
“What’s your point?” I ask, beginning to get impatient with the lecture. I reach for the empty whiskey bottle and upend it over my glass. A few last drops grudgingly fall.
“There’s a kind of unwritten code among hunters. How to deal with the rookies. We don’t talk about it, mostly, but we all know the rules.”
Uh-huh. Now we’re getting somewhere. “Gonna clue me in? Or am I supposed to crack the code myself?”
Bobby chuckles; I’ve surprised him, though I’m not sure how. Or why he’s surprised.
“If you’re the first hunter he’s met, you do your best to persuade him to go home. Not because he can’t cut it. None of us could, when we started. It’s because there’s a point of no return, and there ain’t a hunter alive who doesn’t wish he’d turned back before he got there. Mark my words, John Winchester, there’ll come a day you’ll be willin’ to sell your soul for a chance to turn back.”
I scowl at him. I wish every goddamned minute that I wasn’t on this road, but I don’t have a choice. Does he think I want this life? Does he think I wouldn’t give anything to be back in Lawrence, a struggling mechanic with a family? A happy family. If I had a point of no return, I passed it before any hunter found me. I passed it the night my wife burned on that ceiling.
“If you can’t talk some sense into him,” Bobby goes on, “you do what you can to help. It’s tricky. Sometimes he’s broken enough to listen, but mostly the broken ones don’t become hunters. So you tell a little of what you know and you give him the name of someone who can tell him more. Might take him a while to check it out, but if he’s gonna hunt he’ll get around to it.”
I finally realise he’s talking about me. Bobby gave me one name. Who sent me to someone else. Who had another name for me. It’s not been a wild goose chase, exactly, because each contact did have something useful for me, but still it felt a lot like I was getting the runaround. I’m beginning to understand that’s not what it was. The hunters are not an organised army; hell, they ain’t organised at all. They’re just isolated men and women, each with their own mission, who happen to know about each other’s existence.
“So, where does it end?” I ask. Do I go from one contact to the next for a year? Two? Ten?”
Bobby shakes his head. “We ain’t teachin’ school, John. No one decides for you when you graduate. You’ll know when it’s time.”
I don’t respond this time, just shrug, waiting for him to go on.
Bobby’s eyes are a little glazed now, and I’m not at all sure he’s going to make his point before he passes out. Or maybe it ain’t the alcohol. Maybe that look is his mind turning inward, and this isn’t about me any more. I don’t know.
“One morning you wake up and the life you had before she passed isn’t real any more,” he says. “The normal life, the business, the mortgage...the future you planned. All that happened to someone else. Whoever you are now, you were born when she passed. There’s nothin’ else.”
Bobby sighs heavily. “Most likely, you take a bottle of whiskey for breakfast that day. Maybe another for lunch, too. At the end of the day, if you ain’t dyin’ of alcohol poisoning or from eating your own gun, you’re a hunter.” He raises his empty glass to me with a bitter smile. “Congratulations. You graduated.”
I’d like to put a bullet between his eyes for making me face that particular truth. He’s right, of course. I had a life before. I had parents, and visited them every month at least. I went to school. I played football. I fought in a war. I loved a woman. We were married on a spring day and it rained the whole day and neither of us cared, because it was our day. None of that feels true to me any more. I can’t remember the scent of her skin or the sound of her laughter.
But as true as Bobby’s words are, he’s wrong, too. In the next room is something from that former life that still matters to me. I turn around in my chair to look at them.
Dean is lying on his side with his back to the room. The blanket is down around his waist, but that’s okay, because his pyjamas are thick and warm. He has one arm draped around his brother, keeping him safe.
Sammy lies between Dean and the back of the couch. The blanket is tucked around his chin. They are both safe and warm, unaware of the bitter truths we’ve spoken tonight.
Dean, I think, will understand what Bobby is telling me. His life ended that night, too. Sammy is too young. One day he, too, will know these things. But not now.
The boys are all I have left of the man I used to be. I will keep them safe. Always.