You will not kill the head of the PTA.
Barbie Bowersox is not evil. She dresses for PTA meetings as though she's going to a Sunday church service in 1953 and she has an evangelical devotion to the concept of bake sales, but that doesn't make her evil. Neither do the white gloves she wears for all occasions or the eerie ice-blue of her eyes. None of those things mean that she is the least bit evil.
So you will not kill the head of the PTA, no matter how many ways you could kill her with the simple everyday objects in the child's desk you're sitting at.
You could decapitate her with a protractor, given enough time and a bit of quiet.
"It's a wonderful theme, really, one that will bring a smile to the faces of everyone who comes into the gym," Barbie drawls, her lips pressed into a saccharine mockery of a grin. You used to joke to the ex-husband on occasion that staring at Barbie's sticky-sweet simper for longer than a minute has been clinically proven to send any given person into diabetic shock. "And as with our most successful themes, I propose we extend the theme to our confections."
You try not to choke with laughter as Barbie continues. Today's discussion involves the Spring Break bake sale this Sunday, not to be confused with the Easter Treats bake sale, the April Fools bake sale, or the Non-Denominational Late-March bake sale. There is no such thing as an alternate means to generate funds for the Junebug Elementary PTA. Barbie's stance on bake sales is almost pathological.
Sometimes while stirring yet another batch of peanut butter brownie batter you imagine Barbie doing obscene things with Anna Bushnell's famous maple walnut cupcakes and burst into fits of laughter that confuse the hell out of your boys, especially since you certainly can't tell them why Mommy can't stop giggling.
With a theme like Spring Break, you'd think that at least one of the other mothers here would have reached the obvious conclusion when told to decorate their cakes or pies with some sort of Spring-Break-related item in lovingly homemade icing, but you doubt it. The other moms may not reach Barbie's level of dedication to antiquated fashion choices, but they all wear skirts and do their hair before they come to PTA meetings, always sit serenely in their tiny uncomfortable seats and nod along with Barbie's strangely fanatic baking suggestions.
You're lucky if you're wearing clean jeans when you come to these damn meetings, and freely enjoy the sneers of disgust from the others at the sight of well-worn denim and comfortable T-shirts.
"For example," Barbie says, an edge of excitement creeping into her singsong voice as she raises an artistic rendering done in colored pencils, "I've drawn up a few plans for those of you on cupcake duties – Emily, Amy, Anna. I've sketched some lovely scenes of the sun and the beach –"
You bite your lip to keep from asking if she's done any mock-ups of cupcakes decorated with little bikini tops or tiny bottles of tequila.
"And you cake makers, I've got a few for you as well," she declares in a dizzying sort of glee, and passes a pair of obnoxiously blue pictures – of what, it's hard to see from where you sit in the back of the classroom – to Lee and Dee, the identical twins who always put together extraordinary cake displays meant to make your jaw drop. Pity the cakes themselves tasted like wood glue and shavings licked up out of a rusty barrel.
Barbie eyes you with a thinly veiled look of disdain. "And as for Mary," she says, "we always do so enjoy your peanut butter brownies."
Someone on the right side of the room barely suppresses a squealing giggle and whispers something that sounds suspiciously like "Betty Crocker."
You shoot a glare in that direction. You're not allowed to kill the head of the PTA, no, but maybe you can kill Anna Bushnell and no one will give a damn.
Fuck her famous maple walnut cupcakes.
After the PTA meeting, you could stay behind and stab Barbie Bowersox in the neck with a silver shrimp fork. You keep one in your purse, the one thing in your parents' house you could summon up the nerve to take before kissing their foreheads, lighting the fire, and making a run for it.
Instead, however, you weave between the gossiping mothers still huddling up in the lobby of Junebug Elementary, pointedly ignoring them to head home for a nice quiet Friday night alone. It should be criminal for Barbie to schedule PTA meetings on Friday nights, but a lot of things about Barbie Bowersox should be criminal and simply aren't, like the tone of her voice and her insane fixation with baked goods.
You grumble the whole way home through downtown Junebug about Stepford wives and how one draws a burst condom in blue icing on a cupcake top, blissfully ignoring the unnervingly normal goings-on outside the windows of the old Chevy. You're well-practiced at not noticing after a year and a half in this town.
Junebug is the perfect small town. You hate every damn inch of it.
Precisely one thousand people live in Junebug, including you and the ex and the kids. There's not an empty storefront or upturned park bench to be seen, not a lick of defaced property or a single roof tile missing from any of the homes in town. No, sir, no lost jobs or failed businesses here. Junebug is the sort of idyllic town every young family dreams of finding and moving into with their kids and never leaving.
You've become fairly sure over the past year and a half that it's a barely disguised portal to hell.
Not literally, of course. You did check.
There is no crime in Junebug. There are no bars or tattoo parlors or gun stores, no place where questionable sorts might linger. The police force consists of one no-frills bungalow serving as the local police station, one dilapidated cruiser that's older than you are, and two middle-aged men who spend ninety percent of their workday playing endless rounds of Go Fish at the third booth from the door at the Glider Diner.
There are also no monsters here. Not a one.
You checked that as well, first out of ingrained paranoia, then out of pure boredom. You even thought about digging up a few random graves at Junebug Memorial before dismissing the worthiness of wasting a night upending the neighbor's Great-Aunt Elsie's well-tended grave looking for spooks. There's nothing within the city limits of Junebug, not an angry ghost or a meddling demon or even a garden gnome with a head cold.
You should be grateful.
But that doesn't stop you from scanning the shadowed depths of the trimmed bushes surrounding the lawns that you pass, hoping to see a pair of glowing yellow eyes glaring back at you. You don't want to look. You just can't help it these days.
You pull into your driveway a bit faster than necessary, the black Chevy skidding to a stop with a resultant scatter of loose gravel. You get out of the car to spot old Mr. Ivanson next door clipping away at his lilac bushes, giving your hasty arrival, your cluttered lawn, and your general appearance a derisive sniff.
"Hello, Mr. Ivanson," you say.
"Miss Campbell," he says, his voice tight with disapproval. There's no polite greeting to his tone. Mr. Ivanson goes to church every Sunday and Wednesday. He mows his lawn every Saturday, gets his hair cut every other Thursday, and performs basic car maintenance on the first of every month. He's tidy and trim and traditional, and he absolutely hates that he has to refer to you as Miss Campbell now that the ink is dry on the divorce papers. You don't hate the ex, not really, but he let you have the kids and the house. Might as well let the man have his name back.
You haul your overladen purse out of the car and flash Mr. Ivanson a bright smile as you shut the door. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
It's one hell of a set-up. You waver in your head, not sure whether you want to place your bets on "Well, it was" or "Would be if you'd straighten up your lawn." It could go either way. Mr. Ivanson loves a good patronizing lecture, be it short or long, private or public.
Instead he simply sniffs once again, closing his hedge clippers with a snap and stomping towards his garage.
You try not to be offended. It's easier than it should be, considering his indignant offense isn't without basis. Well-used toys litter your yard: wiffleballs and Big Wheels, a large cardboard fort held together with duct tape and a prayer and rippled at the bottom from morning dew. You've never seen the use of bringing them all inside. The kids will simply haul them all back outside tomorrow or the next day, and when the fort crumples to a wet heap of pulp they'll cheer at getting to build a new one.
The one thing you love about Junebug is your house. It's a minor fairy tale, a colorful bungalow carved from marzipan. Blink yourself to blurry vision and you'll suspect the house has been drawn in fat kindergarten crayons by a toddler architect and built out of gingerbread and gumdrops.
The ex didn't fight you over the house in the divorce. Smart man.
Crossing over the threshold into the living room unsettles you more than it should. You manage not to sneak a glance at the doorjamb and shiver at the lack of salt there today, a rare occurrence. You got lazy in your glorious retirement, you'll admit that, and somewhere along the line it stopped mattering what the house is missing.
No wards, no protective sigils. It's almost like you're daring some monster to invade your home.
You heave a sigh and drop your purse onto the couch, savoring the silence in the house. It's Thursday, of course, meaning the kids will be with their father for the weekend, picked up from school and deposited quite happily in his apartment above Mike's Garage. You have the place to yourself, and you wallow in it.
Summoning up all of your domestic instincts, you sigh once again and head off into the kitchen to gather up the peanut butter and fudge. Might as well bake while the silence is still golden.
By eight-thirty you've forgotten your violent tendencies towards Barbie Bowersox and are well on your way to being warmly, comfortably plastered. You're home alone, drinking with all your friends. This means you're holding what's left of your third glass of red wine and watching a blurred snowy airing of An Officer And A Gentleman on the one television station that Junebug receives with anything remotely approaching clarity when the doorbell rings.
You're pretty sure, you realize as you put aside the glass, that someone's getting murdered tonight. You're also pretty sure before you even open the front door exactly who you'll be killing. You should place a bet, honestly.
Your ex barges in before you can stop him. Your oldest yawns as he stumbles in after his father, already sleepy-eyed.
"I'm sorry about this," he's saying, and a jumble of familiar excuses follows – something about a ghoul, some dead kids, some podunk town in Nebraska. Your youngest naps against his father's shoulder, undisturbed by the jostling.
"Jack," you hear yourself say, his name a warning with a slurred hitch.
He's upstairs and depositing your youngest in his bed before you can stop him. Your oldest shuffles off to his bedroom without prompting. Maybe he can already see the fight coming and doesn't have the energy left after a long day at school to bear witness.
Jack's still trailing excuses behind him as he tucks the Transformers bedspread over your youngest, as he swerves neatly around you to exit the bedroom. He keeps talking as he reaches the padlocked door to the basement. Telling the boys not to go down into the basement may work but a good solid padlock will work. Unlike you at their age, the boys haven't done lock-picking drills since they were three.
Jack stomps down the stairs into the basement with you close on his heels, still talking, his footfalls heavy and louder than they should be with the boys asleep upstairs. Maybe he's trying to smother your arguments with the noise before they even come to life. It's not a stretch.
"Jim called me," he says, unlocking the trunk under the stairs. "We're the closest," he adds, fishing out more than enough weapons for one measly hunt.
"I could take the hunt," you say.
He shakes his head as he checks for ammo. "No, Mare, don't worry. I can handle it."
"I didn't say you couldn't," you argue. "And so can I, or maybe you didn't notice while you were still living here."
He finally deigns to look you in the eye, an apologetic light brightening behind his eyes. "Oh, I noticed."
He doesn't sound quite as sarcastic as he could under the circumstances. Not even a little bit. You rein in your righteous anger and say, "You get the boys on the weekend, Jack. They get upset when you do this. They want to spend time with you, they don't want to get abandoned for whatever secret thing Daddy would rather do than hang out with them."
"It's not about that and you know it," Jack snaps, then lowers his voice and turns away when he realizes just what territory you're both heading into. Neither one of you should fight with a pile of weapons nearby. You won't shoot one another but you'll definitely put a few holes in some poor defenseless walls.
You glare at the broad expanse of his back, seething and boiling, your swelling irritation fueled by a liberal dose of cheap wine from the next county over. You think viciously, John wouldn't do this. John would be here, still wearing his wedding ring. John wouldn't leave his kids when he's supposed to be watching them. John wouldn't be rummaging through my damn arsenal, because there wouldn't even be a damn arsenal if John were here.
It's no wonder you're divorced. After all, you're still having an imaginary affair with a dead man.
It's ten years ago, give or take, when Jack slams you into the grimy damp wall outside a pathetic trendy nightclub, the speakers inside pumping out disco music at painful levels, his body pressing you against the bricks as you fumble with his cumbersome leather belt.
This is the first night you meet the man you're going to marry.
You find out his name later. You don't feel the need to know who to curse at when you're both arguing over who gets to end the bloody rampage of a particularly dangerous black dog – you end up getting the kill in the end, and maybe do a victory dance in your motel room which you'll never admit to later – but when you discover your hasty white-hot wallbanger with a job-stealing stranger knocked you up, you figure it's only fair you find out the guy's name. Maybe you'll even look up Daddy Dearest himself and give him the joyous news. Maybe not.
Or maybe you'll just go get a damn abortion and be on your merry way like any smart woman in your position would do.
You have no savings and no job. You hustle for cash in pool halls and boost wallets in crowded malls and bars. You torched the only home you've ever known with your parents placed carefully in their beds and the man you planned to marry tucked underneath your bedspread, his neck kinked by snapped bones.
You have dead parents and a dead boyfriend and no home, nothing to grab onto and clutch for badly needed comfort except the far-too-familiar weight of a gun in your hand.
You dream of meatloaf dinners and mortgage payments, but you hunt. The hunt is the only thing you have left that feels like home.
Except now there's this kid.
You hold onto the crumpled slip of paper you get from a friend of a friend of a friend of your father's for a whole week and debate your options. You stare at little boys on playgrounds, fat babies in strollers, joking teenagers sneaking cigarettes down dark alleys. You research three jobs in three different states and fight and fight and fight with yourself over whether or not to take them. You catch yourself wishing every once in a while that you'd kept your baby pictures.
Eight days after a slurring Willard Bates slips you the phone number at some rundown bar in Tennessee, you call the damn number.
A week later, you and Jack share an uncomfortable midnight breakfast at a Denny's in Pocatello. You argue with him over the way you put ketchup on your scrambled eggs and complain about the vague scent of motor oil and industrial soap that lingers on Jack's hands from his day job. He shrugs off any questions about his past and shoots your stomach suspicious looks one too many times.
You eat your ketchup-slathered eggs and miss John.
You miss John so much it hurts. The sore gaping hole in your heart that throbs when you think of him pounds painfully every time your gaze connects in brief shocking bursts with Jack's. You miss John so much when you look at Jack – who looks nothing like him, who only shares the most basic traits, like his job and being male and annoyingly handsome – that you can barely swallow, your throat a veritable desert. The more you miss John the more you hate this ignorant interloper who had the unmitigated gall to impregnate you against the outside of a bar accompanied by the irritating song stylings of Donna Summer.
You hate him so much you very nearly throw the fork at him more than once, hoping to impale him in one of his narrowed doubting eyes.
Four months later, you marry him anyway.
You wake up from the nightmare earlier than usual.
You fell asleep on the couch after finishing off another glass of wine following Jack's rushed apologetic exit and the echoing squeal of his tires in the night. So when you bolt awake you immediately wince, your muscles complaining at being contorted into a narrow fetal position on the secondhand love seat. You're usually pretty good at holding your liquor, or at least at flushing the glow of drunkenness from your bloodstream fairly quickly, but your body's still saddled by the combined imprints of age and childbirth and hunting.
You sit up and work out the kinks, the physical ones with a few stretches and the pop of protesting joints, the mental ones with the usual deep cleansing breaths.
You're used to the nightmare by now. You've been having it for over a decade, after all.
The boys are still fast asleep when you look in on them. You check on the baby after a quick peek in on your older boy, even as you remind yourself that he's not a baby, not anymore. Once a kid's in kindergarten and you have to start quantifying the moniker with, "Well, you're my baby," referring to your kid as a baby is more than a bit cloying.
Sammy sprawls once he gets settled, so finding a spot on his bed not occupied by a chubby hand or twitching feet takes a moment. You finally sit on a tiny square of bedspread that appears not to be covering a limb and reach out, brushing tangled locks from Sammy's closed, sleepy eyes.
You do this after every nightmare. You get up and you look at your boys if they're here, or stare in sullen silence at their school pictures if they're not. You sit on their bed and stare at them every night, and you wonder.
You love your sons. You do. The one thing you and Jack can both agree on is that your sons come first, and that's enough for you to get along with the son of a bitch most days.
But every night after you wake up in a cold sweat, you wonder, and you want.
You wonder if John would have given you sons as well, if he would have been as willing as Jack to let you name them after your poor dead parents. If he ever would have found out about the hunt. If he would have been horrified by the things you've done in the name of family and vengeance.
You want those boys, the sons John would have fathered or the daughters he would have gleefully cradled in his arms. They might as well be real for how much you crave their brilliant smiles and infectious laughter and the sight of John's bright eyes and strong jaw on small growing faces.
You compare that Sam and Dean to your Sam and Dean, and just like every other night, you hate yourself for it.
"Mom, can I have a brownie?"
"Not for breakfast, kiddo," you say to Dean on Saturday morning. "Besides, those are for the bake sale."
Dean pulls a face and goes back to poking at the soggy mass of half-eaten Frosted Flakes currently clotting in a limp tan mass in his green plastic cereal bowl. Sam glances over at his brother over his Rice Krispies, chewing his mouthful with happy gusto, then switches to the same pout as his brother for no other reason than Dean's doing it. You sigh and rumple his hair before turning back to the sink to rinse out your coffee cup.
Jack rumbled something during his whirlwind departure two nights ago about how he planned on calling you yesterday, about giving the boys his heartfelt apology over the phone. He hadn't called yesterday, but it would have been a first if he had. When Jack is on a job, he focuses to the point of amnesia. You hate that you wonder sometimes if he even remembers he has kids when he's holding a gun in his hands, awash in fresh gore and staring down something soaked in blood and baring dripping fangs.
He never asks if you want to come along. Someone has to stay home and be the designated widow, you suppose, and you usually do pretty well suppressing the hot explosive flash of anger that sparks through you when that thought flares in your mind on occasion.
You peer out the kitchen window as you wash and dry the few dishes in the sink. It's a bright and sunny Saturday morning, which means cheery women pushing strollers and kids riding shiny bikes down the sidewalk crossing the far side of your lawn. In a half hour, the boys will be out there as well, Dean making all of the decisions about what game they'll be playing, Sammy bounding along after him with typical youthful trust.
Before you moved to Junebug, Saturday mornings meant the boys in their pajamas until noon, happily shoveling Froot Loops into their mouths as they watched a dozen different cartoons in a row. Junebug's local station fills its Saturday morning lineup with baking shows and outdoor programming featuring an overabundance of hunters patiently sitting for hours in expensive tree stands. Thanks to that particularly boring lineup, the boys haven't stayed inside after finishing breakfast on any Saturday since you moved to Junebug save the weekend they both got chickenpox.
Dean bounds out the kitchen door five minutes later without finishing off the shellacked remainder of his breakfast. Sam follows, hot on his heels, a droplet of milk still dribbling down his chin from the healthy slug he took of what was left in his cereal bowl. You debate calling outside to get Dean to come back in and finish off his breakfast but he'll just pretend not to hear you.
It doesn't pass your notice that neither Dean nor Sammy bother to ask if their father called. They know better. Jack can be … oh, let's call it flighty. Absent-minded. Confounded by the basic concept of priorities, if you will.
You sigh in frustration and scrub a bit too hard at a drinking glass, nearly fumbling it from your grasp.
That's when you catch a glimpse of the red pickup parked across the street.
Your gaze narrows in suspicion over the clamoring forms of your children playing in the front yard. You continue to scrub at the breakfast dishes, an absent gesture, but you're doing a terrible job of concealing your open glare at the stranger sitting on the other side of Hudson Street from the strangest home in Junebug.
You can't see the driver from this distance. A perfect combination of the tree-lined street and the early-morning sun shades the window in a dark shadow-speckled haze.
You know it's a stranger, though, someone not from Junebug. The truck's plates are out of state, the body showing the first signs of persistent rust encroaching from below. People from Junebug don't know people like this, or at least don't admit they do.
The truck pulls away before you can decide on a next move. It chugs away with determined slowness, noxious clouds trailing from the exhaust, a crumbling real-life version of the Little Engine That Could.
Five minutes later, you're in the basement tucking your best throwing knives into the waistband of your jeans.
Better safe than sorry.
You've still got the knives tucked into your jeans the next day when you plop your platter of peanut butter brownies down onto the PTA's table outside the weekly town hall meeting in City Hall.
The boys scamper off to the playroom down the hall, long ago having learned that the town hall meeting will be the height of boredom and that every other mother presenting their elaborate baked goods for sale will snap at them in almost gleefully vicious warnings if they so much as look sideways at anything on display. They certainly won't let any child touch them, much less yours. Mary Campbell's poor tortured children of divorce are clearly too emotionally questionable for anyone to even consider selling them anything. They'll find some excuse not to let Dean or Sam have a cupcake featuring a cresting wave with a tiny plastic surfer – good luck trying to not to choke on that, everyone else's small children – or a slice of the three-tiered sandcastle cake that looks as though it's been transplanted directly from the nearest beach. They always find an excuse, and the boys know better by now than to even ask.
Hmm. Perhaps you should try a bit harder to make friends. There has to be somebody in the PTA who's secretly a tolerable individual.
You sigh as you straighten the plastic-wrapped platter on the table, arranging it neatly between the sandcastle and a mostly gumpaste cake in the shape of a VW bus carrying its cargo of enthusiastic surfers and gleaming boards to some imaginary beach. Your poor brownies. They're going to develop a complex surrounded as they are by such smug confectionery company.
You can barely hear what's going on in the town hall meeting, but unlike the rest of the PTA you don't much care. Besides you, Emily Tarkoff – the only PTA member who stayed behind to man the cashbox, as if there will even be customers at a time like this – cranes in an unapologetic lean toward the cracked-open door. Her head tilts so far to the right that her left ear might catch the debate over the four parking meters in town, and her church-ready pillbox hat appears to be at a jauntier angle than it actually is.
You smooth down your tight white sweater as your lips twist in a wry smile. Skipping church. Another way to distance yourself from everybody else in town. They must all sit around in St. Agnes every week supposing you're out robbing them blind while Junebug's pretty much deserted.
"Look, sweetie. Something that's actually edible."
You whip your head around at the teasing whiskey-rough voice, surprise drawing an unwanted gasp from your lips. Your surprise takes root and stays when you see the woman standing on the other side of the table.
Junebug's a small town, a slice of cool perfection with its pristine tourist-ready main drag and Sunday brunches at the tea shoppe. You know every lipstick-bearing June Cleaver in this town and this woman, with her well-worn flannel shirt and wry makeup-free expression, isn't one of them. Unbidden images dawn in your mind with her words and appearance: your favorite pair of comfortable jeans, your father's most used pair of hunting boots, your mother's fresh strawberry rhubarb pie.
She speaks without speaking of rough, laidback homestyle comfort, and you like it.
It takes a moment for you to realize she isn't speaking to you, or at least not fully, but to the sleepy blonde toddler in her arms. The girl is two years old or maybe three, with her thumb jammed firmly between her lips. She still wears her pajamas, light green ones with scampering kittens, even though her tiny feet dangle in air encased in red sneakers that don't match her PJs.
"Well, I wouldn't call them edible," you say, unable to restrain your smile.
The woman chokes back a laugh. "They're a damn sight more edible than the sandcastle."
"You know it's not a real sandcastle, right?"
"Sure, you know that and I know that, but this stubborn little cuss –" She pats the little girl's thigh. "– would argue us on it even if we handed her the biggest piece and doused it liberally in strawberries."
You grin and lean closer to look into the girl's still heavy-lidded eyes. "Aw, already fighting with Mommy? Didn't get the memo you're supposed to save that until you're a teenager, huh?"
The girl sucks harder on her thumb as she buries her face in the woman's shoulder.
The woman's eyes cloud with something a bit more sad than you saw coming, and she strokes the little girl's back absently with her free hand. "She's not much of a talker," she says, her voice laden with silent apology. "She still finds a way to argue when she has to, though."
Your grin dials down to a respectable low-key smile, safe and sympathetic. "Don't they always?" you say, then reach down to pick up the peanut butter brownies with a resigned sigh. "Peanut butter brownies are the only thing I can bake without setting off the smoke alarm. Cooking, I can do. Fancy baking, not so much."
The woman smiles as she digs into her jeans pocket with her free hand. "Well, hell, it's a good thing we like peanut butter brownies, then. Huh, Jo?"
The little girl's head bobs in what might be a nod, her face still pressed firmly into her mom's shoulder.
"My boys will be so disappointed," you say, swapping the brownies for the worn ten-dollar bill the woman holds out to you. "The brownies are usually the only things left on the table after the bake sale, so they inevitably come right back home with me."
She waves you off when you move to get her change and you hand Emily the money to put in the lockbox with a thin swell of accomplishment you hate more than you'll ever admit. Emily makes a face as she tucks the money into the currently empty lockbox. This is the first time you've had the first sale. Hell, this is the first time you've ever had a sale.
The woman gives the platter of brownies a wry smile.
"What do you think, baby?" she says to the little girl. "Brownies for breakfast?"
She perks up as her mom walks away with her in her arms. You can't help but smile at the hopeful look on the little girl's face as she suddenly develops a fascination with the platter of brownies. Your boys would blow a happy blood vessel if you offered them brownies for breakfast.
You wonder briefly what the special occasion is, then grumble under your breath when you're drawn out of your musings by Emily's disapproving frown and the approach of Reverend Patterson's wife, cooing in overwhelmed awe over the sandcastle cake.
Jack still hasn't called by the time you see the kids off to school on Monday and head to work.
You try not to worry as you answer another phone call with a far-too-cheery, "Clarion Insurance, this is Mary. How may I help you?" After a year, the greeting's become reflex. You've answered your home phone that way every so often, drawing a hearty laugh out of Jack every time. He's the only one who ever calls you.
You transfer another call to Mr. Smith in human resources. Mr. Smith is human resources, in all honesty, and considering you can count your co-workers on one hand with fingers to spare he may as well be policing his own attendance and vacation days.
You sigh as you hang up the phone, removing your paperback from the file drawer you've stashed it in. You have a teaching degree, framed and everything. You have no idea where the degree is, the frame and its contents misplaced in the move and not entirely necessary anyway with no job openings available in the miniscule Junebug education system. In your most bitter moments at assorted parent-teacher nights you've stared at the painfully ancient but firmly entrenched teaching staff at your kids' school and thought, All I have to do is wait long enough. Like until next Tuesday. One of them is bound to drop dead in the middle of class eventually and create a rare opening in the local job market.
"Fernando ripped through any bodices yet?"
You slap the romance shut and try not to blush at the companionable grin on Mr. Jones' face as he emerges from his office. "Sorry about that," you say, slipping the book back into your desk. You're not a big fan of romances – you sport a few too many scorch marks from real-life romantic burns to enjoy the fictional versions – but you found the paperback a few months ago tucked deep into one of the office's file cabinets, presumably left behind by a previous bored secretary, and tossed it into your desk rather than the wastebasket.
Mr. Jones huffs out a laugh and waves a dismissive hand. "Don't worry about that," he says, then leans close and stage-whispers, "If I were out here, I'd have blown through 'War And Peace' by now."
Your boss's cheery tone brings a reluctant smile to your lips. Mr. Jones is ten or so years older than you are, the sort of good-natured office manager who appears to have gotten his position more from his natural rapport than for his professional talent. Whether or not that's true is debatable. He's nice enough to you, pays well, makes polite inquiries about your kids and doesn't throw fits if you leave early for parent/teacher conferences during the school year or Dean's Little League games in the summer.
The fact that he's the only person in town who doesn't treat you like a leper goes a long way.
"How are those boys of yours?" he asks. "Still a couple of scrappers?"
He playfully punches the air in that joshing way you've come to expect from men in expensive suits and shoes their wives or housekeepers polish to a high shine on a daily basis. "They're just as much trouble as they always are," you say.
You don't bother to amend the statement to make Dean and Sammy look like the perfectly normal boys they are, which isn't what Mr. Jones is looking for. Mr. Jones doesn't have kids and wants to think your boys bound through life as though they're starring in some humorous children's novel, possibly featuring a goat or a Viking hat or a large piece of paper used in creative and heartwarming ways. Mr. Jones wants to think that Dean and Sammy skip through town getting into trouble and getting right back out of it just by the strength of their roles as clever scamps.
"Tell you what," he says, clapping his hands together. "The next time you bring Dean and Sam around, you give me fair warning and I'll have something special waiting for them. How's that sound?"
You force a smile, and picture him presenting them with BB guns or dirt bikes. It could go either way, or both if you're really unlucky.
Mr. Jones heads back into his office, humming something peppy and old-fashioned under his breath that could have been somewhere in your mother's record collection, melted to an unrecognizable lump two states and fifteen years ago.
You shake your head as your gaze drifts toward the plate-glass window at the front of the office.
The red truck sits across the street.
You shoot to your feet in an instant, torn between staying where you are and striding outside with fists clenched to give whoever it is a piece of your mind. You wish you could believe the damn thing wasn't following you, but you've developed a healthy thread of paranoia over the years. It sparked to life after your parents and John died, and in the years in between their dime-store cremation and your alleyway impregnation that paranoia of yours got a good healthy shine on it, that's for damn sure.
You silently debate your options, what few of them there are, but before you can do anything more than soak yourself in unease, the engine on the truck stutters to life. A moment later, it pulls out of its parking space, more gently than you'd expect for the escape that it is.
You reach around under the pressed silk of your crisp white shell, fingertips dancing over the throwing knives tucked into your waistband, and wish with a vicious thread of fear that you carried something with a bit more firepower.
You pick up the boys at school only to have, "Did Dad call?" spill from Dean's lips before he can get the passenger side door all of the way open.
"Nope," you say. You shoot him a smile you hope is more placating than aggravated. The last thing you want the poor kid thinking is that you're mad at or afraid for his father. As far as he knows, Daddy had a mechanic-related emergency, whatever that might entail. Flying off to rescue a stranded motorist somewhere, maybe. Leaping crashed tractor trailers in a single leap, perhaps.
Maybe you should have nailed a firefighter or a policeman, just so your poor kid could have a good reason to hero-worship his caring if fumbling father. Your weakness for men with roughened palms and fresh grease under their nails must be doing wonders for your kids and their egos.
Dean's hopeful expression fades as you pull away from Junebug Elementary and head towards home. You're unsurprised that he's forgotten how to be mad at Jack and wish you had the same ability to easily forgive Jack for not picking up a damn phone.
Your fingers tighten around the steering wheel. Rage is easier than worry, especially when it comes to Jack. It's easier to want to tear him a new one for forcing you to picture him lying lifeless in a ditch somewhere rather than fret about the same thing.
That's why you're angry as hell when you lift your gaze and spot a familiar red truck in your rear view mirror.
"Dean," you hear yourself say, "when I stop the car, you take your brother, get out, and run over to Eric Baldwin's house to play, okay?" Eric Baldwin is one of the kids Dean and Sam play with all of the time. He and his family live only a block away from you. It's close enough for government work at a time like this.
"Mom?" Dean's question hangs in the air, a prospective lead-in to a dozen other worried inquiries but you notice it doesn't stop him from dutifully grabbing onto Sammy's hand. Sammy frowns, understandably confused.
"Do as I say, kiddo," you say calmly.
Dean nods as you settle your gaze on the truck reflected in the rear view mirror once again. You give yourself a moment then slam on the brakes, sudden and hard.
The truck jolts to a stop behind you.
You can't hear the driver erupt in a string of colorful curses but you imagine it just the same.
"Go," you snap, and Dean throws open the back door. He bolts across the Buxton family's lawn, Sammy tripping after him, his chubby little hand tucked into Dean's larger one.
You're only armed with some itty bitty throwing knives and a whole lot of pissed off but that's never stopped you before. You throw the Chevy into park and get out of the car yourself, striding back to the driver's side of the red pickup. "What the hell do you think –"
You pause as soon as you get to the window and gape at the woman sitting in the driver's seat, the woman double-checking on her small blond daughter before she turns aggravated eyes your way.
"It's you," you blurt out. It's the first thing that pops into your mind, stifling the urge to ask how she liked the brownies.
The woman sighs. Even without speaking the sound comes out run ragged over charcoal and glass. "Yeah, it's me," she drawls.
"You're the one in the truck?" You blurt out the obvious before you can debate the merits of wasting your breath.
She shoots you a dry look, then pats the weathered exterior of the door. "Appears so."
It takes a second or two to compose yourself but when you do you come out swinging. "Are you trying to piss me off or is that just a fortunate side effect of being deliberately vague?"
She glances around for a moment, possibly expecting a crowd of curious on-lookers to sprout from the sidewalks like time-lapsed weeds. When they don't appear – knowing this town, you can only imagine they're peering out from behind ruffled kitchen curtains and dusted blinds and taking precise notes for gossiping purposes – her mouth presses in a thin line. "I've been trying to figure out how to do this for three days," she says.
She shrugs. The restrained roll of her shoulders reminds you vaguely of a laid-back jungle cat. "Talk to you, I suppose."
You frown. "Is that why you bought my brownies?"
Her laughter, a short throaty geyser of sound, lessens some of the incinerating edge on your anger. "You expect me to turn my nose up at brownies when I've got a three-year-old in tow? She may be the silent type, but even I ain't that stupid."
Even you can't deny the truth of that, the sloppy demanding honesty of children. It reins you in some more, even before you spot the little girl – Jo, her name is Jo – rubbing sleepily at her eyes in the passenger seat. You tear your gaze away from her and turn it back on her mother. "So why have you been tailing me?"
She takes another survey of the area, a quick once-over that can't possibly hit on anyone lurking from the shadows or dangling from a nearby tree to eavesdrop. Junebug just isn't that town. Still, when she speaks her voice is low and shaded, hitting a raspy register that brushes your skin like a soothing massage with velvet gloves. "The streets have ears, Mary. So this is what we're going to do. I'm going to show up bright and early tomorrow morning, and you and I are going to take a little field trip."
"You think I'm just going to skip work to go with you? I don't even know your name."
She nods, acknowledging a fair point. "It's Ellen," she says, then tosses off a, "Jo likes Frosted Flakes," before throwing the truck into reverse and pulling away.
You stare after her. You should say no. Hell, you should have told her no. When she shows up tomorrow morning you should slam the door in her face and call the police for good measure.
Too bad you know you won't.
You call in sick for the first time since you moved to Junebug.
You've piled up three weeks worth of sick days since you were hired at Clarion Insurance. Mr. Jones is generous with his benefits, and he's thrown more sick days and vacation time at you than you'd ever be able to use. You crack jokes every so often about how he must be trying to find a way to pay you to be a stay-at-home mom. He cracks jokes right back that all you'd have to do is bring the kids around every so often and he wouldn't have much of a problem with that.
The red truck pulls up in front of your house at precisely seven in the morning. Dean and Sam, already intrigued by what happened the day before, tumble out of their seats at the kitchen table and abandon their cereal to stare at your unwanted guests. You don't want to join them, don't want to acknowledge the woman who's upset your slice of normal just that little bit, but you find yourself peering over the heads of your sons anyway.
Ellen plucks her daughter from the passenger seat and plops her down on the sidewalk, smoothing down the blond curls absently before shutting the truck's door. Jo wears pink jeans and a gray T-shirt with a large pink "5" on it, rather than the well-worn pajamas you'd almost expected. Ellen's clothes haven't changed much, a different pair of jeans, a different button-down shirt hanging open over an old T-shirt. Comfort first, style later, you suppose.
You wonder for a moment where the two of them have been staying. The Junebug Motel, you imagine, the only motel in town, a tiny cluster of former camping cottages sprinkled over a plot on the other side of town. It doesn't get much business.
"Who's that, Mommy?" Sammy asks.
You reach out and rumple his hair with a hand still damp with soapy dishwashing water. He dodges away and makes a face. "Tell you what, kiddo," you say. "You figure that out for me and I'll give you a dollar."
Sam's eyes widen at the prospect, then narrow when he turns back to peer out the window. Maybe you should warn Ellen. Ye Olde Apothecary actually still sells penny candy and a whole dollar can wind your kid up on one hell of a sugar rush.
Ellen pauses as soon as she reaches the screen door and peers down at the two curious boys looking up at her. "Hello, boys," she says.
Dean smiles. "Hi, ma'am."
Sammy frowns. "Who are you?"
It comes out exactly as rude and demanding as you'd think, and you wince as Ellen's dark laughter carries through the screen door. "Well, I'm Ellen," she says, "and this here is Jo."
Sammy nods decisively, then hurries away from the door and stands right in front of you. "That's Ellen and that's Jo," he says, not bothering to lower his voice and pointing at each of them as he speaks. "Can I have a dollar now?"
You're not looking in Ellen's direction but you could swear her shoulders shake with barely restrained laughter. "Later," you mutter, then steer him towards the kitchen table. "Now go finish your breakfast, Sherlock. You too, Dean."
Dean slumps over to the kitchen table and plops down in his seat, darting curious glances in the direction of the kitchen door.
You debate being a gracious hostess and ushering Ellen into the house with elegance and grace, but you weren't raised for visits from the Queen. "Well, come on in," you call out as you whisk some more eggs for scrambling. "I'm not shoving your breakfast through the screen."
A moment later, the door bangs behind you. For some reason, an insistent smile dawns on your lips.
Breakfast is a hectic affair. You still have some Frosted Flakes left, it turns out, so Jo happily chomps away at her bowlful in her usual silence. She and Sammy appear to have a bit of a cereal-eating contest, quite frankly, eying each other across the table with impressively calculated intensity for two small children as they shovel heaping tablespoons of milk and processed cereal into their small mouths.
Dean, on the other hand, somehow finds a way to pick at everything in sight while pinning Ellen under a barrage of informative stories, like the corner baseball game in which he hit three home runs last week and the turtle he rescued from potential ruin when he found it trying to cross the road by the park. You debate telling him to rein it back in and save a few surprises for later, but Ellen's charmed enough and nodding along with the right amount of enthusiasm that you tuck into your eggs and bacon without comment.
A half-hour later, after you've shooed the boys out to the bus and changed into something a bit more durable than sweatpants and one of Jack's left-behind T-shirts, you're riding in Ellen's truck with Jo nestled in contented quiet between the two of you, her thumb planted firmly between her lips. Ellen hasn't said much of anything since you all left the house, one hand steering the truck while her left elbow rests in the open window frame. Her fingertips rest lightly against her temple, and she looks tired, so very tired, with some added tension to boot. The lines that bracket her mouth deepen. It surprises you that you notice, that you've already learned to notice something so small and obvious and personal all at once.
You force yourself to stare out the window, not at Ellen with her deep old-soul eyes, not at Jo with her quiet thumb-sucking. Anywhere but at them, because it's only been a few short hours and they're already dragging you in.
You're confused about this field trip until you're less confused until you're not anymore, until the truck pulls up to the well-beaten, sloping pathway to Junebug's lone cemetery.
"When you said we were going on a field trip, I thought you meant we were hitting some cheap tourist trap," you joke, peering up through the dense foliage, unable to see the graveyard up the hill. The pathway isn't paved and the greenery isn't tended, so unless you plunge ahead and plod up the hill you can't see Junebug Memorial from here.
Ellen shoots you a questioning sideways look, a bit of teasing humor creeping into her words. "You mean you don't check out the nearest graveyards wherever you go?"
"I've never been here before."
You turn to frown at her.
She makes a noise, sort of a rough amused snort, and says, "You'll see."
She cocks an eyebrow. "And ruin the surprise?"
You nearly laugh at that, the cynical morbid humor in her tone. It feels familiar already, like finding the perfect used pair of jeans at Goodwill and discovering they fit you as though they were tailored for you, and simply given to the wrong person in a twist of fate.
You nod distractedly, then get out of the truck.
The trudge up the hill to the cemetery takes longer than you would have expected. It's steeper than you thought as well, tipping the scales past a forty-five degree angle at some points. How they manage to lug a laden coffin up this slope in rain or snow or anything less than absolutely perfect weather must be quite a sight.
As soon as you reach the crest of the rise before the graveyard clearing, you immediately freeze.
You aren't quite sure what you're looking at, not at first. You've never been to this particular graveyard. As much as the rest of Junebug's inhabitants may enjoy hiking all the way into the middle of the woods in blocky pumps and wide ties to bury their dead, you've never seen the point and never been invited anyway besides.
You've been to plenty of other graveyards, though. You've gone to funerals and you've stood over freshly opened graves and dropped in a match, igniting the contents. When you say you've seen a plethora of graveyards inside and out, it's more apt a description than you care for.
This, though … this is something new even for you.
The clearing stretches out before you, encircled by the dense woods in an almost impenetrable wall. Your mind supplies the "almost" on its own, a defensive reaction to the eerie spread of empty graves.
At least, you think they're empty. You're almost afraid to peer into the roughly rectangular holes in the ground, headed up by tombstones scrubbed free by nature or God of names and dates, overgrown with tangled weeds.
Perhaps these were genuine graves once upon a time, accompanied by elaborate granite gravestones and filled in with rich earth. Maybe they'd been dug up years ago and never been refilled, long enough for the grass to spill over into the deep depressions left behind, long enough for a few to gather brackish rainwater.
Sure, maybe that's the case. But if Junebug has buried any of its dead here in the ensuing years, you see no evidence of it here in the pockmarked ground.
You hesitate to walk through the graves, or what's left of them, but find yourself doing it anyway. Your shoes sink into damp vegetation you'd swear hasn't seen human visitors in years, if ever.
The tombstones are impossible to read, blurred by time and weather. You think you spot a "b" here and a "T" there, but you can't be sure.
You can't handle the deafening silence here, the lack of singing birds or rustling in the underbrush. You hurry to the exit, rush with purpose as though the damn thing will vanish if you don't run to dash through it. You're almost shocked when your feet make contact with the beaten path again and the graveyard doesn't yawn and sink into the ground behind you.
When you come back down the hill, emerging from the trees into fresh sunlight that doesn't warm you quite as much as it should, you find Ellen sitting in the passenger side of the truck. She leans over her daughter, brushing loose blond curls from the little girl's face as Jo scribbles a red crayon in sloppy circles on a hotel notepad. The tableau strikes you as too sweet, too personal, and you suddenly feel the bright sharp sting of not-supposed-to-be-here.
After a long moment, she shifts on the bench seat, and you realize that she's looking your way, searching your face for evidence of your next move.
You're not sure what to say.
It's rare you're struck so silent by something so simple as an empty grave, no matter how many of them there might be in one place. You decide to ignore the fact that an empty grave can strike you as anything remotely simple.
When you say nothing, she nods, taking that as her cue. "My name is Ellen Harvelle," she says, then takes a deep breath and says the one thing that truly surprises you.
"I guess you could say I came to Junebug for a hunt."
What you find out after you drag the tequila from its dusty hiding place back beneath the sink and retrieve the shot glasses you and Jack bought in Ocean City three years ago is this:
Ellen Harvelle is a widow and has one daughter, just wee quiet Jo, whom she tucks into Sammy's room upon your return to the house with a warning not to set the place on fire that you're pretty sure isn't serious.
Ellen has an income, not much of one but an income just the same. She makes some reference to payroll and inventory but doesn't elaborate. The practiced way she pours the shots is a dead giveaway, though, unless she's simply a drunk with a lot of time on her hands.
Ellen never hunted until she met her husband, and then only minimally. She wasn't going to hunt again after Bill passed away but then something turned up and … well, here she is in Junebug.
Ellen's hand-to-hand is a joke, her aim ain't quite so precise as all that, and her Latin's restricted to what she can read off legal tender. But she's stubborn and she can shoot. Sometimes that's all you need.
Ellen has loose brown hair and warm brown eyes and an even higher tolerance for alcohol than you do, which impresses you. Jack couldn't even hold his own against you most nights, big man that he is. Lots of people are more fun when they're drunk, but Jack isn't one of them.
Her expression softens as you study her with an open curiosity you might not wield if not for the damn tequila.
"All right, hit me," you say.
You could easily mean the tequila – Ellen commandeered the bottle as soon as you liberated it from the hollow under the sink and has kept it within her reach ever since – but she's sharp enough to understand full well what you're getting at. She stares at you for a long moment, her gaze level and heady, and that combined with her casual sprawl is intriguing in some way you just can't put a finger on.
"Friday night I get a call from the sheriff where I live," she says. "I own a roadhouse not far from here that a lot of hunters frequent. The sheriff knows a bit about hunting himself, said he had a dead hunter on a slab in his morgue I might know. By the time I found a sitter and got down there to identify him, the body was gone."
Your lips twist into a wry smile. "I'm almost afraid to ask."
"All evidence suggests he walked out."
You frown. "Walked out?"
She holds up her hands in gentle surrender "Dave swears he was dead. He's never been much of one to lie about anything save his ability to shoot pool."
"So why come here?"
She pauses for a long moment, and you're terrified what you're about to hear, if you're going to be told that Jack's in a bag somewhere, or worse, wandering around with some evil creature driving his body like an unshaven muscle car. She recognizes the look on your face and grimaces, which makes you feel instantly better. "A few clues on the body pointed to Junebug. Couldn't get in touch with the hunter I usually contact about jobs in the area, so I hitched up my wagon and here I am." She knocks back a shot and levels you with a serious look. "Besides, I hear tell you come from a long line of hunters. Could use a little back-up."
You don't respond to the needling about the long line of hunters you supposedly come from. You do come from a long line of hunters, there's no changing that. Somewhere in the burning crater that used to be your house was your family's history, tucked and ordered neatly into a dozen different scrapbooks. Great-uncles who defeated entire towns possessed by demons, ancestresses who specialized in hunting vampires. It was a long insightful history you destroyed.
Instead you focus on the request of back-up. "What did you have in mind?"
"You tell me," Ellen says. "You live here."
You shrug and duck your head with a smile. You feel for one irritating moment like a flirting schoolgirl and almost want to smash the tequila bottle just so you'll have something sharp to stab yourself in the eye with. "I haven't been out in the field for a while."
You're afraid for a brief moment that disappointment will flash in her eyes. Instead, she simply smiles, more than herself than for your benefit. "Kids will do that to you," she murmurs. "I've been on a nice long sabbatical myself since my husband died."
"I'm sorry," you say, and you are. Wasn't your fault, of course, but there's something sad and tired in everything she does, something that may never go away and it may fascinate the hell out of you on some base level, but the cause is far too awful not to feel bad about.
She nods in thanks, then murmurs, "Hunting accident," at the unspoken question.
You chill all over, and try not to think about where Jack is at the moment.
"Last year," she says. "I get a call not long before Thanksgiving that he's been found in an alley, torn apart by wild dogs. In downtown Chicago."
She gives you that most significant of looks, the one all hunters can do before they're old enough to drink legally, the one you do when little pitchers have big ears. You're not in public, where hunters wield looks like that with casual frequency, but the point stands.
You think back to this past Thanksgiving, when you and Jack were trying in flailing desperation to save a marriage not even the kids thought you should stay in, when Jack turned down jobs left and right in an effort to appear to be that most elusive of anomalies in the hunting world: a good husband. Most hunters just had to content themselves with being a good widower.
You wonder if any of those jobs involved wild dog attacks in Illinois, and if Jack turning it down to stay home and make handprint turkeys out of brown construction paper with Sam kept you from becoming a widow.
She pours out more tequila, nudging a couple of shot glasses your way. "So when did you lose your husband?" she asks.
You snort before knocking back a shot without fanfare. "Haven't shaken him yet," you say with a laugh. "Just relieved him of some pesky jewelry, that's all."
Ellen's mouth quirks at the corner, her brows knitting in confusion. She stares at you for a long curious moment as she traces the damp lip of the still-full shot glass in front of her. "Tending bar teaches you all about people. Would have pegged you as a widow from a thousand paces."
Your shoulders roll in an uneasy shrug.
"Well, you must have lost someone," she drawls. She tosses back her own shot.
She's not looking for a response. Fishing for one, yes, but content simply to sit in the boat with the bobber on her line bouncing around in full view and taunting the hell out of you.
The possibility that you've lost someone is not much of a stretch to make. If you hunt, you've either lost someone or are bound to lose someone eventually. There's not much that can drive someone to load up on guns and run towards the snarling, bloodsucking monster in the big scary house rather than running away like a normal person.
If she knows you're a hunter, she probably knows of your parents. She can state that she knows you come from a long line of hunters, but she doesn't necessarily have to know where that path ends. That said, Samuel and Deanna Campbell were good stock with solid reputations. It didn't take you long after busting out of Lawrence to figure out just how solid and just to what extent the hunting community mourned their loss.
But that's not what she means and you both know it. She recognizes something in you, the gnashing wear and tear that a broken heart inflicts on a person.
"John," you say. You're surprised when your voice doesn't crack. "His name was John."
The nightmare isn't really a nightmare. It's a memory.
It's you on the ground with John's head in your lap. It's your hand stroking his thick dark hair while his neck rests loose and broken against your thigh like a sock full of wood chips. It's your father staring at your with pus-yellow eyes, making you a vague but sickening offer.
It's you, looking his possessed body in the eyes - those horrible saddening eyes- and saying, "No."
The thing in your father falters. "No?"
"No," you hiss.
It feels like you're swallowing shards of glass, but you say it anyway. No to his fucking offer. No to having John when you can't have your parents as well. No to a life you've always wanted, with a good strong man like John, when it's attached to a foundation built on rickety playing cards and a root cellar littered with the bodies of your parents.
Whatever this thing is, no one trades a restored life for a mere visit to pick up "a little something." You'll have strings attached to you for years, trailing behind you for the next decade like you're some fraying, knitted jellyfish.
"Fuck you," you add for good measure.
The thing in your father flashes a tight smirk, not as confident as it was a moment ago. "Suit yourself," it says.
The smoke pours from your father's mouth a moment later, warning of his corpse's imminent collapse. You ignore it, focusing on John's slack cooling face.
You've made your decision. Now you'll just have to live with it.
"Hey," you hear. "Hey, come on now. Deep breaths."
There's a hand on your back, alternating gentle pats with circling strokes. You're sitting up but don't recall how you got into that position. Maybe you simply sat up, no frills, no scary accompanying sobs or indrawn breaths. Maybe you bolted upright, stiff and sharp, snapping awake with a frightening jolt. Usually, it's the latter. Unsettled the hell out of Jack, first few times you actually shared a bed.
The hand slows but the sleep-roughened encouraging murmurs continue. It's that skittish-horse voice you knocked out of Jack after a while, Jack who'd dutifully soothe you with comforting words and make tea and rub your shoulders the first few weeks, Jack who slept through – or at least did a damn fine job of pretending to – your nightmares by the very end of your marriage.
This is different. Ellen's a bit rougher from the start than Jack ever was. She's burying the urge to shake you, but only barely. Her gentle pats on the back approach the level of other people's great whacks, the kind intended to awkwardly knock an obstruction from your windpipe.
She's gentle with her own kid, sure, but you're not three. You're a big girl and she silently lets you know it.
"You all right?"
You caught a nasty flu right after your first hunt with your parents, a draining wave of exhaustion that smothered the good feeling you'd gotten from rescuing that mother and her four-year-old twins. Your mother could pin a werewolf at ninety paces with one shot and desecrate a corpse with all of the discomfort of someone removing a hangnail, but when you woke up in bed with your forehead beaded in sweat and globs of phlegm clogging your chest, she smoothed your hair from your eyes and made enough chicken soup to feed an entire school district. She hummed you to sleep and sneaked you trashy romantic horror novels when your father insisted you use the time to sharpen your Latin.
Ellen's tone washes over you, just enough like your mother's soothing comfort to warm you, just enough not like it to keep it from hurting too much.
"Fine," you say, even though you're still gulping in air.
There's blissful silence for a long moment. Drinking bright and early in the morning is a bad idea any way you shake it, but after the two of you swilled a couple of shots each (and one more for good measure for you), you sat down on the couch for a breather and things get a little hazy after that. Apparently you closed your eyes. You may have tried to nap, you might not, but either way you closed your eyes just long enough to dream.
Ellen doesn't pull her hand away from your back but her free hand rubs at her jean-clad leg. "I'm not used to taking care of people after a nightmare," she says. "I caught Jo sneaking a peek at 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' once. Thought I'd be up all night soothing a crying child. She just beat the crap out of her stuffed lion with a plastic sword and ended up sleeping like a baby."
You laugh softly at that. If only your kids were so hardy. "Sammy hates scary movies. He won't let me out of his sight when he sees one."
Ellen stares at you, her eyelids heavy with exhaustion and the spark of tequila. "You have a lot of nightmares?"
"I have a lot of the same nightmare," you say quietly.
The way Ellen says it jerks your attention away from the small stain on the living room carpet you've fixed your gaze on for the last minute or so. You can't think of what to say to that, why you should elaborate on such a personal thing as your goddamn nightmare with a stranger who feels less like a stranger than you'd prefer.
Your eyes trace the lines of her lips, the fine crow's feet beginning to grow at the corners of her eyes, the dark fall of her hair.
You lean forward and press your lips against hers.
It's almost simple to slot your mouth with Ellen's and settle in, get a hesitant sort of comfortable. You knew she didn't smoke, not with the lack of an open pack when you'd cracked open that bottle of tequila, but the vague taste of her that you lift from her closed lips confirms it. A faint hint of the tequila, even now. The spicy tang of the barbecue sauce she splashed on her eggs. Lip balm, maybe, not gloss or lipstick. No flat dead aftertaste of lit nicotine.
Her lips don't part, probably too stunned to do anything at all. Your lips don't part either.
After what feels like an eternity, you pull away. She doesn't look stunned or angry or scared. She doesn't look anything, really, but she can't take her eyes off you and it unsettles you more than you've ever been unsettled by a mere kiss.
"I'm sorry," you say.
But you're not. Not even a little bit.
Putting aside Dean's awkward nearly-public conception with a stranger with whom you ended up in an almost obligatory marriage, you don't do one-night stands or throw yourself at people you've just met. Hell, you haven't even gotten laid since the ink dried on the divorce papers and you finally had free reign to fuck whomever you pleased. Crude, yes, but accurate as hell.
You've kissed women before. Before John, of course, and in the dim agonizing months and years between John's lifeless head in your arms and Jack's frantic hands on your zipper. Truth be told, you've probably been with more women with men and the kisses have been brighter, the touches warmer.
You're not ashamed of kissing Ellen.
"Don't worry about it," she says. She still hasn't stopped staring at you.
You shake your head. "I'm not."
Her eyes narrow then, pulling into dark unforgiving slivers, and with a muttered, "Aw, hell," she threads her fingers through your loose blond hair and pulls you back.
John was a fluke.
Or at least, you thought he was a fluke until Jack showed up.
Maybe they were both flukes. Maybe they both succeeded in crossing a solid unfathomable line you firmly established in your mind when you kissed Cheryl Walker after the St. Patrick's Day dance in eighth grade or when you slipped your hand under Melissa Grady's t-shirt one summer night when your dad took you to Arthur Grady's ranch to train before junior year.
You didn't like guys. Or thought you didn't, anyway, until John came along.
It's odd and joyous all at once, being reminded how much you thought you'd crave the rounded curves of other women for the rest of your days from the moment Cheryl Walker's lips parted experimentally so many years ago. You'd forgotten the unsubtle weight of a breast cupped in your palm, the alluring thrust of full hips against your own.
You loved this once. Hell, you love this now.
You manhandle one another up the stairs, Ellen's fingers wrapped around your belt and hauling you up, up, up in great enthusiastic yanks. Her tongue dives into your gasping mouth in counterpoint to the insistent rearranging of her forceful tugs, maneuvering you exactly where she wants you with a strength probably due more to lugging cases of beer than bodies meant to be salted and burned.
By the time you both make it up to your bedroom, you're laughing into her mouth, free low-pitched giggles spurred to life by alcohol and greeted with Ellen's grumbled, "You're one hell of a handful when you're drunk, you know that?"
Your laughter continues to tumble out of you in great decisive bursts as you both fall onto the bed, shedding your clothes with drunken abandon.
As soon as you can slide down the zipper of her jeans your fingers dip below the waistband of her panties, tripping past a raised Caesarean scar, sliding through the tangle dewy with the undeniable heat of your connection. Your tongue darts out to tease the pearled peak of her breast, a light but insistent flicker.
You draw out a moan from her chest, and it's velvet and sandpaper, fur and fireworks, and you need more of it, so much more.
She doesn't writhe underneath you like some taunting ingenue. Nor does she hesitate as you both toss aside underwear and bras bought at big-box stores that don't precisely match. Nor does she flinch when you trail your fingertips over the signs of a life lived well and long, tracing stretch marks and faded scars, the unsurprising combination of her slight belly and patches of cellulite.
You like the soft blatant reality of it all. The last time you did this, the other girl had silken skin and high breasts. She weighed nothing and you didn't weigh much more for all of your hunting-sprung muscle. The two of you were fresh and shiny and new, just broken out of your shells in the grand scheme.
Ellen, with her earned hips and comfortable flesh, is a welcome change.
Your sex life has always been a vague hazy thing. Not that you've made a habit of sleeping around or that you've bounded between so many sexual partners their orgasmic faces have bled together into one joyous blur in your mind.
It's dizzying is what it is, your love life, like riding a Tilt-A-Whirl. You sit alone in your seat on the ride at the start, waving at other girls in other cars, flashing them playful grins and competing with them in short intense bursts of twisting spins as the ride begins to move.
But the next thing you know the car stops spinning, because John's sitting next to you. He holds onto the wheel and smiles and keeps you grounded and safe and still. But then he leaves in a jolting instant and Jack pops into his place and you're so damn angry about the sudden unwanted replacement of your seatmate that the two of you fight and roar with every twirl of the car until you knock him out with a good hard shove.
Sleeping with Ellen – call it what it was, Mary, you tell yourself, the two of you fucked and it was glorious – reminds you of that Tilt-A-Whirl. You're back in the hooded car again, your hands on the wheel forcing the car into a fast nauseating spin. Suddenly you're jerked to a stop by calloused hands clutching the opposite side of the wheel, stopping you cold, and it's Ellen, and just like that … oh, my, you feel so much better.
Your breath escapes your lips as you follow the lines of her with your eyes. Sex during daylight hours when you're supposed to be at work may be the best sort of all, you suddenly think, and your smile would lighten the entire bedroom if it were dark out.
Ellen looks more laidback than you'd expect, her lips swollen and quirking up at the corners. "Well, never done that before," she says, amusement coloring her words.
"You'll have to check it off your list of things to do before you die."
She snorts in disbelief. "That assumes it was on the list to start with."
Your smile falters. "You didn't have to –"
"Don't." The word cuts you off at the knees in mid-sentence quite effectively, silencing you with the heavy sharpening steel of her voice. She reaches over, a butterfly-wing stroke of your cheek, then her hand is gone, already missed. "That wasn't what I meant."
You nod, relaxing.
"So how about you? Care to share any shameful secrets while you're in such a vulnerable position?"
Your smile fades when it strikes you what to say.
"I didn't want to hunt anymore," you say.
Ellen says nothing. With the sunlight pouring in through the window behind her and shadowing her face from this angle, her eyes are pitch-black, fathomless but patient.
And suddenly the words spill past your lips, the horror story of your life tumbling out of you like loosed marbles. You tell her that you had plans, damn it, lovely perfectly normal plans, you and John and two point five kids and a goddamn golden retriever if the kids didn't turn out to be allergic. You hated hunting, hated the morning runs and target practices and polishing a slew of weapons in the dining room while Mom made fruit salad and sharpened her throwing knives in the kitchen.
You loathed hunting so damn much you might have turned John into a sweet handsome lifeline until some evil creature wearing your father like a cheap suit took away your lifeline and your parents to boot.
You didn't need to burn your house down, but you did. Another anchor gone.
You could have stayed in town, but you high-tailed it out of Lawrence so fast you may have left a smoke outline behind. Yet another anchor gone.
You stopped checking in with your uncle. You almost forgot you even had friends. You quit your job. More anchors gone.
You looked for a place to stop and put down roots and be normal. You kept looking for home only to discover that the only home you had was in the deliverance of a good solid punch and the way Latin tripped off your tongue like birdsong.
As you talk, her face grows more and more serious. When your voice finally trails off, your story dribbling to an end with a house and an ex-husband and two little boys you love more than anyone, she sits up, not bothering to clutch the sheet to her chest.
You like that, like the unconcerned way she gets up without covering the entrancing sway of her breasts, and not just for the view.
"I have to tell you something," Ellen says. Her voice is muffled by the reddening shame of someone who knows they should have been honest earlier, and it's bordering on too late for them to spill their coddled secret with a clean slate.
You frown in confusion, wondering what you said to bring this on.
She looks you straight in the eye, her expression mournful, and says the one thing you never would have expected.
"Jack is dead."
That's the only explanation for how she can deliver the supposed news that your ex-husband is dead without flinching, that she can do it after sleeping with you. It's been six hours since this day began, six hours of empty graves and old tequila and soft insistent caresses, and you suddenly wonder what the hell you've been on all this time, not to notice just how insane Ellen must be.
It's not true. It can't be true. Just because the man hasn't called –
And how would she even know? Why would she know before you? Divorced or not, you're still Jack's next of kin. He doesn't have anybody else any more than you do.
Ellen hovers in the doorway to the kitchen as you slam cabinet doors and peer into the refrigerator as though attempting to find the great mysteries of life inside. You've dressed again, suddenly sober, your head surprisingly clear. Maybe you didn't have as much tequila as you thought. Maybe you just needed a good old-fashioned shock to knock it loose.
"You didn't say that before," you finally say, slamming the door to the cabinet holding all of the drinking glasses. You have no idea what you're looking for but you're not about to stop until you find it. Maybe you still have enough alcohol in your system to expect to find Jack tucked away under the McDonald's jelly glasses on the top shelf.
"I didn't know how to," Ellen says. She's not arguing, and there's no fight in her words. "It isn't exactly an easy thing to say without a corpse."
"You said you never saw the body."
"I saw the wallet." You turn around at that, your eyes narrowed, but she doesn't back down. "He didn't take his wallet with him when he left. Whatever he is now, he probably doesn't need it."
You want to snap at that, want to scream that Jack's not a thing any more than he's dead. Someone could have stolen his wallet. Someone could have found it, lost on the side of the road or in some seedy bar, and pocketed it without thinking of the consequences.
Instead, your mind reaches for the most personal question. "And nobody bothered to call me?"
Ellen gives an undignified sniff and crosses her arms. "You try reaching this town from the outside world. There might as well be a bubble over the place. You try to call in and the damn phone never connects."
You stare at her, a half-dozen questions knotting together in your mind. You haven't been out of Junebug in months. Hell, even Jack doesn't go too far for jobs. If he did die in Nebraska, it's the farthest either one of you has been from Junebug since you moved here. Those questions in your mind multiply and writhe into a tangle like mating earthworms.
The first to work itself loose and slip past your lips is the most obvious one. "Why would you bring your daughter into this?"
"I didn't," Ellen snaps, and there's more to it, you think, but she reins herself in. Ellen tilts her head back, her face turned up to the ceiling, and takes a deep steadying breath. Her eyes remain closed, but something about the tough set of her jaw, the settled tension in her shoulders, makes you think that maybe she can see through her eyelids, through the ceiling, right up to where Jo naps on Sammy's twin bed under Transformers sheets.
Another breath, and in a voice made calm only through sheer force of will, Ellen says, "I didn't bring Jo along on a hunt. I brought her along on an overnight trip to tell the wife of the man who once saved my husband's life that his corpse walked out of a morgue in Nebraska."
Your eyes widen but you can't say anything for a long time. The door to the cookbook cabinet is open and clasped in your right hand, your pale trembling hand, and you think blearily, This is wood. I could burn this, too.
"I need to go pick up Dean and Sam from school," you say.
You're snatching your car keys from the hook on the hanger next to the door when Ellen takes a step forward, says, "Mary –" as though she's about to convince you to stay, stay forever, stay here with her and forget the storm roiling on the horizon.
You turn to her and say with a conviction you're not sure is meant for her, "I need to go get my boys."
She stops, then nods and lowers the hand she must have raised without conscious thought. "What are you going to tell them?"
The laughter that barks out of you is sharp and derisive. "What am I supposed to tell them? That there's this rumor going around that their father's dead and wandering around the countryside?"
Ellen flinches as if struck with an open hand, and you immediately regret your tone. "We'll figure this out when I get back."
She slowly brightens, but not much. Whether it's at your tone or your use of the word "we" you can't be sure and aren't about to stay long enough to fish out a definitive answer at the moment.
You bolt from the house before you can change your mind and stay, stay, stay.
You know something is wrong the second you cross the threshold of Junebug Elementary.
It's just a hunch, of course, but it blossoms from the moment you realize Dean and Sammy are not playing outside while they wait for you to arrive. Sammy could sit for hours given enough entertainment but Dean is fidgety and lacks patience, so you've come to expect to find them racing around the school's playground, chasing after an escaping basketball or jogging to the slide's ladder for another ride.
Instead, they're not anywhere to be seen. Not outside, in any event.
You park the Chevy and weave between giggling girls in pretty dresses and energetic boys racing each other to the Little League field down the street. Most of the kids will be gone by now, hopping onto whichever bus will take them home, but Dean and Sammy wouldn't have done that. You told them to wait for you, so they should be here.
But they're not in Dean's classroom, or the kindergarten room, or the school cafeteria.
An eerie chill slides down your spine as you head for the principal's office, your last resort. The chill grows icier when you spot Barbie Bowersox exiting Principal Kendrick's office, her hat as precisely placed and pinned as usual, her white gloves perfectly encasing her slim fingers.
"Why, Mary," she says, her words dripping with smugness. "What a surprise! I could have sworn Mrs. Bellweather said you hadn't gone into work today. Skipping out on your responsibilities, are you?"
You manage to resist the urge to remind her that you had a mother and she was lovely and you'd rather swallow acid than replace her with Barbie Bowersox, of all people. Now is not the time for it. "Have you seen Dean and Sammy?" you ask.
Barbie's eyes widen with morbidly amused glee, projecting the sort of unapologetic schadenfreude that comes from watching someone less than you wallow in the everyday white-trash quagmire you imagine they suffer through. "Why, your husband picked them up. Oh, I'm sorry. He isn't really your husband anymore, is he?"
She's trying to needle you, thinks poking at your heart with one of the long sharp shards of your shattered marriage will pinch and make your eyes well. There's something else to her tone, though, something sickly-sweet with mischief.
You easily ignore it because Jack wouldn't get the boys for the day without telling you. The two of you bicker in great vicious snaps like rabid Dobermans, but not like this, not over Dean and Sam.
Somewhere out there in the ether, you can almost hear a puzzle piece clicking into place.
When you return to the house, you discover Dean and Sammy aren't the only ones who are missing.
"She's gone," Ellen says when you walk into the house. You find her in the dining room, sorting through her laid-out ammunition, her voice taut, her eyes red. "Jo's gone."
You swallow back your fear, and it grates as it scrapes down your raspy throat. You did your crying in the car, quick and vicious, done and over with. "He took her too?"
Ellen pauses, looking up from the shotgun shells on the table she's been silently counting. "I don't know if it was him," she says. She doesn't need you to clarify who 'he' is supposed to be. "He took the boys?"
"So they tell me," you say, unable to restrain the hint of sarcasm.
You don't want to continue this conversation, not even with Ellen, not even with this unknown woman who's got more in common with you than all of the people you've met in Junebug in the past year and a half combined. You head for the door to the basement without warning or invitation, but Ellen apparently needs neither. She follows you without being asked, probably would have followed even if you'd told her to sit and stay and roll over. She watches with curious intent as you unlock and wrestle the padlock from the door.
You toss it across the kitchen floor, and would probably toss it out of the window if you could reach even reach the window from here.
"And the boys would go with him?" Ellen asks, stomping down the steps behind you.
"He's their father," you say, your tone implying just how ridiculous a question that is. You walk around the steps when you reach the bottom and haul out the battered trunk. "Of course they'd go with him. They haven't heard from him in days, so they probably couldn't go with him fast enough."
"Wouldn't they notice if he were –"
"Different?" You shrug. Maybe you feel a bit ashamed but you'll never admit it. You throw open the trunk and reach up to pick at the lining in the lid with your fingernails, ignoring Ellen's stares. "Maybe. But they sure as hell wouldn't attribute it to a monster wearing their dad like a bathrobe."
She grows silent for a moment as you pluck at the cotton glued to the lid, that you glued there to hide the tiny plastic bag from your own husband. You remove the key from the baggie and slam the trunk shut. Something's taken your boys and your ex-husband, and you won't let this get any farther than it's already gone, not if you can help it.
A minute later, you're leaning against the washing machine, shoving it away from the wall. It takes Ellen a moment, but once she figures out what you're doing she hurries over to tug the machine from the other side.
You hope that that's the end of the discussion, that there's no more arguing to be had. But it doesn't even stop when Ellen's eyes widen at the sight of the loose cement block you slide out of the wall, revealing a cheap lockbox you remove from the empty space behind the block. "I know they sounded innocent this morning, but I didn't think –"
"I didn't have a chance at normal," you say, sitting cross-legged on the floor, placing the lockbox in your lap. "I wasn't about to let them not have a chance to be normal, Ellen."
You focus on jamming the key in the lock to avoid the disappointed look in Ellen's eyes, the sudden pitying sag of her shoulders. "They're never going to be normal with parents like you and Jack, Mary. Don't you get that? You could never hunt again and it's not going to leave you alone. Sometimes it follows you home. Sometimes –" Her voice chokes, strangled by some unseen fist, and you look away from the lockbox and up, up into her strained face. "Sometimes it follows you home and it eats your goddamn husband."
Your heart grows still, or at least it feels that way. You have an idea what's coming and you can't even begin to describe how much you don't want to hear it. "Ellen, don't."
She shakes her head in a single sharp jerk. "You think Jo doesn't talk because she's shy? Jo wouldn't know how to be shy with a step-by-step tutorial. She saw it. It wasn't a hunting trip, for fuck's sake, it was Thanskgiving with Bill's sister and I stayed at the bar and it followed him home." Her last words draw out on something which sounds far too close to an anguished moan. "The only reason I still have Jo is because she knew what it was and she knew to stay hidden when her daddy hid her in the first place."
You think of Jo, the silent little girl who wasn't afraid of anything she couldn't hit with a plastic sword, and then of Sam, who still clings to you in crowds sometimes, scared you'll vanish into thin air and he'll never see you again.
"You may be right," you say.
She relaxes a little as you turn the key in the lock and lift the lockbox's lid. "May be?"
You smile, but the gesture is weak. "As a concept, it's growing on me."
She scoffs at that as you remove a velvet-wrapped object from the lockbox, putting it aside so you can place what you really came down here for in your lap. She leans over you, her arms crossed, her expression brimming with curiosity. "What's that?"
You unfold the velvet wrap and sigh. "This," you say, "is something I was supposed to bring back to its rightful owner."
It's not difficult to find where everyone else in town has gone.
It's not Sunday, of course, but it's not as though there's anything remotely resembling sense in Junebug tonight. As you drive through the streets, rolling along with the windows down, you and Ellen practically hang your heads out your respective windows like happy bloodhounds with their cheeks flapping in the breeze.
Every light in every house has been turned off. Doors are shut and locked, and blinds and curtains are drawn firmly shut in every window.
If you didn't know any better, you could swear they were all leaving for good.
A low insistent hum emanates from the church, like the irritating white noise that comes from a television that's been turned on but had its volume muted. It's nothing at first, simply an unsettling aggravation, but by the time you reach Maple Street, joyful voices rise on the staid melody of a hymn you don't recognize.
You pull up in front of the church and park in the empty street, not bothering to worry about the possibility of angry drivers or policemen scribbling out tickets. There's not a car to be seen in the parking lot or stopped along the street other than yours, and the church quakes with the euphoric worship of the townspeople inside. No one will be driving by anytime soon.
When Ellen moves to get out, you hold out a hand to stop her. "No," you say, murdering her protest before it can live out a long life. "My kids, my ex, my town, my fight."
"It's my kid, too," she snaps at you, a fair point.
"I know that," you say. "I didn't forget about Jo."
"Didn't say you had, did I?" The anxious venom in her words drains a bit, leaving a bone-weary thread behind to fill the spaces between her words. "I'm not stupid, Mary. Whatever the hell is going on here, Jo and I would just be collateral damage in the end. Doesn't matter whose war this is. My family's not the one that got drafted."
Chilled, you refuse to consider how right she is.
Dean is nine. Sam's turning six in a month or so. They shouldn't be warriors. Neither has ever even thrown a punch, as far as you know. You and Jack are ruined and know it, but one thing you agreed on was not raising your boys as hunters.
Let them be innocent and normal, you and Jack swore, let them be like every other boy.
Let them be ignorant and die young, a voice in your head sneers. It sounds suspiciously like your father.
You turn in your seat, resting a hand on the steering wheel, plunging your other hand through the tangled mass of your blond hair. You stare at the church, at the toasty-warm glow in the windows. The uplifted voices still haven't stopped singing. Your stomach rolls.
"You're taking the boys," you hear yourself say. "You're keeping them."
Ellen's head jerks in your direction. "The hell I am," she says. "We've known each other a day, Mary."
"Well, that's a day longer than anyone I know, isn't I?"
She winces, probably thinking about the empty graves. You certainly are. Those bodies had to go somewhere. You'd place bets that they walked out of their own graves, and down the hill, and into the houses and the school and wherever else they wanted, and there they stayed.
It would be just your goddamn luck.
"There's no one else." Your voice is dry and methodical. "I don't come out of this alive, whatever this is, and there's no one else. If Jack's dead like you say he is, there's no one else."
Your battlefield declaration, delivered in a Chevy Impala bequeathed by a man long dead and probably about as legally binding as a pinky swear, comes as quite a shock even to you. As much as you've wanted to dive back into the hunting game head-first, this has never been the way you wanted it to happen. Not with Dean and Sammy involved, much less playing out some terrifying new role as practicing hostages. That shouldn't be the sort of thing your kids become good at, being taken and terrified and bartered with, and you were always hoping you'd nipped that particular possible occupation in the bud.
Ellen sits in silence next to you for a long moment, then nods tightly. "Fair enough," she says.
She doesn't trade you the same quickie guardianship for Jo. You wonder what that says about the both of you.
You both exit the car and shut your doors at the same time in a spontaneous move that accidentally edges into coordination. You share a determined look, then head up the concrete steps to the front door of St. Agnes.
Taking a steeling breath, you open the doors and step carefully across the threshold.
You've never been inside St. Agnes before. The quaint stone church looks barely big enough to contain a large litter of puppies, much less the majority of Junebug's population. Yet somehow every Sunday the streets empty, and you and the boys can hear the wordless echo of hymns from your front lawn.
It's odd, really, hearing the lyrical caress of worshiping voices from close up. You think for a brief unsettling moment that you may have seen a horror movie that started like this once, and if not that just means you're starring in it now.
The polished floor beams creak under your feet.
The rows upon rows of women in conservative dresses and men in neatly pressed suits silence themselves at once, such a jolt to your ears that your mind supplies the absent record scratch. A moment later, they turn en masse towards the back door. Towards you.
Every single pair of beatific eyes that stares you down is a milky white.
Your skin chills. You may as well have been doused in ice water and locked in a walk-in freezer.
Barbie Bowersox rises from her seat in the middle pew on the left, a broad smile stretching her lips to the point of pain. You've never seen her so happy to see you. Hell, you've never seen her anything other than irritated at your very existence. "You've come!" she declares. "Oh, he'll be so pleased!"
"Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint him," you mutter, unable to resist a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Barbie titters. Her laughter skates across your bones like dancing razor blades. "Oh, of course not!" she says cheerily.
You barely resist the urge to ask just how much sacramental wine these people swill every Sunday.
Ellen makes a soft insistent noise behind you, and you can swear you feel the brush of her encouraging hand across the small of your back. "So," you say, and if your voice cracks and goes high-pitched you do one hell of a job ignoring it. "Who am I here to please, again?"
A man's voice rises from the darkened alcove beyond the altar, the shadowed corner not encroached by the yellow glow of the crystalline lights up above. "What took you so long, Mary? You can't tell me you hit traffic, now, can you?"
He emerges from the shadows, trailed by three other expressionless men in suits. The suits are not as nice as his, of course, but a good insurance agent is paid well.
Your breath stills in your chest. "Mr. Jones?"
"Please," he says with a friendly smile. "Call me Zachariah."
Mr. Jones – or Zachariah, you suppose; it strikes you that for some strange reason you've never quite paid attention to his first name – ushers you and Ellen into the room just to the left of the altar. Your breath hitches as you spot Jo, Dean and Sammy huddled together in the far corner. Dean wraps his arms around the other two doing his duty as a big brother even to a girl he's not remotely related to, and you've never wanted to sweep them into your arms and carry them out of harm's way as much in their lives.
Granted, they've never been in this sort of danger before, but the point stands.
You and Ellen share a look before she moves over to the kids, hushing Jo's whimpers, smoothing a hand over Sammy's curls. Zachariah's minions fade into the background as well, one by the only door, two hovering dutifully behind your boss.
Or former boss, you suppose. There's no way you're going back to Clarion Insurance after this.
Zachariah flashes you his most congenial smile, gesturing with a wave of his arm towards the table in the center of the room. "Oh, please, feel free to sit down," he says. He takes note of something on the floor on his side of the table and adds, "Except there. That seat's taken."
You look before you can stop yourself, and immediately freeze. It's possibly literal, the jets of ice in your blood, the diminishing warmth in the air.
Oh, hell, Jack.
You race to his side and they let you, no one offering any resistance. Even Ellen stands with the kids, shielding his prone body from view, her wide mouth tight with anxiety she hides for the kids' sake.
You smooth a hand over his forehead, too cool, too dry, his skin tinged a shade of gray you hate yourself for recognizing. He looks so pure and pristine, so wonderfully unbroken and unhurt, but you just have to avoid noticing the shattered wreckage of his neck to hold onto the illusion.
You accidentally brush your fingertips over the unshaven skin under his chin and yank them away with a hiss at the feel of his neck. You think of sausage casings filled with ground chicken the butcher didn't bother to debone.
"I hope you don't mind," Zachariah says, drawing you out of your mournful reverie. "We borrowed him for a little while. Wouldn't be the first time, of course, but this time we appear to have aggravated an old football injury." He makes a face, rubbing with mock sympathy at his own neck.
You let your fingertips drift over your ex-husband's closed eyes, just making sure, just to keep them shut and not looking at you with silent accusation. You dragged him into this, you think, just by being you. You fucked him against an alley wall and it followed you home and it ate your goddamn husband.
Swallowing your fear, you tear your gaze from Jack and rise to your feet. "Let the kids go."
Zachariah grins, almost giddy. "You say that like they're bait."
"Eh, more like trout. Big fat juicy trout. Salmon? Swordfish, maybe." He waves a hand in mid-air. "People who've never been fishing shouldn't use fishing metaphors. Am I right or am I right?"
You're not stupid. Zachariah can be as vague as he wants, but at least on this count you understand what he's getting at. They don't want you, or Ellen, or even Jack. They want the boys and you'll almost afraid to ask why. "So what happens now, huh?"
He pretends to silently debate his options, screwing up his face into an almost comical look of concentration. "Well, how about we start at with something easy?" Zachariah says. "Just tell me one little thing. One little factoid and you can usher the kiddies out the front door, never to return."
You tense, and you know there's a catch, something agonizing that sears the skin, a catch made of sharpened fish hooks which tear at your flesh. You consider your options, which doesn't take long. You don't have any.
"Fine," you say. The word struggles past your gritted teeth as though you've just brushed them with a belt sander.
Zachariah's aggravating smirk fades a bit as he leans close to you and says in a low whisper, "What was John's last name?"
Your brow furrows as your gaze connects with his playfully curious one. He knows. He knows damn well what the answer to that question is, but he's positive you don't know.
You do, of course. The list of men you've planned to spend the rest of your life with is short. Only two men ever made the cut. You lost the first man to a demon and the second to a divorce lawyer. Most of the time you're not quite sure which felt worse.
But you know their names. Both of their names etched themselves onto your heart in brilliant fiery lines. You can't forget your first love, the one who died broken and cold in your arms, the same way you'll never forget the name of the man who gave you your sons and gave your sons his name.
The ex is Jack, of course. Jack Winchester.
And John's last name was …
It was …
Your breath catches, a hard raspy jolt, and for a dizzying moment you think, Maybe it's caught on his last name. Maybe his name wandered out of my brain and ended up in my throat and I'm choking on it.
Smith. Jones. Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Fuck, you know his name.
Zachariah's smirk returns from its short vacation. "You're right," he says. "I should start with the easy questions. How about this one? You tell me what John looked like, and we can all go out for ice cream. How's that sound?"
It sounds like hell in a station wagon, but that's not what makes you shake your head in vicious snapping denial. It's the opaque cloud in your memory where John's face should be. You picture his head in your lap, his slack face, but the face that you wrestle away from your persistent nightmare is one you couldn't identify out of a police line-up even if you had his photo right in front of you.
You can't remember John. Not his face, not his last name, just the vague hazy idea of him.
Zachariah is practically pouting. "Oh, you're no fun," he says, and snaps his fingers.
The cloud in your mind lifts in an instant.
You suck in a breath so hard your lungs feel like you've deliberately inhaled acid.
Your gaze jerks to Jack, to his dark hair and thick beard slowly turning to salt and pepper, to his broad shoulders and his fingernails still stained with grease.
"That's John?" you rasp, but you know it even as you say it. You nearly burst out in hysterical laughter at the thought, because for all of the times you thought about what would happen if John were here, if he were the father of your sons, if he were alive …
"That's always been John," you breathe.
"Well, how else were we supposed to get you two crazy kids together? You said no," Zachariah says, mortally offended. "We had one hell of a love story in mind for you and John ... Jack … eh, whatever his name is this week. And you had to go and screw it up by saying no."
You feel like a lost hiker cornered by a bear. All of a sudden you can't take your eyes away from Zachariah, can't look at Jack, can't look at the kids or Ellen. You can't move, and might not even be breathing.
No sudden movements. Don't run. Don't tempt an attack.
"Besides," Zachariah says, "we're always pulling strings with you two. If it's not raising your earnest but dim boyfriend over here from the dead, it's throwing a bit of a love spell your way to make you forget about all those abominations against the Lord it turned out you liked to indulge in with other girls. And then we had to turn around and build this little utopia just for you, just so that we could make sure that you weren't screwing up the kiddies' lives the same way you screwed up yours and John's. Really, princess, you don't like making our jobs easy, do you?"
For a slow silent moment, you briefly debate which to kill him for first. The possible love spell's running a tight race, but calling you princess is definitely a close second.
You settle into the chair on the far side of the table, never taking your eyes off Zachariah or his aggravating smirk. He follows your motions, sitting in the opposite chair. You have a vivid memory all of a sudden of your job interview, of accepting and shaking his hand, and wonder if that was even real.
"Why now?" you ask.
You don't need to clarify what you mean by that. It's been a year and a half since you came here, since you were all lured here by some white-picket-fence illusion. Why kill Jack? Why attempt to take your sons? You think he can figure that out just fine all on his own.
Zachariah spreads his hands wide. "Because you're disappointing us, Mary. Dean and Sammy over there … they've got a great destiny, greater than you could even imagine. And you've got them playing Little League and building snow forts. What are you trying to do with their futures, make them locks for the first professional baseball players in Alaska?"
"You kidnapped my sons," you snap. "You don't seriously expect me to take parenting tips from you."
He leans forward with his hands clasped in the typical pose of a businessman making a once-in-a-lifetime deal. "Here's what we were thinking. We could just take them off your hands for a few years and train them up right."
You mock his posture, leaning forward and whispering conspiratorially, "Your parenting tips aren't getting any better."
"Is that a no?"
You lean back in your chair again, pretending to contemplate his proposal, then shake your head. "I've got a better idea," you say, and remove the Colt from your waistband.
You slap the gun down on the table with a clatter, but aren't dumb enough to take your hand off of it. You still don't believe a word of what this bastard's telling you – you don't know what this thing is just yet, but demons lie, and all that jazz – but you remember what Daniel Elkins told you over the phone about this gun before you bolted from Lawrence. Even his fantastical beliefs about the antique gun come off as more realistic than your boss being something dark and unnatural.
You should have stayed in Lawrence just long enough to give it back to Elkins. You meant to, but took it with you anyway. That's probably a good thing, now that you can see the look in Zachariah's eyes.
A receptionist should know a number of things about his or her boss after a year and a half of working for the man – his wife's name, his favorite baseball team, what he likes on his pizza – but the one thing you never had to learn about Mr. Jones was how to read his facial expressions. They blare out at the world whether he likes it or not. You can never decide if he's just not adept enough to conceal them, or simply doesn't care enough what anyone thinks to hide them.
Right now, staring down the hesitation suddenly peeking from behind the smug satisfaction clouding his eyes, you're beginning to suspect it's the latter.
"Well," he says, his voice cheery but a bit higher in pitch, edged with something that gives you a spark of hope. "That's quite a trump card you've got there, Mary."
You say nothing.
"You can't really be sure that'll kill any of us, though, can you?"
You let loose a dramatic sigh. "You're right," you say, and without preamble shoot the man standing behind him.
You can hear the kids behind you, frightened by the crack of the gunshot. You miss the minion slumping to the floor like the lifeless lump of meat he is. You're too busy shooting the kids a quick worried look, and exhale a ragged breath of relief when you see that Ellen stands between them and the sight of the man you just killed. The thing you just killed.
You think you see a flicker of light out of the corner of your eye, but don't much care about what it means right now.
Mollified, you turn back towards Zachariah. Growing satisfaction rushes through you as he draws his wide-eyed gaze away from the corpse on the floor.
You lean over and give the prone body on the floor a dismissive look, far more calm than you've felt in days. "Well, that worked," you say dryly.
Zachariah tries for smug. He's well-practiced. "What do you think you're going to do, shoot all of us?"
"Come on, boss. You don't really believe I think those people out there are a threat, do you?" You cock your thumb towards the rest of the church, where the townspeople of Junebug sit in polite silence.
"They could be."
"They'll be gone before we leave," you say, the barrel of the Colt pointed absently towards Zachariah's forehead. It's not conjecture. It's a demand and Zachariah will give it to you or he'll be able to cure his own headaches by jamming aspirin through the new forehead accessory you're about to give him.
He stares you down, his cheerfully smug demeanor faltering, his lips forming a jarringly unfamiliar sneer that still somehow manages to fit his face perfectly. "They've got too many salary demands anyway," he grumbles, and snaps his fingers. If it does something, you don't see it, but an unearthly sound echoes in the church before blessed silence replaces it. "What about us?"
Your lips tug into a wry smile. "Four bullets, three men, and I'm a really good shot."
"You really think killing us will keep our brethren away?"
You don't even want to think about what Zachariah means by his brethren. "No," you say, "but I think it'll get us out of the building and right now that's all I need."
There's a long moment as he debates your offer, far longer than you would have anticipated, then says without preamble, "Fair enough. You're free to leave."
It comes so suddenly that you're stunned out of your previous confidence for a moment. "Come again?"
"Oh, I will," he promises, his voice once again cheery. "Really, Mary, 'shoot first and ask questions later' is not as acceptable a personal motto as you seem to think it is."
Regaining your verbal footing, you cock an eyebrow and tilt your head towards the dead minion lying on the floor not far from Jack's prone corpse. "Why, was that guy going to tell me something I didn't already know?"
Zachariah's smirk grows back to life once again. "Maybe," he says. "You never know unless you ask."
You frown, wondering what he means by that.
Instead of elaborating, Zachariah lifts both hands and waves his fingers. "Go on, shoo."
You move slowly to your feet, the Colt still ready to blow a hole through anyone who tries to stop the five of you from leaving. You're about to turn to go when a flash of blond from behind Ellen reminds you of something, and you shoot Zachariah a questioning look. "If this is about the boys, why did you take Jo?"
He brightens with a sickening sort of amusement that makes your skin crawl. "Let's just call it professional curiosity," he says, as easy as you please.
Then, without a bit of shame, he winks at Ellen.
Unsettled, Ellen herds the kids out of the room and into the main hall of the church before the men can stop them, double-checking that the church is empty first, no townspeople alive or dead to get in your way. You're left to hold off your former boss and his stoic minions, these cold terrifying men who took your sons and threaten to take so much more.
You're not walking out of here safe for good, but you're walking out alive for now, which is a plus. You have a feeling your death was not outside of the realm of their plan.
As you contemplate whether or not to take Jack's body with you, Zachariah leans towards the nearest minion with almost casual indifference and says, "Raze it. Salt the earth while you're at it."
The minion tilts his head, a brief curt nod. A moment later, Zachariah and his minions vanish in an instant with what sounds like a breezy flap of invisible wings.
You doubt they'll take very long.
Junebug is burning.
There's no sign of who or what set the angry conflagration currently devouring every building in sight as it gleefully bounds from one roof to the next. You don't have the time to look, either.
You and Ellen haul Jack's body out of the building, loathe to leave it behind with the same bastards who claimed to raise it without its permission. God only knows what they'll do to him if you leave him behind. You secure your hold under his limp shoulders and try to ignore the sickening way his head lolls.
The kids race towards the car, Dean murmuring comforting nonsense to Sam and Jo as he tugs them to the Impala. "Front seat," you call out, and they tumble into it like terrified acrobats.
Ellen opens the door to the backseat one-handed, her other arm still holding Jack's booted feet up off the ground. The moment the door swings open, the two of you slide him into the backseat. You try desperately not to emphasize the unnatural set of his neck, not with Dean peering in anxious curiosity over the back of the seat.
Ellen bolts around the car and gets into the driver's seat without a word. Left alone, you can't help but swallow in the unnerving chaos. Ye Olde Apothecary collapses before your eyes, the inflamed roof imploding in a shower of sparks, sending the side walls bursting to the ground. The armory is already a stone shell containing the dying embers of a tired blaze. Farther down Main Street Junebug Elementary starts to smolder, the tarred roof feeding the starving flames spit and sparked from the inferno tearing through Al's Grocery next door.
Save yourselves. There's not a single other person on the streets to rescue.
You jolt out of your awed horror at the sound of Ellen's voice. The name itself is an order, but just to reiterate she barks from the driver's seat, "We need to leave."
She restrains herself from curses or insults, the sort of verbal trap you might have fallen into that just would have scared the children even more than they already are.
Silently, you get in.
The boys stare at you, wide-eyed and silent. Jo climbs into your lap and twines a sweaty fist in your hair.
Retrieving any of your belongings before you leave is not an option. The truck, the house, the trunk full of weapons. Dean's baseball cards and Sam's books. That warped cardboard fort, and what's left of your peanut butter brownies. Everything must go.
As Ellen drives the car out of town at breakneck speeds you watch the empty streets, the sidewalks devoid of escaping people. You already thought Junebug was too good to be true. You didn't need a confirmation born out of crushing fire and destruction.
You burn Jack in the parking lot of a long-abandoned mini-mart a mile outside what's left of Junebug.
The smoking crater you used to reluctantly call home stands as an intimidating backdrop for a good old-fashioned funereal bonfire. No matter what you do, lighting the pyre and igniting your ex-husband's lifeless corpse won't quite make the impressive image that it might under normal circumstances.
It sweeps a drowning wave of guilt through your veins, that it ends here, ends like this. Jack's prone, gas-splattered body stretched in defeat on a pair of wooden pallets propped up on some cinder blocks, you standing before it wielding a yardstick wrapped at one end in burning terrycloth.
You stand alone.
Ellen sits in the car, marking a silent new change of ownership over the driver's seat. The last time you dared a glance back at the car, she'd been in the middle of adjusting the rear view mirror. The time before that, she'd been fiddling with the front bench, fumbling to move the seat. The time before that, she'd been pretending to read the owner's manual.
Anything to keep from looking your way, you suppose, to give you the privacy you quietly requested.
The kids, you hope, still lie curled up in the backseat of the Chevy in a warm snuggling heap. They do one hell of an impression of an exhausted litter of puppies after a long tiresome day. Jo's tiny fingers probably still tangle in Dean's worn t-shirt and Sam's untamed hair.
They look far too serene. They're mostly asleep due to emotional fatigue, the boys too broken and out of tears. And thank God for it, too. As soon as they all hit the deck, you and Ellen started making your crude funeral arrangements, out here in the boonies on the edge of the real world.
"Goodbye, Jack," you murmur.
You can't call him John. Not yet. The stalwart borders between Jack and John in your mind have been built out of brick and mortar and fortified with iron and steel. He's still two men to you. That may never change.
You gird yourself without ceremony and light the pyre.
It flares to life as the gas catches, engulfing Jack's body in a fiery swarm. It swallows him whole, scrubs him away from the living world in slow deliberate ripples of eager flame. It cleanses just the way it's supposed to, but even so, you know it won't be enough.
The ceremony, what little of it you're engaging in, is an exercise in futility. If Zachariah and his minions can do what they claim to have done, if they're telling the truth about John and Jack and the surreal shifting track of his life, burning his corpse accomplishes nothing. If they want him alive again, to show up at whatever new home you find for you and your sons as the mailman or a door-to-door salesman or a weirdly enthusiastic Jehovah's Witness, they can do it. A snap of their fingers and he'll be yours all over again.
Pity you don't want him.
You want John, of course. You always want John. Whatever spell they may have cast over the two of you, it won't ever change the raw drugging feel of your love for him that courses through your veins when you think of him. If it's a lie, it's one you've come to claim as your own.
You want Jack, too, not because you loved him, not because he's John as well. You want Jack for your boys, unnervingly quiet since the five of you shot out of Junebug with the invisible hint of ravenous hellfire licking at your heels. You want Jack to dim the persistent pain in Dean and Sam's eyes and wipe away the tears that track down their pale cheeks.
But you don't want him back. Not like this. Not used as a tool, the way he has been for the past decade.
Let him stay wherever he's gone. Let him be safe for a change.
Let at least one of you be safe for a while.
You sure as hell won't. You don't need a neon sign or a fully fleshed-out accounting of the situation to know this won't stop. They'll come back, and they'll want your boys, and there is no good here because what you want doesn't matter anymore.
They want you to train your boys up right, and as much as you'd like to tell them to go fuck themselves sideways with a chainsaw, it may be the only chance Dean and Sammy have to fight them off.
Ellen startles when you open the passenger side door and slip inside the Impala, the strong unwanted scents of burning wood and cooking meat sneaking in after you. It's probably stuck to your clothes. You'll need to crack the window once you get far enough away, maybe stop and change at the nearest rest stop. The last thing you want when the boys finally wake up is for them to smell their father's roasting corpse on your shirt.
Your gorge rises, but you somehow choke it back. You feel like you've gone through the apocalypse, like you've seen the end of the world from a first-row seat, but you know driving a few miles down the road is all it will take to find the outside world whole and safe. Or, you suppose, as whole and safe as it usually is.
A few fire trucks have already roared past, their sirens screeching mournfully. It may be a dead town, but it burns just the same and someone has to put it out. You're hidden from street view where you've parked the car, but it's only a matter of time before passing authorities spot the roaring fire in the lot.
"We should go," you say, your voice tight. "I don't think the police would approve of the bonfire."
Ellen scoffs, no cruelty in the sound even as she says, "You think they'll even notice the bonfire?"
The horizon glows. You swear you can still feel the heat, even out in the boonies a half-mile from the edge of Junebug.
You'll all be long gone before they spot the bonfire, or at least until they care about it.
You take a quick peek into the backseat, your melancholy taking a hit at the sight of your sons. They're alive, healthy and unharmed as long as you discount their broken hearts. But you've suffered through your own broken heart once for just such a reason, wretched and stinging as it might be. And Ellen's been easing her girl through the same, hip-deep as she still is in the healing process. It'll help.
"So, where to?"
You turn back to Ellen, the weight of the week's events shifting imperceptibly. Her lips turn up into a tentative smile, encouraging but hard-edged. She's not ignoring that you've hit rock bottom. She's just holding out her hand to help you take the first step back up again.
You take a deep breath. You shrug. "Away, mostly."
You don't feel much like talking, and you're not picky. You don't know what comes next, but you want to get there as soon as possible.
Ellen nods, distracted. In the disconcerting glow of Junebug burning out of existence she's limned in gold. The light plucks the red from her dark hair and brightens it like hot steel, catching in the lines beginning to bracket her mouth. She'll age well, a rough, worn sort of beautiful. You can't wait to see it.
"Bill had –" Ellen pauses, steels herself. "I own a bar. Don't do much with it except sleep there on occasion, tend bar sometimes, collect a check or two. More than enough room in the house for you and those boys of yours. Think very much about Nebraska?"
"Not if I can help it," you shoot back, but there's a weak thread of humor in your words.
Your gazes connect. You're beaten and tired, wrung out emotionally and physically. Zachariah's words ring in your ears, the possibility that those sons of bitches may slither back into your lives at any given moment. You're reminded of the thing that possessed your father, of his simple request to just come to your home ten years down the line for a short simple visit. What he would have taken, you don't know.
What Zachariah and his buddies might want with your boys …
Well, hell, you could let Dean and Sam have the normal everyday lives you want for them, first girlfriends and varsity football, college scholarships and white picket fences. But apparently that's just not an option anymore. Not if you want them to have a fighting chance, anyway.
Your gaze is still locked with Ellen's, won't or maybe just can't tear away. She's gotten comfortable in the driver's side in self-defense, her legs a bit splayed, her elbow resting on the door by the window. When you notice, you automatically settle down. She might as well be feeding you muscle relaxers from the way the soothing warmth in her eyes wears you down.
She starts the Impala, and your eyes drift toward the dying glow behind the trees, the still-rolling conflagration spitting from Jack's battlefield crematorium. Two separate pyres, burning away the last of your slice of normal.
You clutch at Ellen's hand, thread your fingers through hers, and hold strong.
She holds strong, too, and pulls you away from the flames with a triumphant roar of the Impala's engine.