At the end of a dirt road somewhere outside Bloomington, Indiana is a house. It's a ramshackle structure that stands three stories high, and if the lights weren't on it would look like just another abandoned old home. A weathered sign swings from an old post that tells travelers they've arrived at the "Spiritless Spirit" - a tavern and inn you won't find on any travel websites or hear about at the camber of commerce.
The inside doesn't look much better. Not if you're one of its regular patrons, anyway. The lighting is dim, which is probably good since it nicely covers the grime that clings hopelessly to the uneven wooden floors and green painted walls. An old, dusty juke box sits in the corner under the stuffed head of a buck, someone's hunting trophy that's been mounted crooked on the wall. Wooden tables and chairs in mismatched sizes, shapes and colors are set up around a square, blacktop bar island that's stationed in the center of the tavern.
It doesn't look like much. It's dark, dingy and a little macabre. It's drafty, grimy and dank. But it's important. It's a place for wayward sons and daughters to hang their hats and rest their heads before they return to the road. A home away from home for people like me.
Tonight the tavern is occupied by around a dozen or so hunters. Little attention is given to my presence as I shake rain from my leather jacket and amble towards the bar. Most eyes remain on the drink that sits before them, their cards, or off into nothing. The eye I catch is that of the mop topped brunette bartender and owner of this haven who grins warmly as I saunter towards him. His round, blue eyes sparkle happily, as they always do when a hunter finds his way "home". His skinny frame moves closer to me as I approach and he temporarily abandons the glass he's polishing to give me his full attention.
"Ben, my man!" he greets me with a warm welcome and a firm handshake. "Welcome back, buddy."
"Hey Garth," I return with a smile.
Garth. The hunter turned werewolf turned inn keeper. He's easily the friendliest guy I know. It's probably what keeps him alive in the career he's chosen for himself. There aren't too many monsters on the planet who could get away running an establishment whose sole patronage consists of people who track and kill things like him.
"Pretty decent," Garth replies. "Considering I run a business that caters specifically to hunters. How you doing, man? Between hunts I take it?"
"More or less," I respond with a casual shrug, claiming a barstool as I converse. "You got any rooms available?"
"Inn's pretty full tonight," he tells me as he fills a mug with a cool, amber colored ale. "But I think I've got a room left." He pauses to slide the now full mug towards me. "What was the monster de jour? And don't skimp on the details."
It's not hard to tell that Garth misses hunting. Every time someone comes in fresh from a hunt, he hounds them for details. He clings to their every word before staring off dreamily into space, fantasizing he was the one slaying the vampire or burning bones.
"Just an angry spirit," I tell him with a casual shrug before I take a sip of my beer. "Why don't you just start hunting again?"
"Someone's gotta work the phones for you idjiots," Garth says with a small smile as he returns to polishing glasses. "Besides, a monster hunting monsters? That stopped feeling okay real quick. I ain't a hypocrite." He pauses for a second to anxiously wiggle his brows at me. "So, that vengeful spirit you just hunted...?"
"Oh, you know how it is," I tell him between sips. "Just another pissed off ghost killing people. Some hippie with a grudge against some corporate sleaze bags."
"A pissed off hippie?" Garth questions with an amused tone.
"I don't make ghosts," I respond. "I just kill 'em." I pause as a small smile creeps across my face, a response to a detail that makes this case unique and one Garth would love to hear about. "This ghost didn't have bones to burn."
"What was he tired to?" Garth asks with interest.
"A small forest in a downtown park," I reply and Garth laughs.
"You had to set a park on fire?" he laughs and I know he's picturing me setting a slew of trees ablaze.
"Yep," I admit. "What else was I supposed to do? These "green" cremations don't exactly make the job easy. The guy's corpse was turned into fertilizer. His remains were literally scattered around a miniature forest."
"I ain't complaining," Garth says, shaking his head with a look of amusement plastered on his face. "I get it. I just never had to deal with a hippie ghost before. 'Scuse me, I gotta take this." He pauses to answer one of the several phones he keeps behind the bar. "FBI, this is Johnstone."
While Garth plays FBI, I glance about the bar. Most of the faces here are familiar, but not all. My eyes wander about until they settle upon a stranger who captivates my attention.
He sits alone at a small table with a whiskey in his hand and a worn leather jacket pulled over his slumped shoulders. From where I sit he looks to be mid forties, maybe close to fifty with streaks of silver lining his short, dark brown hair just above his ears on either side of his head. His right eye, which appears green in color, stares blankly at his drink. His left is concealed by a black patch.
I've never met him, but for some reason he seems familiar.
"Hey Garth," I speak once the ex-hunter has hung up, pointing to the stranger. "Who's that guy over there?"
"Hm?" Garth mumbles absently as his eyes attempt to follow my finger. "Oh. That's Dean Winchester."
I nearly spit a mouthful of beer as the name reaches my ears.
"Dean Winchester?" I echo, wiping the few drops of ale that did escape in my moment of surprise. "The Dean Winchester?"
"Is there any other Dean Winchester?" Garth replies with a small smile, clearly proud to know the guy despite what his casual demeanor might try to imply. "I take it you've heard of him?"
"Who hasn't?" I say with an impressed breath, my gaze falling back to the legend.
For a silent moment, all I can do is stare at him in partial disbelief. Starstruck probably isn't the best word to use, but it's the first one that comes to mind. Is he really here? Sitting in Garth's tavern? At the same time as me? My freaking idol?
After a few minutes of awkward staring I shake my head and rise to my feet. I can't just sit here and stare at him. Not when there's an opportunity to shake the man's hand.
"Where you goin'?" Garth asks with a cocked brow.
"I'm gonna go say hi," I respond as I nervously gather my mug.
"I wouldn't," Garth warns, shaking his head as he speaks. "He prefers solitude."
"Come on," I roll my eyes. "How often am I gonna get a chance to meet him?"
"Alright," Garth says, shaking his head. He places a rocks glass on the bar and quickly fills it with whiskey. "I'd take this with you, though."
I take the man's advice and, with a nervous breath, I slowly stride towards the table where Dean Winchester sits. In my head I practice what I could say, potential conversation starters and compliments. In my head he's pleasant and flattered that I look up to him, despite the fact I should know better. Any hunter whose been in the game as long as he has and lives to tell the tale is seldom pleasant.
"Dean?" I speak with an anxious breath as I approach. "Dean Winchester?"
"Whaddya want?" the man harshly grumbles into his drink, not bothering at all to even give me so much as a glance.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to bother you," I quickly apologize for breaking his solitude. "I just... you're kind of my idol and I just wanted to say hi, I guess."
Dean turns his head to look up at me, his expression a blend between amusement, puzzlement and annoyance.
"How in god's name could I possibly be anybody's idol?" his gravely voice speaks and all I can think to do is shrug.
He studies me with his remaining eye and, as he does this, I can see three long, deep scars that run diagonally from just above the brow to somewhere just below his cheekbone on the left side of his face. The scars are partially hidden by the black patch he wears over the place his left eye used to be. Battle wounds he received while taking on the Jersey Devil in a solo battle, or so the stories would have you believe.
"You look familiar," he tells me after a moment of silence has passed, squinting his eye as he speaks. "Have we met?"
"Oh, no," I shake my head. I place the glass of whiskey on the table in front of him before I anxiously stick out my right hand for him to shake. "Sorry. I'm Ben. Ben Braden."
He attempts to disguise the onslaught of emotions that hit him when I give him my name, and he does it pretty well. But, for a split, second I can detect in his eye recognition and guilt as he seems to hold his breath. As if my name means something to him. Me, a young gun who hasn't done anything remotely as epic as stopping the Apocalypse.
"Ben?" he echoes at last, ignoring my extended hand. "Braden?"
"Uh, yeah," I confirm with an awkward breath. "Why?"
"I just... I've heard of you," he shakes his head as he speaks, like he's trying to get rid of a feeling of... I don't know. Shock maybe?
"You've heard of me?" I say with a note of disbelief.
"Yeah," he nods before motioning to the empty chair across the table from him. "Please, sit."
He denied my handshake but I feel absolutely zero disappointment. Dean Winchester offered me a seat. Not only did the Dean Winchester offer me a seat, he's heard of me. Me.
"I gotta tell you, Mr. Winchester," I begin as I take an excited but nervous seat across from him. "This is a huge honor. I mean, you're a freaking legend."
"It's just Dean," he corrects me, cringing slightly at the formal title. "Mr. Winchester was my grandfather."
"Of course," I nod, still nervously excited. "Sorry, sir."
"Don't call me that either."
For an awkward minute, Dean just kind of stares at me. I might be enthralled, sitting here with the legend, but now I'm also beginning to feel intimidated. I can't read him, not now. All I can do is let him give me a good looking over and hope he's not judging me too harshly.
"How old are you now, Ben?" he asks, picking up a glass of whiskey as he speaks.
"Just turned twenty-five sir... er, Dean," I fumble my response.
"Yeah?" Dean says. "When'd you start hunting?"
"When I graduated high school," I reply. "About seven years now."
Dean gives a small nod. He might be a hard one to read, but he doesn't seem to be making small talk. For some reason, he seems genuinely interested in me.
"So, Ben," he goes on. "What got you into hunting? It's not a family business or anything, right?"
"No," I shake my head, laughing slightly at the visual of my mom, a yoga instructor, hunting spirits and monsters. "I don't know. I guess I'd have to say it was fate."
Dean scoffs at the word before consuming the contents of his first drink in a single gulp.
"What?" I have to ask. "You don't believe in fate?"
"Oh no," he replies, shaking his head as he gulps down the whiskey in his mouth. "I know for a fact she exists. I'm the one who got her fired."
"What do you mean?" I question, cocking my head slightly to the side out of curiosity.
"You don't stop something like the Apocalypse without getting a few major players fired," he tells me flatly before he begins taking sips from the glass I brought him. "You know she's just an angel, right?"
"I guess I never really thought about it," I admit with a small shrug.
"So what really got you into hunting?" Dean presses and, for a minute, I can't help but wonder why he seems so interested in my motives.
"Fate," I repeat my answer, which Dean finds unsatisfying. "I don't know how else to explain it," I quickly try to elaborate. "Ever since I was eight I've just kind of known that monsters were real. I don't know why. I mean, I never even saw a ghost until I started hunting."
"So you're telling me you just picked up this life on a hunch," Dean attempts to over simplify my story.
"That's one way to put it," I say with a soft sigh.
I can't say I'm completely disappointed in my encounter with the Winchester. I can't say it's going exactly as I pictured, either. Then again, it's hard to say what I really expected from the aging hunter. I suppose it would have been foolish to think we'd chat it up over a round of pool and, by the end of the night, we'd be besties.
"Your mom know what you do?" he keeps grilling me, like he's my long lost father who was never there when I was growing up but has no problem judging my life now that I'm an adult.
"God no," I shake my head before taking a quick drink from my mug. "She thinks I'm a truck driver."
"And your dad...?"
"I don't know my stepdad all that well," I openly share. "My mom and him haven't been married all that long. He thinks what she thinks."
"I see," Dean says and, for a split second, I could swear he looks disappointed.
Another uncomfortable silence passes and I find myself thinking I should have taken Garth's advice. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered him. He's kind of a downer. I have this feeling like I'm the first person in a long time he's held a conversation with. And for some really bizarre reason, it almost feels like it's because he knows me.
Which is crazy. Obviously we've never met before. I'd have remembered something like meeting Dean Winchester.
"Listen, Ben," he slowly begins after a few minutes of deep thought. "I know this seems like a cool gig right now. You're still young - "
"I'm twenty-five," I remind him defensively.
"... You're still young," Dean repeats firmly. "Which is all the more reason to get out now. While you still can. You wanna know why?"
I shake my head no despite the fact I know what he's going to say.
"Because," he begins, leaning back in his seat with his glass in hand. "If you do survive this awful, awful life, I'm what you have to look forward to."
"Being a legend doesn't sound so bad to me," I tell him and he lets out a harsh, sarcastic laugh.
"You know what I paid to get here?" he spits out a rhetorical question. "To become some damned legend? Everything and everyone."
I hang my head out of a quiet and respectful sorrow.
"Yeah," I tell him quietly. "I heard about what happened to Sam."
I can tell this has touched a nerve. Dean's jaw clenches, his eye narrows and, even in the dim lighting, I can tell his face has flushed in a rosy red rage. He swallows hard any harsh come back he might be thinking, as if he was going to allow me to momentarily speak of the one thing no one is ever supposed to mention in his presence.
"It's not just Sam," he tells me through clenched teeth and I know that's the extent he'll talk about his dead brother. "It's everyone. My entire family. Every friend I've ever had. Everyone I've ever... loved..."
The last part he has to choke out. Hastily he puts his glass to his lips and takes a long, hard swallow. I can tell it's not just the alcohol he's trying to swallow, but every emotion this conversation is attempting to bring out of him. Every memory. Every heartache.
"Get out while you can," he tells me with a rough, haggard voice. "Before you loose everyone, too."
Swiftly he kills his drink before slamming the empty glass on the table. With an urgency he rises from his seat and turns to walk away. And I'd let him, too, except I can't yet. Idol or not, I can't let him leave me like this. I can't let him tell me what to do.
"With all due respect," I call after him. "You don't know me. I'm not going to give this up. Not for some jaded old hunter I just met."
This causes Dean to pause, but he keeps his back to me.
"You live this long, you'll be jaded too," he tells me.
"Maybe," I reply with a shrug. "Maybe not. I won't know until I get there and I'll be damned if I don't at least try. I already know these monsters and spirits are out there. I know how to kill them and, at the risk of sounding egotistical, I'm not half bad at it. What kind of hunter... what kind of person would I be if I just walked away?"
"Your mom..." Dean begins.
"If my mom knew what I actually do," I cut him off. "That I save lives, she would be proud of me. Yeah, she'd worry about me, but if she found out I quit just to protect her, she'd be furious. She would be disappointed in me for wanting to save just her life instead of the lives of hundreds of other people."
Dean says nothing. Not at first. He hangs his head, his back still turned as he silently debates my words.
"In that case," he speaks at last, slowly turning to give me one last sorrowful, guilt laced look. "You stay safe out there. Don't let me outlive you, too."
He leaves me with that, exiting the tavern with his shoulders hunched and his head hung low. Garth wishes him a good evening, but he doesn't look up or turn around. Instead he shoves his hands inside his leather coat pockets and walks out into the cool, wet night.
"Well?" Garth asks as I slowly make my way back to the bar. "How'd it go? Musta been okay, I haven't seen Dean tolerate anyone's company for that long."
"No," I say with a deflated shake of my head. "You were right. I should have just left him alone."
"Kinda warped your perception on your hero, huh?" Garth lays out a highly accurate guess, to which I respond with a small, saddened shrug. "Idols are often not what they seem. Anyway, Dean's seen a lot and lost a lot. Whatever mood he was in, it wasn't your fault."
It's one of those speeches where you hear the words, but they don't really mean anything. Not that I disbelieve him. I know Dean's attitude had nothing to do with me. It was just a little - or a lot - disheartening to meet my hero, the Great Dean Winchester, and have him tell me to get out of the life. It's probably my fault though, the disappointment I feel. I probably shouldn't have expected a warm welcome and helpful tips on how to be the next big hunter hero.
I wallow at the bar for a couple more hours where I half listen to Garth talk about this and that while I quietly sip ale. I get a good buzz going, and then I wish the werewolf a good night. On my way to my room I think about my encounter with Dean, the middle aged hunter with an eyepatch and an alcohol problem. About how he told me I should stop now, to save myself, like he was my dad or something. And, for some really weird reason, I feel guiltily. Ashamed. Like he was my dad and I had let him down. Like in the movies, when the kid picks art or music when their father wanted them to be a doctor or an engineer. I feel like that kid.
Maybe it's because, for some really strange reason, it almost feels like Dean really is my dad. I guess he was the only one I had to look up to in this life, even though I had never met him. Until tonight, anyway.
"Stupid reality," I grumble to myself as I open my room door and flick the lights on.
And then I see it. It's laying on the clean white pillow, waiting for me. There's no note, but I know it's for me and I know who it's from.
A bone hilted knife with Enochian looking engravings etched onto the blade's otherwise smooth surface. I've never seen this weapon before, but I've heard all about it. The demon blade, one of the very few weapons in existence capable of killing most demons. And I know that it belongs to Dean.
Or, rather, it did. It seems that it now belongs to me. I glance around the small room, looking for signs the hunter is still here. But he's long gone.
I study my new knife as every ounce of disappointment melts away. I doubt Dean's changed his mind. I know he still wishes I would turn tail and run. But he's accepted my decision, my life. And, with this simple but amazing gift, he's shown me the support I was hoping he'd give me all along.
I wonder if I’ll ever see him again?