Category: gen, pre-series, teen!chesters
Word count: 8060
Characters: Dean, Sam, John
Summary: This is how Dean will remember it.
A place like Arbuckle runs on its own time so the mechanic cannot be rushed even though Dad’s already told him several times what's wrong with the car. It’s already taken half the day for them to get towed a dozen miles to Arbuckle, the nearest claim to civilization that has an auto shop. Calling it a city is absurd, and even calling it a town is a stretch. Arbuckle’s not much more than a service station, a diner, motel, and farmland in every other direction. The tow truck driver called it a “Census Designated Place,” which Sam declared was “just fucking perfect.”
Dean whacked him upside the head before Dad could beat him to it.
This is how Dean will remember it.
They are driving down the highway, Dad yawning in the driver’s seat and complaining about the state of California roads and Sammy sprawled all over the back seat doing homework in the middle of July because he’s a total freak. There’s a hum in the air that Dean can’t explain, but it makes him happy, riding shotgun next to his dad on the way to a hunt, Sammy keeping quiet for once and not fighting with Dad. Dean is twenty years old, and the world is all that he could ask of it.
“Dean, hand me the map,” Dad says, and Dean’s reaching for it, when the car gives a heave and a lurch and rocks them as they lose speed almost immediately. Dean reaches back instinctively for Sammy, while Dad swears and maneuvers the car off the road. They come to a final emphatic stop, the Impala giving up the ghost with a huff and a hiss.
Not good. Dean doesn’t know nearly as much about cars as Dad but he already knows this isn’t going to be a simple side-of-the road fix.
Dad and his back roads… Said Interstate 5 had been cursed by a ghost on a Harley, but they’re on their way to an important job and can’t afford to be sidetracked by a secondary one. So it was going to be back roads from California to Salem and because of that, they’ve had the road to themselves for nearly an hour. The empty two-lane blacktop stretches straight ahead, sun-baked rolling hills on either side, studded with old oaks. Green and gold, Northern California in the summer.
“Damn,” Dad says under his breath, slamming both fists on the wheel. “Shit, shit, shit.” He gets out, leaving the door open, and Dean follows suit.
“Do you think it was that poltergeist?” Dean asks. “Maybe she whammied the car before we burned her? As he stares down at the still hissing engine, Dean can’t help but shudder at the thought of that particular ghost. It turned out to be one of their more memorable salt and burns, and damn but that thing was mad!
“No, it’s the timing belt. Damnit. Dean, hand me that wrench.”
Dean hands off the tool but it occurs to Dean that Sam hasn't even said anything yet. A screw-up without an “I told you so” from sixteen-year-old Sam is definitely cause for concern. Sure enough, Sam’s still folded up in the back seat, hunched over his work while chewing on the end of his eraser.
Dean gets back into the car and flicks Sam on the forehead. Sam swats at him absent-mindedly but doesn’t look up.
“Dad thinks it’s the timing belt,” Dean says.
“Huh.” Sam is writing furiously, biting his lower lip, probably because his fingernails are already worn to the quick.
Feeling generous, Dean doesn’t flick him again. “That’s bad. We don’t have a timing belt lying around, Sammy.”
Sam finally looks up. “Dean, I gotta finish this. It’s a timed test.”
“What the hell are you taking a test for? You’re not even in school, dumbass. It’s summer.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “I’ve told you before. It’s a correspondence class. Duke offers it for homeschooled kids.”
“You’re not homeschooled.”
“Thank God for that.”
“Shut up, bitch.”
“Dean, please. This is a timed test.”
Dean whacks Sam’s arm, making the pencil scratch across his friggin timed test and earns himself a shove back. Satisfied that he’s bugged Sammy enough, he gets out to join his father.
“Sam’s okay,” Dean says off-handedly, as if there’s some reason that Sam wouldn’t be okay, but Dad’s bent over the engine and isn't paying attention.
“Should have changed the damn belt at Bobby’s,” Dad mutters. Sam always thinks Dad’s got it in for him, but there’s nobody Dad’s harder on than himself. He’d forgive his boys for screwing up a hundred times over, but when it comes to his own failings, Dad doesn’t forgive and forget.
“You sure it’s the timing belt?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Not going to be easy finding one out here for a ’67 Chevy. Bobby had one and offered to let me have it. Should’ve taken care of it while I had the chance.”
“He was kinda glad to see us go, Dad.”
“Glad to see me go, you mean. He’d have been fine if you boys hung out while I fixed the car.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Wait until Highway Patrol comes along. Wait for a tow.” Dad leans against the car. “It’s all we can do.”
“Crap. Dad, we got to think of something. Those witches in Oregon are bad news.”
Dad wipes off the engine oil off on his jeans. “Dean, it’s not like I have a spare timing belt stored in the trunk. We just have to wait this one out.”
“Where the hell are we, anyway?”
“Somewhere in California. God, I hate California.”
The car starts rocking back and forth. Sam’s trying to get out of the back seat, which is harder and harder to do now that his growth spurt’s kicked in. For the past couple months, it seems like he’s been growing a foot a day, and he’s all knees and elbows and clumsy as hell. Dean’s been worried he’s going to kill them all while tripping over his size 15 feet. But Sam somehow wrangles his way out of the backseat and triumphantly waves a piece of paper in Dean's face.
“Finished!” he proclaims with the geeky grin that makes Dean want to both kick his butt and grin back at him. But Sam’s looking around, obviously confused. “Hey, what’s going on? Why’d we stop?”
So Dean’s going to have to get in front of Sam to keep Dad from killing him, but miracle of miracles, Dad looks amused instead.
“Must make you feel good to know your brother’s got your back,” Dad says dryly to Dean. “Those IQ tests sure aren’t worth a load of crap, are they?”
Sam’s not snarling at anyone yet, so Dad’s jab obviously didn’t register. “What are you talking about? What’s wrong with the car?”
Dean lets himself grin because Dad’s in a good mood, which is usually all it takes to make the day a good one. All the same, Dean decides he's got to keep an eye on this because something's going on with Sam.
A place like Arbuckle runs on its own time so the mechanic can't be rushed even though Dad’s already told him what's wrong with the car. It’s already taken half the day for them to get towed a dozen miles to Arbuckle, the nearest claim to civilization that has an auto shop. Calling it a city is absurd, and even calling it a town is a stretch. Arbuckle’s not much more than a service station, a diner, motel, and farmland in every other direction. The tow truck driver called it a “Census Designated Place,” which Sam declared was “just fucking perfect.”
Dean whacked him upside the head before Dad could beat him to it.
Even after they got the car towed to the shop, it took a while to track down the town’s sole mechanic who, according to his wife, was holed up somewhere sleeping it off. And even after the mechanic finally showed up, things hadn’t gone much faster.
Dean sighs. The mechanic’s in love. Normally, Dean wouldn’t begrudge any guy with a crush on his car, but the garage smells like cigarettes and piss, and Dean just wants to get the Impala fixed and leave. He’s starting to keep a running count of how many times the owner’s two rangy mutts have gotten up to drink out of the rusty toilet bowl in the shops tiny bathroom.
“This is insane,” he grumbles. “How long can it take to figure out the timing belt's busted?”
Dad sighs. “We don’t have much of a choice. I just hate giving that coven any more time to get organized.”
“Witches are bad news,” Dean agrees. “I hate witches.”
Dad’s lips quirk slightly. “Then maybe it’s a good thing that we won’t be spending much time with them.”
True. At least they’re not on their way to some cool gig with werewolves or water wraiths or something that could turn out fun. They’re supposed to be heading out to a witchcraft convention in Salem, Oregon – damn place has always attracted wannabes from all over the world. Most witches aren’t dangerous at all, mostly into incense and getting touchy-feely with nature crap, but these ones want to be taken seriously, and Dad’s dead serious about keeping it from getting out of hand.
Dean feels bad that he tried to talk Dad out of it. He’s always been superstitious and is a little nervous that he somehow jinxed Dad’s job by not wanting to take it in the first place.
He can almost hear Sam taunting him – yeah, like you broke the Impala with your mind because you didn’t want to go to Oregon. But Dean’s not one to discount a possibility just because it’s unlikely. Stranger things happen to them all the time.
But Sam hasn’t been paying attention to anything going on after they were towed to the garage. He’s highlighting passages in a textbook, his forehead furrowed in almost comical concentration. Sam’s always taken his schoolwork seriously, but this is almost like a job, the way he’s caught up in it.
At long last, the mechanic ambles away from the Impala, wiping his hands on a rag and drawling, “Now, that’s a real car. They don’t make them –”
“Like this any more, we know, we know.” Dad is obviously trying to check his temper. “Can you just tell me what’s wrong with the car?”
“It’s the timing belt. The car’s a classic though, a beauty. Don’t make them like this any more-”
“Do you have the part?” Dad interrupts.
“Nope, not in stock. You don’t see many ‘67s still on the road. Far as I can tell, that belt’s only been changed once before. Cars like these were made to last. Really though, you should’ve changed it a thousand miles ago.”
“Yes, I know that. We were…busy.”
Yeah, they’ve been busy for the last thousand miles and for the thousand miles before that. Dean can hardly remember where the first half of the summer’s gone. First there were the identical twin changelings in June, followed by a cursed housing tract in Indiana the week after, not to mention the Southern belle ghost in Mississippi after that. Now, that job had been cool, a lot better than the poltergeist they just finished up with. The dead chick had a great personality, even though she’d freaked out Sam…
“How long will it take to get the part?”
“At least a couple days. I’ll have to call over to Redding.”
“We don’t have that sort of time,” Dean says impatiently.
The mechanic takes stock of Dean for the first time. “Well, you’ll have to find time. Consider it a vacation. Paula, down the street, runs a clean motel. That other boy of yours seems like he needs some time off.” The mechanic nods at Sam, who hasn’t even looked up. “Ain’t it summer where you’re from?”
Dad’s not happy. Family business is family business, and neither of them like outsiders taking an interest in Sam.
“He’s in summer school,” Dad says gruffly. “Now can you tell me where I can find this motel?”
“Can’t miss it. It’s the only one in town.” The mechanic shrugs. “I’ll go ahead and order the part.”
As he walks off, Dad puts his hand on Sam’s shoulder, never a good sign. “Sammy,” he says quietly, “what the hell are you doing?”
Sam shuts the book like he’s gotten caught at something, and Dean wonders why.
“AP Euro. I’m working on an essay comparing German trench warfare to the French’s in World War I.”
“You’re not in school.”
“Yes, Dad, I remember I’m not in school, and I also remember that the reason I didn’t get to finish school was because you yanked me out so you could go and exorcise a herd of demonic pigs.”
The pig exorcism was totally necessary, and Sam shouldn’t talk about it like it wasn't. At least Sam knows enough to keep his voice down, but then he goes and does that eye roll thing that never fails to piss Dad off. Dean can see Dad’s jaw working back and forth.
“So why are you doing homework?” Dad picks up the textbook and rifles through the pages.
“Doesn’t matter how many times I repeat it, nobody listens to me anyways. It’s a correspondence course from Duke. I’m taking two classes right now. I need to make up what I didn’t finish.”
“Who said you could sign up for this? Who paid for this?” Dad tosses the textbook onto the bench like a gauntlet between them. “These kind of books are expensive.”
“So are courses from Duke, which is ironic because public school is free for anyone who can stay enrolled for more than a month at a time!” And so it's begun...
It’s the same old crap. Dean hates this thing that’s between his father and brother almost as much as he hates the things that they have to kill. God only knows that he loves them more than his own life, but it’s always another battle. Dean has always, always understood that when lives are at stake, Dad doesn’t have a choice. Even though Sam’s a total bleeding heart, nothing seems to matter to him when it interferes with his plans, and Dad never gets how any of Sam's plans can be important.
It’s Dean’s job to hold things together, so he steps between them.
“Cool it, Sam. Dad only wants to know how you got the money for the classes, that’s all.”
“Funny how he wasn’t the least bit interested until he had five minutes to spare without something to hunt.”
Dad reaches over Dean’s shoulder and jabs Sam in the chest. “Watch your tone, Sammy.”
“Okay, Pastor Jim paid for the classes. And no, I didn’t ask him to. It was his idea. He offered.”
“I can’t pay that kind of money back, Sam.”
“You don’t have to!” Pushed to his limit, Sam's eyes are filled with tears now. “I’ll pay him back. Eventually.”
“And how the hell are you going to do that?” Dad growls, but just then, the mechanic plunks down the receiver on the ancient rotary phone, and the three of them look up surprised that he’s still in the room.
“Good news,” he says. “Timing belt will be here in a few days.”
“A few days?” Dean asks. “That’s good news?”
“Hell yeah,” the mechanic says. “’With a 67 Chevy, it could’ve been a week.”
“Do you think you could fix the shocks too?” Sam asks with exaggerated politeness, still glaring at his father. “The car bounces so much in the back, it makes it hard to write.”
There are times Dean honestly believes that his kid brother has signed a suicide pact with the devil. He’s got as about much instinct for self-preservation as a moth touching down on a flame.
Right on cue, Dad explodes, “Oh well that’s just terrific!” and storms outside, slamming the door behind him.
“Well sure,” the mechanic says, gesturing vaguely around the empty garage. “Got some time between jobs.”
“We’re good, thanks,” Dean says, shooting daggers at his brother.
Even Sam knows better than to try and deny it.
There’s not much to Arbuckle. Dean’s surprised the US Census even designates it as a “place.” There’s the main street, some houses on the outskirts, a mobile home park, and a whole lot of agriculture all around. But there’s also a motel and a diner that serves two kinds of pie every day, so Dean’s good.
Dad’s off scouting. As soon as he realized they really were stuck in this town for a few days, he started checking things out, making sure there was nothing that needed hunting. The waitress at the diner mentioned hearing something about unusual shapes in a local corn field, and that was the last they’d heard from Dad that day.
It’s probably a good thing Dad’s not around because Sam hasn’t even looked up from his books, and Dad’s still pissed that Pastor Jim went in on this, behind his back. Sam’s always loved his homework, but this is intense, even for Sam.
And Dean is bored. It never works out that they get stuck somewhere like Vegas or LA where he could actually have some fun. At the moment, Dean’s got a new credit card that could use some action, even if Dad says it’s not ethical to use the fraudulent cards on anything they don’t really need– credit cards pay for things like hospital co-pays, gas and motel money, and plenty of macaroni and cheese for Sam.
Not macaroni and cheese, Dean corrects himself. Not any more. Not since Sam’s gotten so friggin picky about everything he puts in his mouth. Says there are carcinogens in orange food dye, whatever the hell that means. Like any of them are going to get killed by something that comes out of a box.
“C’mon Sam, it’s hot in here. Let’s go out for a while.”
Sam doesn’t even look up. “Dad said to stay in the room.”
“Yeah, like you care about obeying Dad.”
Sam does look up this time. “Well I don’t but you do. Give me an hour, Dean. I’m almost done.”
“Dude, is there even a deadline for this class? Why does it matter if you take an hour off?”
“I can’t start a new class until I finish these two, so yes, it does matter.”
“And it matters because…?”
Sam puts his pencil down, obviously irritated. “Because I have a plan, Dean. And part of the plan is that I get through as many AP classes as I can during the summer, and that’ll put me on the honor’s track in the fall. It’s not like I can count on being in school a full year to get through an AP class. Besides, if I pass the AP tests, then I’ll get college credit, which could save a helluva lot of money later on.”
“Dude, you’re only a sophomore!”
“Junior,” Sam reminds him. “I’ll be a junior if I can make up what I missed. And junior year’s the most important one, Dean.”
“Important for what?” Dean feels uneasy. He can’t put words to what he’s worried about, but somehow he knows that there’s little good that can come from this.
Sam looks away. “I don’t want to talk about this, Dean. Are you hungry? How about we go to that diner? Jerry says the apple pie’s the best.”
Sam knows him awfully well. Just getting out of this room will make things better, and pie is exactly what he needs. The uneasy feeling in Dean’s gut fades, and Sam puts his notebook in his satchel.
“Who’s Jerry?” Dean asks as they head out.
“Pumps gas at the station,” Sam says. “Nice guy. Says to be careful of the meatloaf.”
“Works for me. I don’t like meatloaf.”
“Yeah, but Dad does. You’ll have to tell him not to eat it.”
“Why don’t you tell him?” Dean raises an eyebrow at his brother who is actually looking pretty relaxed, as he hangs his satchel over his shoulder.
“Are you kidding? If I tell him, Dad’ll eat it out of spite.”
“Shut up, Sammy. That’s not how it is.”
But Sam’s a little bit right, and Dean’s laughing as he shuts the door.
It’s been three days. The timing belt finally came in, but it turned out to be for the wrong model, so the mechanic had to reorder. Dad’s fairly convinced that there’s got to be something keeping them in Arbuckle – maybe a binding spell from the Oregon witches. Dutiful son that he is, Dean’s trying to check things out, which is easier now that Sam finished one of his classes. He mailed it off, looking as happy as Dean had seen him in a long time.
“One down,” he’d said with a loopy grin.
“How many to go?” Dean asked.
“Too many, but it’s a start. Okay, I promised I’d check things out with you, once I was done, so let’s do it. Maybe you’ll luck out and find something that needs killing.”
Dean doesn’t have that kind of luck. But Sam’s always been good for his word, and they spend their third day wandering around Arbuckle, putting in miles of walking cornfields and almond orchards. By afternoon, Dean’s feet hurt, and he misses the Impala so much he could cry. But he’s convinced there’s got to be something that they’re missing. Dad suspects something, and that’s always been enough for Dean to go on. Sam thinks they’re both full of it.
They’re walking through a grove of almond trees. The sun glitters through the leaves, and it smells like wet earth and manure, but Sam insists he smells blossoms. Sam’s imagining things. It hasn’t been springtime for a while.
“Dean, this is ridiculous. Dad already checked this orchard out and said there’s no sign of anything supernatural.”
Dean snorts at how easily Sam can pull the “Dad said so” card when it suits his purposes.
He retorts, “Dad didn’t say there was nothing here. He just said he didn’t find anything. There’s gotta be some reason we’re still stuck in this shithole while a coven in Oregon is getting off serving kittens for breakfast.”
Sam grins lazily as they walk. “Hey, at least it gave me time to finish my class. I was really worried I’d get marked down because they wouldn’t be able to read my handwriting with all that bouncing in the car.”
Dean retorts mockingly, “I’m sure that’s what this is all about - giving you time to finish your homework. The Pacific Northwest can go to hell. Sammy’s finished his essay.”
“Screw you,” Sam says, but he’s not mad, and he even laughs when Dean trips over a tree root.
Dean's about to take Sam down with him, but then he notices a small flag marking off the section of the orchard. “Hey, this is where the fruit-picker dude said he saw the thing.”
“He said he saw something blowing in the wind and that was only because you wouldn’t go away until he came up with something. Besides, I don’t trust your Spanish.”
“Well, if you took Spanish like I told you to, you’d be able to translate for yourself.”
Sam shakes his head. “Dean, I’ve already told you that I wanted to get some credit for all that Latin that’s been crammed down my throat since I was born. Besides, colleges like Latin.”
“I know, I know, you’ve told me. But it’s not like you’re going to college, and besides, you’re still a sophomore.”
“Junior. I’m going to be a junior.”
“Yeah, whatever. But you better not talk like this around Dad.”
“You’re not Dad, and you won’t tell him.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you won’t,” Sam says, and they both shut up because they know he’s right.
They keep walking, not picking up anything out of the ordinary, until Dean notices a tree literally crawling with bugs. There are hundreds of them, and they’re eating the tree from the inside out.
Dean points at the infested tree. “Okay tell me that’s not weird.”
“They’re bugs, Dean.”
“Yeah I know they're bugs, genius, but there’s thousands of them. It’s like a plague or something.”
“That’s because this is an organic orchard. They don’t believe in using pesticides, so of course, there’s going to be bugs.”
“So you’re saying they’re letting the trees die purpose? That doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes sense if it saves farm workers from getting cancer and their babies from being born with birth defects.” Sam lifts a leaf with a bug crawling on it and studies it for a while. “It’s actually pretty cool looking.”
“You need to get out more often, Sam. That is one ugly bug. And tell me this. If all the trees die off because of some bug plague, how the hell are they supposed to feed their children all the macaroni and cheese you don’t want them to eat any more?”
“They could always try credit card fraud. I hear there’s a future in hustling pool too.”
But Sam’s smiling again, so Dean eases up. When it comes down to it, Dean’s only as happy as Sammy is, and the bug is kind of cool.
“Hey, it’s like a super-bug,” Dean says, turning it over with a stick to get a better look at the yellow and orange dash across its belly. “Look at that stripe.”
“It’s a leaffooted plant bug,” Sam says.
Dean does an exaggerated double take. “Great, so my little brother’s now bug geek boy. How the hell do you know what it’s called?”
“I asked Miguel when I saw a bunch of them yesterday.”
“He’s the foreman. That’s how I know this orchard’s organic. It’s amazing what you learn when you stop and talk to people.”
Dean shakes his head. “I don’t know about you, Sammy. Give you a day in a shitty place like this one and you’re ready to settle down.”
It’s getting cooler now that the sun is going down, and Dean almost wishes he brought his jacket. He’s not sure what happened to the day. They should go back and check on Dad. His stomach is grumbling at him, and he can’t really remember when he ate last. They’ve been wandering all day and long ago finished the beef jerky and chips that Sam had stashed in his satchel. Time to head back to the motel.
He’s walking, enjoying the breeze on his face when he hears Sam call out, “Hey, Dean?”
“Maybe someday when we find the thing…the thing that killed Mom, maybe we can live somewhere like this. There’s places that wouldn’t cost too much.”
Dean blinks, caught completely off guard. He’s not exactly sure what Sam is saying.
Dean’s never wanted a life other than the one he has. When it comes down to it, all he’s ever wanted is Dad and Sam. Everything else is icing on the cake. It’s Sam who’s never satisfied, never happy. Dean’s been hoping that Sam will grow out of it, because Dean’s not sure what he’ll do if Sam doesn’t.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dean says roughly. “I’m not living with a bunch of leaffooted bugs as neighbors. Give me some devils and demons to kill any day. Now that’s an honest living.”
Sam lobs a clod of dirt at his brother. “Fine,” he says. “Live your life riding shotgun. I’ve got to go back and get started on American Lit.”
Dean follows after, letting him getting ahead. It’s not going to be easy, whatever’s to come. He wonders how long he can keep Dad from finding out that Sam’s got lust in his heart for a different life that’s not his own.
On the fourth day in Arbuckle, Dad gets food poisoning. It’s probably from the meatloaf, and they try to give him space to puke in peace and quiet. That pretty much means they have to stay out of the room altogether, so they camp out on the motel walkway, eating chips and drinking Mountain Dew for breakfast, trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do next.
Dean’s scouring the local paper for any sign of anything unusual taking place in Colusa County, while Sam’s reading The Grapes of Wrath, which he says is just perfect thematically. Dean ignores him. He read it when he was in school but didn’t like it as much as the other Steinbeck book, the one about the two brothers with mother issues. Dean doesn’t like to give Sam the satisfaction of knowing that he reads, but sometimes it’s hard to hide it.
The newspaper’s not giving him any promising leads. There was a drowning last week in a local irrigation canal, and Dean’s thinking along the lines of haunted water spirit, until the article points out that the guy had downed a six pack and had never learned to swim.
Ironically, the timing belt came in and was installed almost to the minute that Dad came down with food poisoning, which fits in with Dean’s “cursed” theory quite nicely. Sam says he’s fine staying where they are or he’s fine leaving. All he cares about is being enrolled in a decent school by September.
“How can school be all you’re looking forward to?” Dean asks.
“It’s all I’ve got,” Sam says, and damn, he looks like Dad when he gets stubborn like that, sticking his chin out like he’s just waiting for the world to take him on.
Dean wishes he knew how to convince Sam that he’s wrong. Instead, he circles promising obituaries, even though there’s really no chance that any of these are going to pan out. It’s just Dean’s luck to be stranded in the most benign "census designated place" in the country.
It’s their fifth day in Arbuckle, and Dad’s not puking anymore, but he still feels like crap and has ordered them to stay away from the diner. Dean’s usually all for obeying orders, but they’re not going to survive off vending machines much longer, not with Sammy still growing and all. Neither of them even likes meatloaf, so they've made a joint decision to ignore Dad's boycott of the diner.
“So what’s the deal with all the schoolwork? I mean, really Sam, and I’m not talking about making up credit.”
Dean tries to make the question sound offhand, but Sam’s not buying it, and he glares from across the table. Dean shrugs and takes another mouthful of peach pie.
Sam looks down at his own empty plate. “It’s my life, Dean, my future, and I’ve got to take control of it. Mrs. Bradshaw said that if I want to get into a decent college, I’ve got to have at least—”
“Mrs. Bradshaw – you don’t mean that witch from Freedom High?”
“She was a guidance counselor, Dean. And she was very nice.”
“Like hell, she was nice! She’s the one who wanted to ship you off to some kind of boarding school this summer.”
Sam starts to laugh.
“It was a youth leadership camp, Dean, in the Pocono’s. And I wouldn’t have asked you to look at the brochure if I’d known how freaked you’d get over it.”
“Good thing Dad never heard about it,” Dean mutters under his breath. “That’d be all I need. He’d have been locked up for threatening a school official.”
“No, because he’d never have even considered it. He’s never going to let me go, Dean.”
“And that’s a bad thing? Stop being such a drama queen, Sammy.”
“You know I’m right. He doesn’t trust me to be right about anything. He didn’t even believe me about the meatloaf.”
“That’s because you were smirking when you told him not to eat it.”
“I wasn’t smirking.”
“You totally were smirking.”
“He probably thought you were starting some new vegetarianism phase. Wouldn’t be the first time you went through a phase just to piss Dad off.”
“Dean, if I was going to become a vegetarian, it wouldn’t be to piss Dad off. It would be because I believed in it.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Sam’s got himself worked up, mouth tight and turned down, and Dean starts to laugh. He can't help it. Sammy's only sixteen, but he takes himself so damn seriously.
“I give up, Sammy. You were right on this one, and Dad was wrong. But tell him I said so, and I’ll kill you myself.”
Sam loses the bitchy look and reaches across the table to steal a forkful of Dean’s pie. “You won’t tell, will you? About the AP tests and everything else? I don’t…I don’t want him to know.”
“Not like I have a death wish, Sam.”
“Thanks, Dean,” Sam says but his smile isn’t giving anything away. “You should eat your pie. This is as good as it gets.”
“You need to get out more often.”
When he hadn't been puking, Dad had been working, so there are newspaper clippings taped all over the motel walls. There’s the bug infestation in the almond groves, a freak wind tunnel the week before, a domestic murder that finally went to trial, and plenty of drug possession misdemeanors. Meth is big out here and that always leads to all sorts of petty crimes and small-scale violence. But it’s random stuff, nothing that shows any pattern.
Dad comes out of the bathroom, wiping his face on a towel. He’s still miserable, but he’s getting better. Dean’s got to hand it to him. There’s nobody tougher than Dad at dealing with what life dishes out.
“Your brother still out?” Dad asks.
“Yeah.” Dean’s been checking on him, even though he knows Sam is fine. It’s not a bad place, even if nothing evil is going on. The people are friendly, and Sam’s been doing his homework in the garage because Rudy, the mechanic, likes to chat while he works on cars. Dean asked him how he can concentrate, and Sam shrugs, but Dean’s pretty sure Sam's staying away because the whole correspondence course thing still upsets Dad.
“Hey, Dean check Sammy’s bag for toothpaste.” Dad is standing by the door to the bathroom, and he smiles ruefully. “I’ve pretty much gone through what I brought.”
Dean sorts through Sam’s duffel, finding the toothpaste neatly tucked in a side pocket. He tosses it to Dad but something makes him look again by Sam's sleeping bag, and he notices that his brother's left his satchel. It’s strange because Sam never leaves that bag behind. Not taking it with him is like Sammy accidentally leaving without his arm. It’s an opportunity that Dean can’t resist.
It’s not like they have any privacy worth invading anyway. Still, Dean lets himself feel a little bit guilty as he quickly shuffles though his brother’s book bag. He’d be relieved if Sam was hiding skin mags, but his brother’s never been one to keep any normal secrets.
Dean’s not sure what he’s looking for. Then he digs out a manila folder at the bottom of the bag, buried underneath the books and binders. As soon as he opens it, Dean knows that this is important, somehow.
The file is full of school transcripts going all the way back to 8th grade. He has no idea how Sam’s managed to get a hold of these. Dean can’t remember attending half of them. Then he finds the most recent one, and it’s still in an envelope addressed to Pastor Jim. Dad can’t know. He’d never forgive Pastor Jim for interfering, even if it’s something as harmless as requesting transcripts for Sam. Then again, Dean’s not sure it’s all that harmless.
It looks like Sam’s been keeping track of every class he’s taken in high school. He’s got a chart with course titles and units earned, grades, and whether or not it’s a prerequisite for honors classes. Sam’s pushing it when it comes to his short list of extra-curricular activities, but Dean snorts when he reads that Sam’s included marksmanship, archery, and martial arts.
Then there are Sam’s practice PSAT test results. Dean doesn’t even remember Sammy taking the test, but there’s a note stapled to the results in someone else’s writing, and it says that Sam just needs to review pre-Calculus in order to qualify for National Merit scholarships in the fall.
Dean knows he’s looking at trouble, the kind of trouble you can’t kill off with an incantation and a round of rock salt. Sam’s always been good at planning things, but this level of premeditation is something else altogether.
He hears Dad coming out of the bathroom, and he tucks the file away fast. He can’t let Dad find out about any of it. Dean’s not even sure if Dad would register him at another school, if he knew what Sam was up to. Dean figures he knows Sam better than anyone else does, but that’s not saying much, not much at all.
Dad’s doing better. He’s been up and around for a full day, and he thinks he'll be all right the next morning. Dean knows there’s stuff he should be doing. Cleaning guns, checking their ammo, getting supplies ready for the next job. They won't be going to Oregon. They checked in with Bobby, and the coven in Oregon had some sort of a spontaneous combustion – Bobby didn’t elaborate whether it was literal or figurative, just that the coven’s not a threat any more.
Bobby did tell Dad about a spirit that was said to be haunting barn lofts in Kansas, so it looks like there’s a road trip in their future after all.
Sam’s packing up his books. Dean can’t even keep track of how many hours Sam’s spent studying while they’ve been in Arbuckle, but he’s been happy, a whole lot happier than Dean’s seen him in a long time. Dean’s been trying not think about what he found in Sam’s satchel. He’s always been good at pushing things out of his mind, while Sam can never let a damn thing go.
“Hey Dean," Sam says, "How bout we take another look around before we leave? You know, make sure we've really taken care of all the killer bugs and laundry blowing in the wind?”
"Shut up, asshole," Dean says, but Dad waves for him to go.
“You might as well get out while you can. We're going to be on the road for the next few days. Just be back in time to help pack up. I want to be out of here first thing in the morning.”
Sam and Dean look at each other and shrug. Dad never tells them to just take off when he doesn't have a job for them, and who knows when it'll happen again. “Yes sir,” they chorus and try to beat each other out the door.
It’s a nice afternoon, not as hot outside as it was yesterday. Dean kicks an empty beer can and whistles when it hits a signpost with a satisfying clang. In the week they’ve been here, they’ve walked every inch of the place, explored the foothills and orchards and even checked out the local graveyard. All is well in Arbuckle.
“You willing to admit there’s nothing going on?” Sam’s asks, as they head away from the main strip.
Dean tries not to let it show, but it freaks him out when his brother reads his mind. “Okay smartass, then why hasn’t the place been willing to let us go?”
“The place isn’t trying to do anything. You’re always trying to personify everything.”
“Just cause you’re messing around with college crap doesn’t mean you can throw figurative language at me like I don’t know what you’re talking about. I took English too, Sam.”
“Sorry.” Sam looks honestly surprised. “I just don’t know why there has to have been something bad behind all this. Our car broke down and Dad got food poisoning. Other than that, it’s been an okay week.”
“So you don’t believe a place can be cursed?”
“Of course, I do, but not this time.”
“Do you believe in bad luck?”
“Well, if you really want to know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about destiny versus random chance…”
Sam’s got that dopey look on his face because he’s got an audience to explain something to, and Dean starts to grin. Dean knows he’s having a Hallmark moment, but he can’t help it – it makes him happy to hear his little brother talk. He likes how Sam’s smart enough to care about things like predestination and all that crap, and if he’s not listening all that well, it’s because he practically raised the kid, and if anyone has a right to be proud of Sam, it’s Dean.
And then Dean remembers something he hasn’t thought about in years - Sam’s first grade invention fair at Brownston Elementary School in Brownston, Indiana.
Even from the beginning, Sam's been a geek, so neither Dad nor Dean had paid much attention to his latest project for school. Usually, Dean kept tight tabs on him because Sam was so little, but Brownston was safe, and they’d been there long enough to know their way around. They were staying in a trailer that felt like a friggin palace, it was so big, and for once, they weren’t living on top of each other. So they didn’t really notice all the scrap metal and other pieces of junk Sam kept lugging home. His puttering kept him busy and let Dad get his work done, so it was all good as far as Dean was concerned.
So when Sam showed off his invention that looked like something in between a handheld fertilizer dispenser and a watering can, Dean said, “Cool, dorkhead,” but didn’t think about it again until he got an invitation to Mrs. Conley’s Annual First Grade Invention Fair.
Dad never went to those things, but the ghost at Brownston Junior High hadn’t shown up, and Dad had a theory that maybe it had moved to the elementary school instead. Two birds with one stone. That’s what Dad said, and because he never, ever went to school events, Dean sincerely had hoped there’d be something good for Dad to kill off.
By the time Dad and Dean showed up, Sam was holding court with what looked like all of Brownston looking on. God, that kid liked to talk even back then, and he was demonstrating the pouring mechanism of his invention, explaining how it could pour up to a pound of salt at a time.
Then one of the grandmas asked, “Why would you want to pour out a pound of salt at one time, young man?”
“Because otherwise the bags tip over in the trunk and get all over my stuff,” Sammy said.
“Why do you have bags of salt in the trunk?” Mrs. Conley asked innocently.
Sam had been trained to know better, but there’d been that look on his face, the goofy one that Dean had seen hundreds of times since and that adults never seemed to be able to resist. Sammy knew something that all these people didn’t, and that was one of his favorite things of all.
Sam went on to give a thorough explanation on the relative merits of rock salt versus kosher salt in warding off ghosts, all the while with Dad glaring and Dean miming a throat being slit, but neither was enough to shut him up.
“So creative,” his beaming teacher said, as he was awarded second place. “We’re starting our short story unit tomorrow, and I’m sure Sam will have plenty of stories to share with us.” To Dad, she added quietly, “He’s a very bright little boy. We just need to find some way to channel that imagination so he stays out of trouble.”
Dad packed them up that night, ghost or no ghost, telling Dean that they couldn't afford to have anyone that focused on Sammy. It could put him in danger, and no good could come of it. Sam never really forgave Dad for leaving his invention behind in the classroom. Dean had always thought it was unfair that Sammy had come in second. The first place prize went to some kid who probably had his parents make the invention for him. Sam’s invention was original and would have come in handy over the years, but obstinate Sam had refused to build another and…
“Dean! Did you even hear a word I said?”
Dean forces his thoughts away from Brownston, Indiana and back to his sixteen-year-old brother who is looking every bit as ticked off as he had ten years before.
Dean can’t help but ask, “Hey Sammy, remember that giant salt shaker you built when you were in first grade?”
“Yeah.” Suspiciously, Sam crosses his arms. “What about it?”
“Do you think you could build another if we scrounged around and found the parts?”
“No, I don’t think I could build another one, and why would I want to?”
“It was pretty cool.”
“Okay Dean, that’s pretty random, even for you. Why don’t you tell me what this is about? First, you want to hear about my theory about destiny, and then you tune me out when I tell it to you.”
Dean didn’t actually want to hear Sam’s theory about destiny, but he’s feeling magnanimous enough to let it pass.
“Sorry,” Dean says, smiling fondly. “My fault.”
Sam’s mouth just drops open, speechless for once. Dean would’ve apologized more often if he’d known it was that easy to get Sam to shut up.
Dean continues, “So I’m thinking that you’re right. We’re probably not cursed, and it’s been kind of okay…you know, just hanging out.”
"Christo." Eyes wide, Sam takes a step back. “You just said I was right.”
Dean is tempted to mess with him and pretend to flail on the ground, but he restrains himself.
“I’m not possessed. Dreams matter, dumbass. But keep it to yourself, and don’t go sharing with Dad.”
“Dean, are you sure everything’s okay? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, Sammy, let’s just hang out. When in Arbuckle, do as…”
But Dean can’t really think of what to call a resident of Arbuckle, so he just lets the sentence hang there, and Sam laughs while coming up with names as they keep walking.
They skirt the edge of a migrant worker neighborhood past shacks and lean-tos that barely look like they’d stay upright in a decent wind. There’s laundry hung out on clotheslines and outhouses and little kids running around in diapers and bigger kids squirting each other with a hose. But there’s also music playing out of boom boxes and older men sitting on stoops. Teenagers are drinking beer and laughing loudly next to an old pickup truck, while a dog barks and runs in circles around a weedy yard.
Dean says wistfully, “This wouldn’t be a bad life.”
He can tell that Sam's really confused, but he says, “Yeah. It’d be all right.”
They keep walking until Dean can’t hear the music playing any more but he can still hear the dogs barking behind them.
“We need to go back to the motel, Dean. Dad’s gonna be waiting for us.”
Dean’s not sure what’s bothering him. It’s almost like he wants something but doesn’t know how to put it into words. He’s never really thought much about what he wants because it's always been fairly simple. Dean wants Dad to be proud of him, and he wants Sammy to be safe and happy. He wants to find the thing that killed Mom, and he wants to help as many people as he can along the way.
And Dean also wants to watch the world go by from his own front yard. It’s weird, but Dean wouldn’t mind staying in Arbuckle a little bit longer.
But Dean’s not Sam. No good can come from thinking about what can’t be. What Dean does have is Sam and Dad. And that’s enough - it's always been more than enough, and there's no reason that can't stay the same.
“Everything okay?” Sam asks again, and Dean can tell he’s getting anxious. That's not what he wants. Dean’s got to make things right because he doesn’t want Sammy to worry, not ever.
Like he’s done a hundred times before, Dean shoves his kid brother. Like it happens every time, Sam’s caught off guard and lands hard on the ground with a predictable grunt.
Dean challenges him, “Race you back to the motel, loser.”
Sam scrambles to his feet, fully invested this old, lifelong contest.
“Like your sorry ass has a chance,” Sam taunts right back.
Dean takes off, but Sam sticks his foot out, tripping him, and Dean lands hard, skinning his hands and knees. Sam’s doubled over, he’s laughing so hard, and he manages to flip Dean off before he takes off at a dead run. And damn but Sammy’s getting fast. One of these days, Dean’s going to have a hard time keeping up.
Dean smiles because it’s not going to be today. And he takes off after his kid brother.