Book Smarts, Street Smarts
"So," John said, staring into the mostly empty cupboard. "What should we have for dinner?"
Even though he had fully expected the response, John's heart fell a little. "Well, Sammy, let's have something we don't have to go out for. How 'bout mac-and-cheese?"
Dean shrugged and Sam wrinkled his nose. John could already tell that it was going to be a war to get the kid to eat. He wasn't looking forward to another night of cardboard flavored pasta either, but the macaroni needed to be eaten and it was a lot cheaper than going to a diner somewhere.
John set about boiling water. "So," he said in what he hoped was a cheerful tone, "how was school?"
"Awesome!" Sam said, kneeling on his chair and leaning further out onto the table; his unspoken complaints against macaroni were clearly forgotten. "We learned about bats! Did you know they can see in the dark with sounds?"
"That doesn't make any sense," Dean said. "You can't see sounds."
"Well, bats can! They shoot sounds out of their noses and then the sounds bounce back and hits 'em in the eyes and then they can see them."
Dean rolled his eyes. "That sounds so dumb, Sam."
"It's true," Sam said, sinking back down off his knees.
Dean looked like he was about to cut in with a sarcastic jibe, so John cleared his throat loudly. "What about you, Dean?"
"School was fine," he said sullenly, scratching at the battered kitchen table with a pen.
John sighed. "I'm not going to be getting a call from your teacher, am I?"
"Dean, if you want some help—"
"Sam needs a new jacket."
John paused with the spoon in hand, a little bewildered at the abrupt change of subject. "What's wrong with the one he's got?"
"One of the sleeves got ripped off."
John didn't bother to ask how that had happened. "Okay…well, I've got one of your old ones he can have."
"I already tried that one. It's too big and it's got a big rip in the front. He needs a new one."
John turned back to the pot of boiling water and dumped in the macaroni. He currently had exactly $156.78 to his name. The Impala was running on fumes and they had approximately three meals left, including a box of cereal, a cup of milk, a half a loaf of bread, two cans of tomato soup, a jar of peanut butter and sixteen packets of barbeque sauce that Dean had been hoarding from Sam's month-long love affair with plain chicken nuggets. The rent check was due in three days, he was down to one bag of rock salt, and he had $156.78. And Sammy needed a new jacket.
He licked suddenly dry lips and watched the butter melt into the macaroni. He could almost see dollar signs melting right along with it.
"I'll get him one this weekend, okay Dean?"
"It's Monday. What's he gonna do 'til then?"
"Layers," John said, trying not to snap. Poverty, as it turned out, did very little to put a man in a good mood. He dumped the macaroni into the three bowls they owned and passed one to each of the boys. "Dean, I'm going out tonight. Make sure you and Sam both have your homework done before you go to bed. And don't wait up for me, got it?"
"Yes, sir," Dean said softly.
The rest of the meal was silent. John was too busy trying to figure out how many bars he'd have to hit to in order to hustle enough money to get him and the boys through the next few days.
"Do you think he'll remember?" Sam asked, elbows on the table, his head cupped in his hands.
"Of course he'll remember."
"It's in eight days," Sam reminded his brother.
"Yes, Sam, I know. Are you finished with your homework yet? You need to go get ready for bed."
Sam pushed his chair back from the table with a sigh. "Yup. It was really easy. I did it a million years ago." He paused, wondering if he could get away with his question. Maybe if it sounded casual enough… "Connor said the fifth-graders are learning about ancient Egypt."
"Yes, Sam, we are, and I already told you, you can't do my homework. My teachers'll catch me. They'll think I cheated, and then I'll get in trouble, and then Dad'll be mad."
"Can I just look at it? I won't write on it, I swear. I'll write all the answers on a different paper and you could maybe just tell me if I'm right."
Dean stopped cleaning up the bowls from dinner. His eyes seemed to gleam, and Sam found himself wondering if he had just said something very, very dumb.
"You like homework, don't you?" Dean asked innocently.
Sam sensed that there was a trap in there somewhere, but he couldn't see quite where. "I like to learn new stuff," he hedged.
"You think you might like it if I brought home some extra homework for you, from the higher grades?"
Sam swallowed hard as his heart came up in his throat. He couldn't respond too quickly and give himself away. Dad always said that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was. "We can't. Dad says I have to be careful and not show off to the teachers. Remember? He won't even let me read chapter books at school in case the teachers catch me."
"Nah, we won't get caught, I'll make sure. I'll work out a special deal with the teachers."
Sam bit his lower lip. Something seemed a little off here. He really couldn't see how anyone could get around Dad's very specific rules on this one. And then he remembered that this was Dean, and Dean was fully capable of doing anything, including flying without an airplane and seeing through solid wood, both feats that his older brother had confessed to having accomplished sometime last year. "Okay, Dean. But don't get me into trouble."
He turned to go down the hallway, but remembered something at the last minute. "Hey, Dean?"
Dean stacked the freshly-cleaned bowls on the gray counter with a thunk. "What?"
"Do you think Dad could get me a Batman?"
Sam instantly regretted asking the question as Dean's face fell a little. For a moment he thought he might get reprimanded for having asked, but to his surprise, his big brother forced his face into an almost-believable smile. "Sure, kiddo. Seven's a big birthday, after all."
"Heard the bad news," Dean said casually, leaning against the wall next to the drinking fountain during recess.
Tyler looked around the hallway. "You talkin' to me?"
Dean stood up straight. "I heard that your dad told you that if you don't get your grades up he won't let you play league ball."
Tyler put a hand on Dean's shoulder and steered him away from the crush of second graders hurrying to the drinking fountain. "Who told you that? That's a secret."
Dean could name about twelve sources, but he wasn't about to betray a confidence. He shrugged noncommittally. "Doesn't really matter. What does matter is that I can help you with your problem."
Tyler glowered. "I don't need a tutor."
"No," Dean said. "What you need is to have your homework done, so that you can focus on what's really important. Like baseball."
Tyler paused to think for a moment, clearly trying to decode Dean's statement.
"What, you want to help me cheat?" he finally said. "Dude, I'm a sixth-grader. I'm not an idiot. If I hand in homework you've done for me, they'll recognize my handwriting."
Dean nodded wisely. "You're a smart man, Tyler. Very smart. But I happen to have a foolproof method of you getting your homework done in no time and with hardly any effort. You give me the assignment after school, and I'll bring all the answers in the next morning. You meet me early out by the flagpole before school starts, copy down all the answers, ten minutes, tops. It'll be in your handwriting, teachers won't suspect a thing. And you get to play ball."
Tyler chewed on his bottom lip. "What's this gonna cost me, Winchester?"
"Practically nothing," Dean said. "Three dollars per worksheet, five for questions out of a book. If you get a bigger project you want done, we'll discuss pricing then. Deal?"
Tyler mulled it over, but not for very long. "Yeah, okay. Meet me after school at the big metal slide. I've got three things due tomorrow."
The bell rang shrilly above their heads. Tyler glanced up at it and moved quickly toward the door, sending Dean a sort of buddy-to-buddy kind of nod. Dean grinned and headed toward his own classroom. He fell into step with Kayla Green, who was a great ballerina but terrible with numbers.
"Hey Kayla," he said amiably. "How'd that math homework go for you?"
"Terrible," she said. "My mom's gonna kill me when she finds out."
Dean sighed in commiseration. "Yeah, I get that. And when are you ever gonna use fractions anyway?"
"Totally!" she said, her long brown hair bouncing on her shoulders. "It's so lame!"
"I completely agree," Dean nodded. "You know, I might be able to help you with that…"
John sat in the Impala in the dimming light, engine turned off to conserve gas, recounting his winnings from the night before. But the wad of cash hadn't magically augmented in the last ten minutes, and he still had just over $400 dollars in hand. It was enough to pay the rent and get Sammy a jacket and buy enough food to last them a few days. That would give John time to scrape together some more money, but it wasn't a long term solution by any stretch of the imagination. He rolled the money into a tight wad and shoved it into a pocket, staring out the windshield at the sunset. He rubbed at his forehead; a headache was beginning to form, and it seemed to throb a little harder each time he went over the list in his head.
Hustling, pool and poker: check.
Odd jobs around the neighborhood: check.
Dig into Dean's and Sam's college funds: check.
Honest-to-goodness job: check. Sort of. The kindly owner of the garage down the street gave him plenty of hours but couldn't afford to pay him much, and the next paycheck wouldn't be available until Monday.
$417. That's how much money John had to live off until he could find a better job, and at this point he'd be willing to take anything, anywhere. $417, to pay rent and buy food and rock salt. He'd just have to wait to restock the ammo, because he really didn't know how far he'd have to stretch this tiny little wad of cash.
And hunting? Hunting was definitely not on the horizon. Not this week, anyway. Bobby or Caleb would just have to look into that suspicious murder in the town just across the border, because John was going to be spending every free moment between now and Friday working, scamming, conning, and praying for the money he needed.
He sighed heavily, and ran a hand through his hair. It was full dark now, and he wanted to catch a few hours of sleep before he drove over to the next town in search of a bar that hadn't yet associated his face with the word "hustle."
He trudged across the street and into the house, where Sammy was sitting at the kitchen table staring at a huge textbook and chewing on the end of a pencil. He shut the door behind him and ruffled Sam's hair affectionately as he passed him on the way down the hall. "Hey, Sammy."
Sam dropped the pencil into the textbook and shut it quickly. "This is mine. My homework, I mean. That the teacher gave me to do, so I can learn. And also this is my textbook."
John paused in mid-step and turned slowly to face Sam. The boy was a terrible liar. He looked like he was sucking on a lemon, he was trying so hard to look innocent. John took a step backwards, toward the table, not taking his eyes off Sam. He slowly, deliberately, turned the cover to show the title page of the textbook, where the name "Dean Winchester" was written quite plainly in black ink.
John sighed and rubbed his neck, knowing that a good father would stop to investigate, chastise, and put a stop to the obvious manipulation going on here. But he was exhausted, and worried about food and jackets and rent…and he had to admit, he had to respect the manipulative abilities Dean had if he had managed to get his younger brother to do his homework for him.
So instead he smiled at Sam, nodded and stumbled into the bedroom, where he kicked off his shoes and collapsed on the double bed.
Under the category of Things to Deal With Once I've Figured Out the Money Problem he added, "Teach Dean not to con his own brother."
Sam waited a full ten minutes after the door closed. Dad usually fell asleep pretty fast, but he was also a light sleeper, and Sam didn't want to wake him up. He slipped silently into the bedroom he shared with Dean and handed him the textbook and the paper with the answers on it.
"That was a close one. Dad just got home and saw me working on it. But I told him it was just my normal homework," Sam said, making sure his voice was a conspiratorial whisper.
Dean's eyes narrowed. "Did he actually ask you about the homework?"
"No, but I told him anyway."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Sammy! You're going to give us away before Dad even gets suspicious."
"Sorry," Sam said, bowing his head in preparation for the chastisement he knew was on the way.
Dean sighed parentally. "That's okay. Just be more…"
"Subtle?" Sam tried.
Dean groaned. "You're hopeless. No way should you know that word yet."
Sam shrugged, used to these kinds of comments. "So what did the teachers say yesterday when you took in my extra homework? Did they like it?"
Dean's nose scrunched up, something he always did when he was trying not to smile. "Uh…yeah, they liked it a lot."
"Yes!" Sammy said. "I know they're going to like tonight's homework too. I did real good on that last one. But the math was a little hard. I don't like fractions too much."
"Well, life's tough. The teachers say that if you want to do the history and English you have to do the math too."
Sam wrinkled his nose. "That's dumb."
"Then I guess you don't want to know what I've got for you."
"No!" Sam said quickly. "I do want to do the math, I promise. What do you have?"
"Just because I'm such an awesome big brother, I got you a special prize. Two, actually."
"Really? What?" Sam asked excitedly.
Dean grinned. "Here's the first one." He pulled his backpack out from under his bed and took out a big textbook. Sam reached for it reverently and looked at the cover.
"Dean," he said, his voice this time softened by respect for the book and not his father, "do you know what this is? This is a sixth-grade book."
"Yup," said Dean. "And you get to read chapter ten and do all of the questions at the end."
"Wow," Sam said softly. "Cool!"
"And the next surprise is even better."
Dean paused dramatically, and Sam bit his lower lip in expectation.
"You get to do…a book report."
Sam's eyes widened. "Really? On what book?"
Dean grinned. "Anything you want, kiddo."
"Wow, Dean! Can I do The Hobbit? I just read it. I remember it really well."
Dean's eyebrows scrunched up in confusion, but he didn't ask any questions. "Sure, dude. It's due Monday, so you've got the weekend to work on it."
Sam's heart was beating a little faster than normal. "Thanks, Dean! You're the best!"
He gave Dean a quick hug, then carefully lifted the sixth-grade book and settled it comfortably on his bed.
"Wow," he whispered, shocked at his good luck, and then he turned to chapter ten.
John drummed his fingers impatiently against the desk. The teenage secretary, Marsha or Martha or something like that, was leafing slowly through the filing cabinet drawer that held the paychecks. She'd been at it for a full ten minutes, and now she was scratching the back of her head, looking perplexed.
"Winchester, right? John Winchester?"
"Yes, that's right," John growled.
"Your file just has this note in it," she said, loudly popping her bubble gum while she looked at the note.
"What does it say?" he said.
"Looks like this paycheck doesn't compensate for the beginning of the month, when you asked for an advance."
His eyes slowly closed; he ran a hand over his face. He felt like he was deflating. "That's right. I, uh…I forgot. Sorry about that."
She shrugged. Her attention had already moved from him to the ringing phone. John turned to go, his mind already back to working on new ways to make more money.
He paused with one hand on the door. The secretary was waving the phone. "It's your son's school. They're trying to track you down. They need you to go meet with the principal."
John didn't even respond. He just pushed the door open and tried to concentrate on gaining control of his temper as he drove to the school.
He was mostly unsuccessful. By the time he made it into the main office, he was fuming. He opened the door quickly and looked inside. Dean was splayed in a chair, carrying on a conversation with all three of the female secretaries, all of which were laughing wildly, John could only guess, at something Dean had said.
The instant John entered the room, though, the festivities ended. Dean sat up sharply, the smile dying off his face.
"You want to tell me why I'm here?"
Dean cleared his throat. "Actually, Mr. Jarvis said I should just send you into his office when you got here.
John was of half a mind to take Dean outside and confront the kid personally, but he restrained himself and instead walked to the office Dean was pointing at.
"Ah, Mr. Winchester, come in," said the principal when he saw John near the door way. John entered and closed the door behind him, taking a seat in one of the kid-sized chairs facing the desk.
"Mr. Winchester," Mr. Jarvis started, "I am sorry to pull you away from your work like this, but there are certain things that need to be straightened out sooner rather than later, and this is one of them."
He opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out an art project and passed it to John, who inspected it quickly. It was a typical elementary school book report, a homemade book jacket. The front was decorated with a rough crayon drawing of a short, fat man bravely fighting off a rather disproportionately large dragon, framed by large block letters which spelled THE HOBBIT. The back gave a brief summary of Tolkien's classic work. John tried not to show any recognition of Sam's handwriting as he opened the book jacket and read the inside, which consisted of a surprisingly thorough description of a character named Bilbo.
John closed the project and handed it back to the principal. "I'm sorry, sir, but I guess I don't see what the problem is."
Mr. Jarvis leaned back in his chair. "We've started to have a little problem here lately, Mr. Winchester. A cheating problem. One of the students we've had a problem with is a sixth-grader named Tyler Stockton."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but I really don't see how that concerns me."
"This, Mr. Winchester," the principal said, holding up the book report, "was turned in by Tyler Stockton this morning. His teacher had a hard time believing he had read The Hobbit. He's had trouble reading in the past. So she asked him about the book, what his favorite part was, who the characters were, things like that. Imagine her shock when he described an epic battle, which ended with the evil, short, fat man being eaten by the dragon. It seems Tyler didn't even bother to read the summary he supposedly wrote, much less the actual novel."
"Looks like you've found your cheater, then, Mr. Jarvis."
Mr. Jarvis let a grin slowly steal across his face. "Yes, we did. But as it turns out, Tyler is both a cheater and a snitch. When he got called down here, he told us that he had purchased the book report, along with a number of other homework assignments from your son, Dean."
John swallowed thickly. It was all starting to come together for him.
"I see," he said slowly. "I'll talk to Dean about this, don't worry."
The principal nodded in appreciation. "And the money?"
"It'll be returned."
Mr. Jarvis stood and leaned over the desk to shake John's hand. "Thank you for your cooperation in this matter, Mr. Winchester."
Dean didn't dare speak on the drive home from school. Sam was sitting in the backseat, chattering away, completely oblivious to the tension that was almost tangible to Dean. Dad hadn't said anything since he came out of Mr. Jarvis' office, and that was never a good sign.
"How much did you get, Dean?"
Sam's babbling in the backseat suddenly stopped. All Dean could hear was the rumble of the Impala's engine and the blood pounding in his ears. He swallowed.
"A hundred and eighty-one dollars."
Dad's jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly. He changed lanes and pulled over onto the shoulder, put the car in park, and turned the engine off. He turned in his seat and put one arm on the back of the seat, just behind Dean's head.
"You got a hundred and eighty dollars from selling homework to one kid?"
"No," said Dean. It was useless and stupid to try to lie to Dad. "That was from ten kids."
Dad ran a hand through his hair and over his face. "Let me get this straight. You've been selling homework to a bunch of kids in your grade for the last week?"
"Yeah," Dean said carefully. Dad's tone was hard to read. "But just the rich kids, so I knew they could pay up. I didn't try to rip off the poor kids."
Dad leaned back in his chair and let out a disbelieving belly laugh. "My son has created an underground, black market, homework-selling ring," he said to himself. He shook his head, still not quite believing it. Dean wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing.
"You know you're going to have to give it back, right?" Dad said after a few minutes.
Dean's heart sank. The moment the principal had called him down, he had begun to worry about the cash. He wasn't worried about getting into trouble, he could handle that. But he knew that they needed that money. And besides that, Sammy's birthday was tomorrow, and no matter how much he had insisted to the contrary, he was pretty sure that Dad had flat-out forgotten.
"Do I have to give it all back?" Dean asked in a small voice. "Principal Jarvis only knows about Tyler, and I only got twenty bucks off Tyler." He paused. "And I earned that money," he added, just a little defiantly.
Dad glanced over at him, and he was smiling. "Well, there's no need to tell him about it, then, is there? Let's take him the twenty bucks. Might as well keep the rest."
John stood in an aisle at the store. He held a copy of The Hobbit in one hand and a Batman action figure in the other. He wished he had the means to give both gifts to Sam, but wishing, he had learned, didn't make it so.
"Birthday?" a voice said behind him.
John jumped a little. He had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't even noticed the man coming up behind him. He relaxed tensed muscles when he realized that there was no threat and let out a polite little laugh.
The man wore a vest bearing the store's logo and a nametag that read "Greg." He chuckled a little. "You might want to pick another book, buddy. That's pretty tough reading material for a seven-year-old."
John felt a little flutter of pride. "Oh, this is actually one of his favorites," he said, intentionally off-handed. "He's read it before. I just thought he might like to own a copy."
Greg looked duly impressed. "Wow. You make sure that kid stays in school. You can't let a brain like that go to waste."
John let out a short laugh. "Oh, I don't think it's going to be a problem to keep this one in school. He loves it. Now, my other son…"
"Older?" Greg guessed.
"But not as brainy?"
John hesitated. "He doesn't know it, but he's every bit as smart as his brother. I just can't figure out how to get him to use his brain for good and not evil."
Greg nodded knowingly. "Book smarts and street smarts."
"Something like that."
Greg picked up an empty cardboard box off of the floor. "A bit of advice for you: give him the Batman. You don't want 'em to grow up too fast, after all." He shifted the box and headed down the aisle. "Have a good night."
John gave a nod as the man left. He weighed the objects in his hands, his gaze moving back and forth between the two. With a grin, he stuck the Batman figure on the shelf and headed toward the check-out desk with the book in hand. He had a shrewd suspicion that Dean would probably have a Batman action figure to give Sam come morning anyway.
He paused on the sidewalk outside the store and re-rolled the cash leftover from what Dean had earned. Then it suddenly hit him, the contrast in the items he was carrying. He looked at his two hands, with the book in one and the cash in the other. A slow grin stole across his face and he glanced upward at the starry sky, wondering if Mary was watching.
"See this?" he whispered under his breath. "Book smarts and street smarts."
A/N: I would be remiss if I didn't add my thank you's on the end here. First off, thank you to anyone who made it all the way to the end...seriously, I appreciate the read. Secondly, double thanks to anyone who left a review. I'm still trying to learn how to pull off a good story, so any suggestions or comments are helpful! Last, but not least...thank you SO much to my friends (you know who you are) who spent time reading and editing this story for me. You guys are so good to me. Special thanks to my roomie, who answered a thousand and one questions and encouraged me to actually post the thing. Hope you all enjoyed!