When in Arbuckle
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.