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.
Thanks for reading. I'm still new with Supernatural, and feedback is very much appreciated!