If there was one thing John knew how to do it was how to read a map.
It had always been a natural skill of his. If you could even call it that. The little shields that indicated state asphalt and the small circles that numbered each exit down along their paths had never been much of a puzzle to him. When he'd first entered the military so long ago, it was of interest to him that the laminated maps he read under red flash lights and dotted with rain had become a little more vital than being able to find the nearest state line.
The lexicon of finding his way soon included a trickier legend to move by. His vocabulary quickly had grown into something other than the simple deciphering of the colorful network of roads and highways. Instead of miles, he was now traveling in clicks. Instead of interstate merges he was now tracing terrain contours. Thin groups of lines for when the land became steep. Wide spaces between for flat. Cross hatch of the railways. The small cartoon airplane of the air fields. Flat school room blue for the bodies of water. Spans of cool green for the deep gorges. The mountains rising red and brown above. He'd long ago mastered the vertical and the low oblique.
Looking at the collected jumble of symbols meshed across paper in their chaotic array and shades was like looking down from the sky and seeing it all just as it actually was. He could visualize each rise and fall no matter how unseen or past the horizon. Topographic. Climate. Physical. Geologic. Survey. Nautical. Hell, even the airspace above the roads he drove if and when he needed it. But despite how elaborate the maps became, it was all the same language as far as he was concerned.
Therefore it was a rare occasion when he found himself displaced from where he was certain he ought to be on the worn folded paper in his hands. He had expected he would get to the one gas station town exactly 30 minutes ago. In fact, the damn place was supposed to be about right where the car was currently parked off the shoulder of a heat cracked two laner. Not one to make excuses, he admitted he should have never put off the car repairs like he had. With the condition of the radiator, he'd been counting on a semi decent stop so he could get across state lines and then onto a decent garage before he broke down.
John looked around. It would have been pretty if he wasn't stranded. Too south to be the plains. Not far enough north for the grass and trees. Much too east to have an acrid sea of dunes. But just west enough that he was glad he had enough water on hand if a passerby took longer rather than sooner to motor by.
He swore under his breath, rumpling the coffee stained map in his fist. Privately he'd always told himself it was real bad mojo to buy those dusty outdated highway fold ups from the even older grimy rest stops. In fact, they should make it illegal for the bastards to sell anything but their cruddy coffee and those stale danishes that always looked like someone had performed a sex act on them.
It seemed that the infinitesimal trailer town the map promised had packed up and moved on. This wide open cattle country tended to swallow up its pin pricks of civilization at times. Here one year, gone the next with nothing but a few concrete foundations and an abandoned water tower to prove it. John leaned down under the open hood of the car and appraised the steam that had finally begun to subside from the inevitable coolant leak. It happened often enough with the manner and time that he had to put on the tires. It was a part of the equation in anything he did that could and may go wrong. But regardless, a break down was always a real shit state of affairs.
It was even more unfortunate when it happened with his sons in the car.
He had hoped they'd keep quiet as long as possible but it didn't take long for his oldest to snap to and start asking what was going on. And with his eldest at his side it didn't take long for his youngest to wake up and appear right there with him. With both of them trying to practically climb into the transmission to see what was going on he had quickly lost his patience.
John had ordered them away so he could attempt a quick fix on his own. Just enough to get them a little further and out from under no where. He glanced up every now and then to see where they were. They knew better than to wander but they were boys and they were young. That and there was something about the quiet of the broad desolate miles out all around him that made him feel exposed. Vulnerable and somehow in plain view. To what he had no idea, but he felt an unusual need to have them both in his line of sight.
His ten year old was tossing rocks with a fair amount of accuracy at a very dry and very dead skeleton of a saguaro cactus. His six year old was trying as hard as he could to do the same.
He knew better than to think that would keep them occupied for much longer. Especially his youngest son. That kid went from 0 to 60 in about as much time as it took John to even figure out what was going on. He often wondered exactly when that "why, what and how" stage would ever really stop. Mostly the "whys". He wouldn't complain if he could get a real nice long break from those.
His stomach rumbled.
It looked like it they were going to be eating in tonight. MREs. Meals-Ready-to-Eat. They were freeze dried military rations and despite their questionable quality, he had never thought they were all that bad. After a long hard day sometimes he thought they were the best thing he had ever had stuck on the end of a fork. However, not everyone was of the same opinion.
He considered how he would break the news.
Dean was just getting old enough to start stowing away the faces he made at the cold add water packets they kept for the road in the trunk. His oldest son never refused it, but John could tell by the way he gulped down the stuff like bad tasting medicine as fast as he could that he wasn't exactly enjoying it. But that wasn't really the problem. The problem was getting anything into his six year olds belly that the kid didn't want there. Because one thing was for sure around here, if Dean didn't like it, then neither did Sam. If his older brother even hinted that he didn't like something, it opened the flood gates of defiance for the little squirt. It didn't matter if he was hungry or not, Sammy was right there to stage a supportive boycott that would make a worker union leader proud.
John had noticed quite often that his youngest felt out his older brother's reactions before forming his very own. In the moments it took to flash across Dean's face before it was brushed aside or hidden away, Sam always watched for it carefully. With a small half smile, he remembered when Dean had been just a few years younger than Sammy. He had done much the same thing. Only it was with his mother.
So cold rations or nothing? His youngest child would choose the second option without a blink of an eye. And what kind of kid refused food anyway? No one had ever told him he'd have to make sure a kid wouldn't starve to death in front of a plate full of food. Why would you ever have to tell anyone to eat? John rubbed a dirty hand at a spot that started to throb between his eyes. Adjusting the decidedly makeshift radiator hose once again, he wiped his greasy hands on his shirt and nodded to himself. He was about to ask one of them to try turning the engine when he gave pause.
A shrill burst of expletives and shocking words that heralded from back in the marine core rang clearly through the early evening breeze. John hadn't quite realized he repeated the choice phrases often enough that his boys might pick them up.
Checking the transmission temp carefully one more time with a rag wrapped hand, John looked up over the hood at the two. It looked like Sammy was determinedly trying to take a particularly nicely cactus killer sized rock that belonged to his older brother.
"Dean, you just go ahead and let him have it." He called out.
His eldest shrugged and made to relinquish the precious rock. Sam beamed down at the stone that was dropped into the palm of his hand.
John felt his brow furrow. Wasn't going to be long now. It was like waiting for the mushroom cloud. Or the boom after one of those white blasts of fireworks. The delay of pain after you strike your knee into a table edge.
It was about then that Dean, along with the gift, kindly included a good hard shove that sent the six year old onto his ass.
At first John had been even a little happy they'd been able to get out of the car and run around to get more than 'doze in the car' tired. If they ended up here for a night, he'd be more than thrilled if his boys spent it unconscious and not punching each other in the face. But if he knew his boys at all, their distractions had to be a little bit more entertaining than a wide empty desert and nothing but each other.
Dean had found another rock.
"This one's better anyway." He said as he rolled it expertly in his hand. "Way better."
His younger brother, slightly thwarted by the shove but placated by his victory, reexamined his prize. His eyes went back hopefully and enviously to the new rock his brother had deemed superior.
"Gimme that one!" The six year old demanded, tossing the previous precious stone aside.
Dean appeared to consider the idea with a solemn sigh. With great gravity and self sacrifice, he began to offer it to his brother. Unfooled by the gesture, John watched on dubiously as he rechecked the connections to the water pump.
Just as the way better rock was about to be placed in a small expectantly eager hand, Dean suddenly turned and threw it as hard as he could into the desert scrub. Sammy watched it arc and vanish in open mouthed disbelief before he flew into kicking his brother as hard as he could in the shins.
John shook his head.
The younger boy gave chase when his target smacked him back down into the dirt and ran. John winced when the chase started to loop in and out of the car, the shocks creaking every time one of them slammed the heavy doors in each other's faces.
Dean suddenly stopped and doubled back unexpectedly, holding the car door firmly shut so his much smaller younger brother couldn't open it again.
"Ha ha, yer locked in the carrrrrrrrr...."
"Noooo!" Sammy lamented, pounding angrily on the glass. "Lemme out! I dun wanna be locked in the car!!!"
Dean quickly obliged and did another car lap before diving into the driver's seat himself. The six year old desperately tried to follow but Dean had slapped down the door lock to keep him out of the vehicle.
John couldn't see around the hood but he could hear his older son's taunting voice.
"Ha ha, yer locked in the worldddddddddd...."
"NOooooooooo... lemme in! Lemme in! I dun wanna be locked in the world!!"
John growled at the sound of the car handle being snapped and wrenched desperately back and forth as his small son tried to escape his cruel fate.
"Dean! Goddammit, stop lockin' your brother in the world!"
John couldn't quite believe what he heard coming out of his own mouth sometimes. He dropped the hood down with a loud solid sound that reverberated across the sparse gnarled tumble weeds and sun bleached road. Dean had finally unlocked the door causing Sam to breathlessly and hurriedly clamber in right over on top of him. Mindless of where his sneakered feet landed he climbed onto his protesting brother in his profound relief of no longer being trapped within the confines of terra firma.
John tapped the car hood to get their attention. "Hey, if yer not too busy in there, give that engine a turn."
Dean tipped his brother ungracefully and practically upside down into the passenger seat and dutifully turned the key.
The engine roared and purred to life.
John couldn't keep the smile coming to his face when his boys began to cheer happily, Dean accompanying the childish jubilation with a few hard honks on the horn.
"Ok, ok, knock it off." He told them with his grin still in place.
Saved once again. This time with some old replacement rubber tubing and a little bit of luck. They could get out to the next town. Maybe some milkshakes if they kept their shit together long enough for him to find a mechanic that had some spares for sale. And if the boys got some ice cream he was definitely getting himself something about 30 proof.
His hand was on the door when he realized it had been locked again.
John's six year old was in near hysterics and grinning up through the glass. Almost barely able to contain his laughter, his older brother's grand joke was now utterly his own invention for him to play on his father. He gleefully was waiting for some mock outrage. Waiting for the joking threat and the game of pretend that came in a guise of harm that he would never actually ever fear.
He let the laugh his son wanted to see come out. His stifled mirth sending his youngest right over the edge into his own limitless supply.
John briefly thought that maybe life would probably be easier if you could pick up a map for just about anything. Colored and coded. Perfectly in scale and painfully accurate. The careful labels to indicate each nuisance of the compass rose that sent you down every path you needed to take.
He pushed the grease stained folded paper into the back of his jeans. Two states and everything in between neatly fit right into one pocket.
But sometimes, maybe it might be okay to get just a little bit lost.