Sam was rudely awakened. Not for the first time, obviously, but nightmares were usually the culprit. This time something descended on him physically, crashing into his bed in the real world and squishing his ribcage. 170 pounds of older brother was holding him down.
"Good morning, sunshine," Dean said.
Sam squinted against the early morning light long enough to see it was 7am by the bedside clock. He screwed his face up and closed his eyes again. "Okay. You've gotta be kidding me."
"It's another wicked fabulous day in this swiss-cheese state, and we're on top of this entire thing," Dean said. "This is as good as solved."
"You're actually on top of me ," Sam said without opening his eyes. "Doing that five-year-old on Saturday morning thing."
"Paybacks are a bitch," Dean said. "I can remember plenty of mornings when Sam the Bugbear wanted someone to watch cartoons with."
"I'll do anything you want if you never, never call me Bugbear again," Sam said.
"Then never leave me," Dean said.
Sam's eyes snapped open and he twisted to look at Dean. As he thought, Dean had no idea that he'd said it aloud.
"Anything?" Dean said with a smirk.
Sam's brain was scrambled with the unintentional honesty, so he shook his head a little. "Um...within reason."
"Welcher," Dean said and slapped him in the side of the head. "Get up."
"Go get me some coffee, then," Sam said, knowing he was asking for it. "Get your bitch ass back in the kitchen and make me some pie."
"Oh, dumb ass," Dean growled, and jammed his fingers into Sam's ribs. Predictably, they ended up on the floor but managed not to hit the nightstand or break anything for once. Sam won by putting a knee in Dean's back, shoving his face into the motel carpet, and describing what he believed to be in the carpet.
"Don't you fuckin' quote South Park at me," Dean said, voice strained with trying to keep his face clear of the floor. "...without doing the voices too."
"Mmmkay," Sam said.
Dean laughed, like Sam hadn't heard him do in years. Laughed. Not the 'you're all idiots' laugh he'd developed over the years, not the polite social reaction when he wanted to get on someone's good side. Just full-throated laughter, for its own sake.
Goddamn, how often did they just play? The things that had become commonplace for them would have sent most screaming. There was nowhere to run, so they ran toward whatever the rest of the world couldn't hide from. Immersion in the horrors that ran just beneath the average radar probably earned them a jaded attitude, but there still had to be this, just moments of loving the little blessings that came along when they weren't looking. Things that reminded them what the war they waged was for.
Sam stood and jumped out of range before Dean could grab an ankle. "Get up," he echoed. "Daylight's burning."
Dean sat up and brushed himself off. "Dude, I could actually catch something off this floor."
"A little extra protein in your diet never hurt," Sam said.
After a bit of coffee and a go at pancakes at the family restaurant down the block, they made a beeline for the body shop Dean had his heart set on. They set out on foot, a couple of guys with casual strides and the still-rising sun striking auburn highlights out of their hair, scuffing ancient desert-dust under their feet and reflecting the sky in their eyes. They were only hard to notice when they wanted to be, and that day Dean wanted to be invisible. Sometime during the night he'd given up on blending in, but that was the only thing he'd given up on.
Sam was slouching a little, but even his shadow took the work out of the courage for Dean.
It was small for a body shop, long and low, but seemed to be the place to go in that area; the double auto bay was occupied. The spaces out front were taken with a wide variety of makes and models. It was going to be warm, even for mid May, and the sun reflected off everything, digging facets out of the plainest surface. Sitting between a shoe store and a farm supply outlet, the older brick structure looked crouched and weary.
There was an older man in gray coveralls wiping his hands on an oil-stained rag just outside the open door of the payment office, watching them approach as if he'd been waiting. It didn't cause Sam any trepidation; he got the impression that the guy spent a lot of time out there taking stock of things. They walked straight up to him, and Dean wished him a good morning and offered a hand.
The man nodded at him. "Military?" he said.
"Military family," Dean said, not elaborating and not surprised that something in his bearing carried his father's lessons forward.
"Lewis Craker," the man said, offering a hand to Sam. "You boys walking in from a breakdown?"
"No sir," Dean said. "Passing through looking for some history, heard you'd been here the longest." They had agreed ahead of time there was no point working up a front story this time. But Dean was free to riff on the details if he wanted to.
Craker looked at them for a moment, still taking stock. Then he gestured toward the bays. "Most of 'em break down on the 90," he said. "Always on their way over the passes, skiing, whatever. Concert season just started, I get all these kids over here with their Hondas telling me how great Ozzfest is. That's fine, but I won't let 'em pick their cars up if they've been drinking."
"Good move," Sam said. "See a lot of people come through?"
Craker tilted his head back to look appraisingly at Sam. "And a few who don't," he said.
Sam did everything he could not to turn his head and look at Dean. He nodded instead and said, "It's the ones who don't that stick in your mind."
Craker nodded. "I figured you guys were up to something. You missing somebody?"
"Our parents for starters," Dean mumbled as if to himself, but far too audible. "Sam misses Jessica, you know, because I really wasn't fast enough, and pretty much anybody we love dies or vanishes. One of these days I'm gonna fuck up and be missing Sam, too."
Sam felt his own face go slack with shock, and he nearly stiff-armed Dean in an attempt to shut him up. Before Dean could turn on him and start yelling, he dragged him to one side. Dean jerked his arm out of Sam's grip, brow furrowed in annoyance and affront. When he opened his mouth, Sam said, "You're doing it again."
"Look, I can tell you're freaking him out," Sam said, unsure why he just couldn't break it to Dean that he kept thinking aloud. Part of him wanted to, because every time it happened it was harder to hear, but if he had to be honest he just wasn't ready to stop listening. He'd deal with the twinge of guilt over it later. "Let me do the interviewing for a minute, soften the guy up, and then I'm sure we'll have all kinds of details to mess with. Okay?"
Dean was still looking at Sam like he wanted to kill him, and it was a revelation. Sam could not figure out how someone's thoughts could so completely negate their behavior, or how the hell Dean didn't hear himself. "It's just...think of how that guy looked at you last night," Sam said. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid."
Dean dropped his shoulders with a sigh. "You worry way too much, Sam. I'm pretty sure I can take this guy if he decides to smack me around. You're acting really fuckin' weird, and if anybody's freaking him out, it's you."
Sam shrugged. "Just give me a minute to make sure nobody's gonna have a problem with you." That much was the truth.
Dean shook his head and tossed a wave at Craker, who was watching them with a bemused interest. "I'll check out the keychains," he said. "They got a shitload of keychains in there."
Sam walked back to Craker, smiling.
"He touched in the head?"
"Yeah," Sam said, trying not to let the smile become an ironic grin. "Just a little. Totally harmless, though."
"Yeah," Sam said again. "We don't want to waste your time or anything, we're just curious about an urban legend. Figured since we're already out this way, it wouldn't hurt to check it out."
"We've got a few," Craker said. "If you're lookin' for Bigfoot, you're a little far northeast."
"No," Sam said, and this time he did grin. "There's, uh...well, I feel kind of dumb asking. Some of my college friends were talking about how there's supposed to be a hole with no bottom."
"Ah," Craker said with a laugh. "Mel's Hole. There was a group over here about five years ago looking for it, never heard if they found it or not. Guess not." Something passed over his eyes that Sam only saw because he was watching for it. Craker had already made remarks that told Sam he knew a few things, but why he was making remarks to them didn't matter except that it might mean he was really hoping to tell someone what he'd seen. People were the same in that regard - just wanting someone to listen.
Sam blinked at him and waited. People also liked to fill silence, and Sam had learned that his height did not stop people from wanting to confess or ramble or hypothesize to him. Puppy dog eyes, Dean's voice heckled in his memory. I bet you could make the Pope admit he wears Spongebob boxers.
"Strange, all that," Craker said.
"Anybody go missing, from that group?" Sam said. "It sounds like some people come through and don't make it past this point. That's part of the story I heard, anyway."
Craker shrugged. "Just like anywhere else in the world," he said. "But that thing with the Northrup boys a few months ago, they were local. That whole thing was odd."
Sam cocked his head a little and drew his brows together, the picture of concerned patience.
"Nothing but talk," Craker said, gazing off toward where two of his employees were talking to a customer. "Knew those boys, though."
"That's gotta count for something," Sam said.
"Hmm," Craker said. "Jack and Terry Northrup went hunting and Jack didn't come back. Papers said maybe he'd gone off somewhere, but I don't think he left his family like that. Terry said he was taken, and he was never what I'd call flighty. Knew him all his life, knew his dad from way back. No troubles with that family. There was the one bit with the port-o-potty on the church roof, but that's kid stuff and anybody could have been involved there. What I mean to say is he wasn't the type to panic or go running. Strange that things turned out the way they did. Could put a lot of it down to the way his brother disappeared."
Sam felt a dull thud of dread somewhere in his solar plexus. Dean came up behind him, dangling an 8-ball keychain from one finger. They shared a glance.
"Did he ever tell you what happened?" Dean said softly.
"That's just it," Craker said. "Told everybody he could, and it was the same over and over. He never changed his story. Seems to me with everywhere I've been, people change the details as their memory fades, or when they're crazy or not sure about things. He was very particular about what happened."
"Where is he now?" Sam said, dreading the answer.
"Oh, he left town weeks ago," Craker said, wiping his hands on the rag again as if trying to discard some memory. "Couldn't take it anymore. He looked and looked out there for his brother, by himself and with friends and family. He pinpointed the spot. More than once. Hell, I was out there too. There was the remains of their campfire, and he swore right up and down where that hole was when his brother went in."
"That's what he said happened?" Dean said. "His brother fell in...or was pulled in?"
"That's the thing," Craker said, lowering his voice. The nearby traffic seemed to fade further into the distance. "He said it wasn't there in the daylight, and it should have been close enough and big enough to see. No way they could have missed it, he said. Maybe the size of one 'o them kiddie pools, I guess. They were sitting by the fire, getting ready to turn in, maybe there was a beer or two but like I said earlier, no trouble with those boys. Terry said he heard voices come out of that thing - right outta the depth of it somewhere, like from a long way away. He said Jack tore out into the dark calling his wife's name, said he was yelling that she was in there. He went right on in before Terry could do anything. He tried to get closer, threw a rope down after him, then had to give up. Said his cell phone quit, and when he couldn't take the noises anymore he ran out on foot. Car wouldn't start either."
Taking advantage of the pause for breath, Sam said, "What did Terry hear?"
Craker shook his head, eyes crinkling. "Boy said he could hear screaming, wailing, like people do when they've gone crazy. Like the tortured souls of hell," he said. "Like that hole opened straight down to the hell we were all raised to believe in."
Raised to believe in, Sam thought. Like we get what we think should be there.
Dean nodded a little and said, "But what do you think happened?"
Craker pursed his mouth a little. "I'm a God-fearing man," he said. "I don't know what happened to those boys, or anyone else, and I can't say as I know there's a hole at all. If it was hell that came for those boys, it wasn't the one you get for shunning God. Those were good boys."
This time Sam did look at Dean.