(c)2006 b stearns
(Fellow WA residents: I played fast and loose with the topography of the whole Kittitas Valley. Sorry. Would also play fast and loose with Dean's topography if given the chance. Not sorry.)
They didn't walk straight back to the hotel, although they realized they needed to check out and load the car. It was all going to be a matter of searching from then on, and it had to be on foot. The Northrups were home; two minutes on the phone pretending to be a local reporter with Mr. Northrup confirmed that Terry had left town and had not let his family know where he was headed. Panic had driven him somewhere away from everything he'd known.
"Our only witness is AWOL," Sam said as they walked between buildings and into a vacant lot, keeping clear of people.
"Our only living witness," Dean said, gaze sweeping back and forth, squinting into the white-blue morning, always looking for something. "Nobody else got away."
"And whatever it was, it disappeared after it took the brother," Sam said. "Or so we have to assume, since they went back to look and didn't find anything. So, what've we got? A hole moving around and sucking people in?"
Dean reached over and punched Sam in the arm. "'Do you ever hear yourself?'" he said in a mock falsetto. "I told you. It's always weirder than it seems. Reasonable explanations need not apply."
"Okay, fine," Sam said. "But this is a phenomenon. And not necessarily a sentient phenomenon. We don't really have a precedent for this."
"We'll just have to look at it first," Dean said.
Sam stopped him with a hand flat against his chest. The sun beat down on them for a moment, and Sam realized the wind never seemed to stop blowing there; or it hadn't since they'd arrived, one way or another. Dean blinked at him expectantly, finally holding his hands out in front of him as a means of interrogation, gesturing Sam along but not shrugging him off like he usually would have.
"Even without the 'sucking people in' part, we have no idea where it is," Sam said.
"So find it," Dean said in a gruff undertone.
"People've been out looking for it for years, if you haven't noticed," Sam said.
"Not us ," Dean said. "What are you, scared?"
Sam dropped his hand and wrinkled his nose in annoyance. "The sucking part, Dean. We kind of have to account for that. People who find this rabbit hole aren't showing up in China."
"Other people aren't us," Dean said. "We can't do anything else until we figure out where it emanates from. You like that? Emanates ? You wanna look it up?"
Sam tried hard to be disgusted or at least pretend he was, but he compromised by turning away and grimacing until the urge to laugh left him. "Speaking of sucking," he said, refusing to look at Dean. When Dean didn't retort or kick dirt on him, he said, "You wanna go camping, then? I thought you weren't in the mood."
"That was then," Dean said. "We'll just hang out around the last known spot and see what happens. We attract all kinds of stuff. It'll probably come right to us. Everything else does."
"And in the absence of any other plan...we can just tie ourselves to trees," Sam said. "Because, remember? The last guy went willingly ."
"Maybe it warped his brain," Dean said. "We're already kind of warped, so we're good." He paused. "Not everybody goes willingly. Gotta wonder why the Northrups heard different things."
"You've gotta ask yourself what the hell we're doing here," Sam said, turning back to Dean. "Eleven people missing in three years while hiking or whatever isn't spectacular. We've got one - one - who claims to have seen and heard something weird, and even that's just second hand."
"Dad sent us out here for a reason," Dean said.
"If it was dad," Sam said.
Dean pointed a warning finger at him. "Don't start that. Don't. You don't have faith in anything ."
"I have faith in you," Sam said, and Dean dropped his hands again and looked away, face set, jaw muscles briefly visible. "Even if you aren't totally back together yet. It seemed like a good idea to just go back to doing what we do, hit the road and look for something to beat the hell out of, rather than sit and wait. Out here in the middle of nowhere seemed like a good place to do it, because we're not running into that many people and it's always a good idea to keep you away from people."
Dean rolled his eyes and turned slightly away from Sam, hands on hips, gazing out across the expanse of lot that was already beginning to shimmer a little from heat.
"This is a wild goose chase," Sam said. "There are way too many natural explanations this time. One hysterical guy - "
"Who lost his brother," Dean said.
Sam snapped his mouth closed so fast he could hear his own jaw click.
Dean looked at him. "What," he said. "One hysterical guy what."
Sam sighed. Now he got it. Dean had summed the whole thing up in one easy phrase and had no idea he'd said it aloud. "Never mind," he said. "I'm not trying to be a killjoy. But how many nights do you wanna spend in the woods? Miles and miles of woods?"
"Whatever it takes," Dean said. "You trangulate an area and we check it out. We'll be lucky."
"Luck like ours doesn't go on forever, Dean," Sam said suddenly.
"Luck like ours probably quit already," Dean said without the bite to the words Sam had expected. "Skill works fine too."
Craker had been nice enough to sketch a basic map even though it had come with warnings, in a grave tone, about critters and old wells and some sort of grandfatherly comment about 'getting turned around out there and going missing.'
Dean stole the pillows from the motel ("Dammit, it's only stealing when it's something of value and it hurts the victim in some way. For what they charge a night? I'm the victim. The pillows are mine.") and Sam didn't bother trying to dissuade him.
Sam poked at the maps again and could recite the area's history for anyone by then. Cle Elum and Roslyn were big railroad and mining towns in the past; coal and gold. Even Ellensburg had its mines. But nothing near Manastash. Lots of rolling farmland had been carved out of a landscape that wanted to revert to scrub desert if it could. The ridge was all mountainous trails, good for offroading. There was a good chance that even if they accidentally trespassed, no one would know, in all that space. There were few chances of finding themselves at the business end of a shotgun. For once.
He'd double checked the newspaper stories for missing hikers or hunters and realized only eight of the eleven missing over the previous three years had notified anyone of where they were going. All eight had been headed for or had spent time in one particular area. Tripod Flats.
Sam read aloud to Dean from the USGS site. Near Manastash Ridge the rocks of the Northwest Cascade System are truncated by a northwest-trending zone of high-angle faults that bound slivers of metavolcanic and metaplutonic rocks, as well as metasedimentary rocks and -
" Sam ," Dean said. "Rocks for jocks is closed."
"Hey, vulcanism is a possibility," Sam said. "There's also a bistatic passive radar system that uses commercial FM broadcasts as a signal source, used to track aircraft and meteors. Could be causing interference of some kind. Maybe hallucinations."
"If it's something more than a radar system," Dean said. "Nice area for secret government projects. Too bad we don't care."
Highway 410 and then 4W866 brought them to the foot of the basic trail area where the Northrups had last camped; it would take hiking to get the rest of the way up there. Dean parked off the road on a seldom used turnaround and made sure to back far enough into the underbrush to make the Impala hard to see. He muttered about bears possibly touching his car and about hiking and then about forgetting M&Ms. Sam was busy looking up into the stands of larch and cedar that crowded the inclines of basalt and wasn't listening.
"How far up?" Dean said.
"About an hour," Sam said. They shouldered their packs, and didn't say much else heading up the trail. There was no need to.
They found the site easily enough; two and a half miles up was a huge meadow, the trail's namesake. Off to the east another half mile, back under the canopy of old growth forest, the remnants of a campfire pit were still legible in the soil even if the stone circle containing it had been scattered. Many others had probably used it since, but it was still a notable marker on the map Craker had drawn.
Dean drew symbols of both protection and attraction that Sam remembered but didn't have the details for. He took care in choosing the stick he drew with, bemoaning the lack of rowan or willow or anything similar in the area, complaining that he had a rowan walking stick in the trunk of the car but hadn't thought to bring it. Sam listened and didn't respond, knowing he wasn't supposed to. Oak would do. Oak for truth, Dean said, and Sam automatically finished in his own head with if there's a question in your heart the oak will answer it. He didn't remember where that came from either, except that he was once good with trees and their legends. Some things stick forever, like the multiplication tables. Sam apologized to the tree Dean took the branch from, knowing that if Dean had remembered to do so he would have said it aloud, as open as he was.
Sam drew the same symbols on the natural circle of old growth cedar around the site, using charcoal dug from the fire pit.
Dean hypothesized about the fact that the ridge itself didn't have sage growing everywhere, while the canyon area did; the natural protection that sage affords wasn't extending to the ridge. Finally, he stared at Sam until Sam looked up. "Are you listening?"
"Always," Sam said, without sarcasm.
"You picking up any weird vibes?" Dean said.
"None weirder than yours," Sam said. Dean pitched his stick at Sam, missing by yards.
They walked the area, always keeping the site to their left, watching the sun and marking the trees. The trail they had initially followed had run out just south of there, and there was nothing other than deer runs around them showing the recent passage of anything physical. It would be easy to get turned around. Sam's sense of direction rivaled Dean's, and the boys had spent enough time hunting non-traditional prey in the woods in their younger years to have the basics ingrained, but Mother Nature didn't really care where you'd been or how good you were. She still had her ways of reminding you to respect her.
There were underground streams all over the area, some surfacing for small stretches, bubbling along for only yards at a time before vanishing into the loam.
There was no evidence around them that the earth had suddenly opened up at any point. No suspicious depressions, no soft ground underfoot beyond the ocassional muddy patch brought by the little streams. They circled and listened and watched, and were met by birdsong and random angry squirrels. Dean decided squirrels had only two speeds: dead or psychotic. The area felt clear, if anything in the world ever could. Whatever was going on up there, it wasn't brought by humans or their history or their way of messing up everything they touched.
When late afternoon mellowed to early evening, Dean used way too much lighter fluid to start a fire in the existing pit. Sam wondered to himself whether Dean should go into pyrotechnics if their lives ever took a turn for the mundane; his only other choice was going to be arsonist.
They had both agreed they would keep watch together to see if anything changed or happened. There was no way Sam was getting any sleep anyway. Not with Dean bellowing "Tell us where you are, Josh!" every so often like it was the funniest thing ever. Dean had made dozens of those damn little hanging-man stick figures out of Q-tips and hung them all over for days after they saw the movie, until dad had told him enough was enough. At least he'd stopped humming 'Kumbaya' under his breath.
They ate around the fire as the sky purpled; it was going to stay clear.
They theorized about whether the phenomenon was physical or psychic. Concentrations of toxic gases collecting in cracks in the basalt? Electromagnetic waves, old missle silos, a stray volcanic vent? They were still in the Cascade range, part of the Pacific ring of fire.
"Nothing's really physical anyway," Sam said.
"Metaphysics would really make me happy right now, Sam," Dean said, stoking the fire. "I can never wait for you to wax philisophical on me."
"I don't know," Sam said. "There's enough space between the atoms everything's made of to allow for all kinds of stuff to hide. Maybe the right conditions can open those spaces, sometimes."
Dean gazed at him across the fire. "Not without leaving evidence behind."
"Depends on whether it's the kind of evidence something with only five senses can pick up," Sam said, gazing back.
They'd done this their whole lives, back and forth, when Sam could get Dean to participate. Dean's focus was always central to acting now and thinking later, the shortest distance between two points, and Sam widened the periphery to keep him from spinning in place.
Sam wondered again what the hell they were really looking for out there - what had happened to others, or what had happened to him and Dean.
"Some thing ," Dean echoed as if waiting for him to elaborate.
Sam shrugged and leaned back against the cedar he was sitting under.
"Empirical evidence or dumbass metaphysical evidence?" Dean said, and Sam laughed.
Sam startled awake, not realizing he'd dropped into a light doze. He wasn't sure where he was at first, until he saw the fire and felt the rough bark of the tree he'd leaned against. As he sat up, he centered on Dean, finding him painted golden and glowing in the uneven light of the tamped down flames.
Dean was standing and staring into the darkness behind Sam so intently that Sam fell to watching him, as if he was a retriever on point. It wasn't the first time the thought had occurred to Sam. It had to be somewhere around 3 or 4 am, judging by the color of the sky and the fact that the winter constellations were back out.
"What is it?" Sam said when he couldn't take the quiet any longer. He climbed to his feet, muscles stiffer than he thought they'd be, and came to stand next to Dean to watch the darkness. Still, he had to endure roughly another minute of it before Dean's voice broke through the crackle of flames.
"The river," Dean said. "Runs under everything."
Sam let that puzzle him for a moment, and he didn't ask for more because Dean was so obviously elsewhere . At first he thought of the Columbia Gorge, which wasn't that far away, and then the Yakima river, much closer, but when he let the word everything sink in, it brought a touch of anxiety with it. Dean wasn't using the word casually - not in that tone of voice, not with that thousand-yard stare. Not with the magnetic field of his spirit fraying Sam's threads and throwing shapes against the seen and unseen surfaces around them. River didn't always mean water .
He wasn't sure if Dean knew he was talking out loud, so he waited. He felt the fine hairs on the nape of his neck stir at more than just the way Dean was acting, but he didn't say anything else.
It stayed quiet. Nothing stirred or came out of the dark, and there was no change in the larger atmosphere; only in the one between the men standing shoulder to shoulder below.
Whatever Dean was tapping into, it broke, and he finally rolled his shoulders and looked at Sam with annoyance. "When did you get up?"
"Right about the time you heard something in the woods," Sam said, like it was the truth, like he hadn't heard the disturbance in Dean's everything loud enough to snap him awake. "You've been awake way, way too long, man, if you're getting hazy on the details."
Dean shoved him a step to the right and walked back around the fire, keeping an eye on Sam while he added more wood.
At dawn, they took one more look around and packed out. It looked like it was going to rain.