M&Ms had never tasted better.
With a happy sigh Dean reached into the bag to grab another handful of the colorful candy, ignoring the pointed look from his brother, whose lips would shrivel if he pursed them just a little bit more.
"Mhmwha?" Dean mumbled, making a point of looking at Sam as he opened his mouth, almost choking on of piece of chocolate when Sam made a disgusted face.
"Dean, that's so gross. I don't even have words for that."
"Which can only count as victory for me, haha!" Dean grinned and reached for the bag. They had stopped only half an hour ago at the last gas station but the bag was almost empty again. Admittedly, Dean felt a little sick but it was definitely worth it. If not for the awesome taste, then for the hilarious grimace Sam managed with new found creativity.
"You've only just got an ulcer removed."
"My point exactly," Dean replied. "Removed. Which means it's gone and I'm free to eat whatever I want."
"Don't get pissed if you ever wake up dead from a heart attack, man."
"Hey, at least I'll die happy and full." With that, he threw three more balls of candy into his mouth and munched on.
Three states, five gas stations and more than half a dozen bags of candies lay between them and Chicago and they were making fast progress. They would reach their goal within the next hour... if Dean's stomach didn't betray him by making the M&M’s OD and make an outstanding come back.
A sign next to the street informed them about Johnstown, 42 miles and the irony of it made Dean snort. Oh, the irony.
"What's so funny," Sam mumbled, his own eyes staring fixedly ahead even though Dean had seen the small intake of breath his brother had made when they passed the sign.
Dean sobered in an instant, not even sure why he’d been amused about it in the first place. "Nothing, sorry."
Now, he really felt sick and he pressed his right foot viciously on the gas pedal, breaking the speed limit. This way, they would need even less than one hour. Not to Johnstown, thankfully, but a tiny community in the middle of New York. The state, not the city.
A small folder lay between both brothers on the bench seat with some news articles and additional information about Caroga Lake and the surrounding area. Balancing the laptop on his knees Sam was browsing through some saved websites, rereading the information he had collected last night in addition to the news articles and biting nervously on his lower lip.
"Find anything new?" Dean asked, his speech still a little bit slurred from the amount of candy between his teeth.
"No." With a groan Sam shut the laptop and watched ahead, massaging his temples. "Just what I found in the newspapers and some online comments. The usual. 14-year-old Craig Weston drowned in a lake, accident, yaddayadda."
"Got a headache?" Dean asked, trying to sound as unconcerned as possible but Sam merely shrugged his shoulders.
"Naah, not really. Just too little sleep and I think your sugar shock affects me more than you. Which..." At this he looked over to Dean who was picking at his teeth, trying to get the hard edges of the M&Ms out of teeth. Sam's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "...dude. You're going to ruin your teeth."
"Changed your MO now, did ya?"
Sam fell silent again and Dean knew the rest of the drive would be made in silence. Which was only good. This way his mouth had more time to chew.
Forty-two minutes later another sign next to the street informed them about "Caroga Lake, pop. 1,027". Next to it was an even larger sign with a number of idyllic pictures. Hiking, fishing, canoeing, skiing. It read like an ad for Disney World for grown-ups. Not the dirty kind, though. "Look, Sammy," Dean chirped, good-humoredly. "This is like a holiday."
Even though he could see Sam roll his eyes, the tiny twitch of his brother's corner of the mouth didn't go unnoticed and Dean felt his spirits rise even higher. Maybe he really should stop eating sugar... for now. Passing a few houses, a small diner, a grocery and a hardware store Dean maneuvered the car in front of a motel with the inviting name "Pillow's Crease". Sam gathered the documents and stuffed them into his backpack, right next to the laptop. Stretching his back and shaking his legs Dean jumped up and down a few times, before blowing breath into his hands.
"Is it me or is it freaking cold here?" he grumbled, his good temper fading already as he took a look around. This was just another town in the middle of Nowhere, which this country had more than enough of. A town that had more public stores than people in it.
The room they rented smelled like old people and Dean felt the urge to look under the beds to see whether there actually were old people rotting away. The curtains were made of the same material as the bed spread - flowery rose petals and little birds with blue bellies. It was the strangest combination ever and Dean shook his head, glad that sleeping in that room meant he'd have his eyes closed.
With practiced skills they unpacked and left the room again.
It was only two in the afternoon and their stomachs complained about having missed lunch--aside from Dean's M&M massacre--making the green-painted shack across the street with the sign that read "Lunch from 11-3" sound like a message from God himself.
Entering the room they looked around a second before heading to a table at the back wall where they were quickly greeted by a middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and a round face.
"Hello boys," she said in a friendly voice. "Welcome to Caroga Lake." She tipped her pencil against a small notebook, eyes pinched in what looked like natural curiosity. "What brings two young boys into this corner of the country? I can't imagine you two to going fishing."
"Uhm...” Dean began and Sam could see his brother's wheels turning. “That's because we aren’t," Dean replied while Sam opened the menu and began studying it like it was important material for his next exam. "We're just... trying to relax, you know? Back to nature and all that." At that, Sam looked up at his brother, eyebrow raised incredulously.
"Aawww," the woman sighed. "That's something you don't get to hear very often these days." She let her pencil and notebook sink down. "Most people think they can visit this town and find adventure here. It's those fancy movies these days." She nodded, her curls flying, and Dean smiled at her with what he hoped was a sympathetic look.
"Yeah, that's actually the last thing we wanted to find here. Adventure, I mean. We," he nodded towards his brother, "my brother and I we just want to relax a bit. Have some peace, you know. Spend some time together. Fishing." He grinned and put up the most innocent city-boy-in-the-country face he could muster.
She glanced between the boys, her features softening with delight. "Brothers, huh? Yeah, family is what counts these days."
Dean nodded and decided that these days was probably some sort of code word for these people regarding the number of times she'd used it already.
"Uhm, yeah. Exactly!" Dean nodded, his eyes shifting between that waitress and his brother.
To Dean’s relief Sam seemed to get the point and piped up: "Yes, fishing. And hiking. Have a look at the lakes." To Dean's surprise, the woman's eyes lit up even more.
"Lakes, huh? You should really go visit the White Lake . It's quite a sight. You're going to love it. It's the stairway to heaven, my Gram used to say." Dean cringed at her blasphemic use of Led Zeppelin but refrained from complaining as he felt the tip of Sam's foot collide with his shin.
"Ouch," he hissed and at the waitress's quizzical look he explained hastily. "Cramp."
"Ah." She nodded. "You should really take a bath in White Lake, too."
"Oh!" If her eyes lit up any more, Dean thought, he'd have to Christo her to see whether she was maybe being possessed by a white-eyed demon. "Didn't you know?"
"Know what?" Sam inquired, leaning on his elbow.
"The lake has healing powers." She grinned proudly, as if the healing powers were her own accomplishment. "White Lake's known for the water. It healed my warts."
Spluttering, Dean coughed, earning him another kick in the shin and he yelped.
"Son, you really should take a bath in the lake as soon as possible. This sounds like a nasty cough you got there." Her eyes grew large with sincere worry at his white complexion while Sam grinned into his fist.
"Yeah, maybe," Dean said hoarsely, scratching his throat as if he could reach the itch in the inside.
"But..." Sam began carefully. "What...what about the dead boy?"
"Dead boy?" She creased her forehead but then understanding dawned in her face. "Aaah, yes. I know. That poor boy. Such a pity. I heard he fell into the lake and hit his head."
"So, he wasn’t pulled under water by some mystical creature?" Dean asked, throwing all caution into the wind.
"What?" Her eyes widened almost comically, snorting so hard that her spit flew. "No! Who said that?"
"Well, actually..." Sam fidgeted under her glare. "The newspaper said that."
"So, you believe everything the newspaper tells you?" At that moment she sounded suspiciously like Missouri Mosely and to Dean's great amusement Sam's cheeks blushed under her disapproving look. "Nonsense," She explained: "That boy's death was an accident. Probably some stupid city kid missing the common sense to not jump into unknown lakes."
Dean's interest piqued up. "You mean the boy wasn't from here?"
"No." She shook her head. "This is a small town, boy. Everyone knows everyone and if someone from around here had died in that lake, I'd know. Believe me. We don’t have many teenagers in this town these days."
"Ah..." Dean nodded. "Then, who was he?"
The waitress shrugged her shoulder. "Probably one of those hunters."
"Yes, they came here about two weeks ago. Haven't seen them much in town, though. They're camping down by the lake I guess." With her pudgy thumb she pointed over her shoulder. "Strange group." She shook visibly and looked uncomfortably at the memory. "Five men, at least. Maybe more. And a few younger boys. Must've been one of them. Pity, really. Though they didn't look a lot like city people."
"Why is that?
"They had weapons. Lots of them. On the bed of their truck. Barney saw them." She nodded towards the bar, where a sweating man wearing a filthy apron was rubbing a dirty rag over an even dirtier glass. Dean gulped, starting to lose his appetite. Warts and now that? Sam obviously felt the same way if Dean judged his brother's curling of the nose right.
"Uh, okay." It took a lot of bravado for him to keep smiling at the woman as she lifted her hand to drum the pencil against her notebook again.
"But where are my manners. You've come here to eat and I keep jabbering your ears off. What can I get you boys?"
They left the restaurant with food to go which they dumped on the backseat of the Impala in order to get rid of it at the next chance.
"So, hunters," Dean murmured and let himself fall into the driver's seat. "Who'd have thought?"
"What makes you think it's hunters and not just hunters?" Sam frowned and Dean shot him a look.
"Are you kidding? I can smell them from a hundred miles away."
"That's the dinner, Dean."
"What are they doing here anyway? If they're hunters they can take care of whatever it is. Plus, it's not like anything happened before the death of the boy," Sam thought aloud. "Assuming that dead boy belongs to the hunters that is. Maybe there isn’t anything evil out there. Maybe it was an accident after all." He followed his brother into the car, making a grimace at the smell of the food on the back seat.
"I think she's the evil one. She ruined my appetite."
"Who?" Sam asked, pretty sure he already knew the answer. It wasn't like they had met a lot of she's in that town. Plus he wasn't even sure he disagreed. That food was a biological weapon and Sam and Dean did not want to know what kind of body fluids besides sweat and spit had found their way into the meal. "No, don't answer that," he added before could Dean could start a rant. "So, now what?"
"We do what we came here for." At Dean's grin Sam felt something in his stomach plummet to the ground. "We do some hiking." He turned the ignition. "But first we need food. Real food. I think I saw a small place at the town entrance. Think they’ve got M&Ms?"
After a quick stop at the market and Dean stocking up his candy supply they took the route north, following the street a few miles before turning onto a bumpy sand road whose state suggested a barely frequented use. They followed it another two miles with Sam eyeing the road map on his knees suspiciously.
"How far is it?" Dean winced, as the car hit another pothole and complained with a rumble and a screech. He had barely said the words as the thick canopy of low branches and green leaves widened and revealed a small clearing. At its end Sam could see the surface of the lake.
"Guess this answers your question."
"Finally," Dean murmured and killed the engine. While Dean got to the back of car to open the trunk Sam crossed the few yards to stand at the shore of the lake. Seconds later, he could feel Dean's presence next to him and for a moment time seemed to stand still.
Both boys had been in a lot of places all over the country. They had been in the mountains, in wide wastelands and on more lakes than they could possibly count but this place was different. There was a strangely calming atmosphere lying on the water and the peaceful feeling it conjured up made Sam's heart soar with happiness.
The surface of the lake was quiet, a perfect mirror reflecting the mountains. White fluffy clouds were lazily passing in the sky, their mirror images almost as real as the originals. The high pitched cry of a large bird echoed over the lake and Sam could have sworn he saw the surface shiver in response. He lifted his head, staring at the animal and watched it soar with an enviable effortlessness. It’s wings were spread wide, like a mother embracing her children. Another cry and it was gone, vanished behind the treetops over their heads.
Leaning forward Sam looked down. The shore was flat and the water exceptionally clear. Every little detail was visible in the flat water; Pebbles, tiny little fishes, the beige-colored, strange sand that was glittering like diamonds in the sun light.
"That is so Kodak," Dean said and if there hadn't been a touch of awe in his voice, Sam would have rolled his eyes at Dean’s utter disrespect of the miracle called nature. Instead, he felt himself nod.
He closed his eyes, hoping Dean didn't see it and took a deep breath. The smell of water and green meadows, moss and the earthy odor of rotting leaves filled his nose and he couldn't remember feeling this relaxed for a long time.
Blinking his eyes open his gaze was still directed into the water in front of him. Little bubbles of air broke the surface and movement caught his eye. Something white, moving just a few feet under but deep enough that its outlines were swallowed by the darkness of the deeper water.
"Did you see that?" he asked, but when he turned to his brother, he realized Dean had walked back to the car and gotten out a sawed off and a small hand gun. It felt somehow wrong in this ambiance to handle weapons and Sam's stomach clenched painfully, as if there was a physical reaction to the possibility of having to carry a weapon.
"Do you think that's necessary?" Sam asked before he could refrain and ... yes, he probably did deserve the disbelieving look. "Forget I said that," he added and looked back to the lake. It had gone quiet again, back to its glassy appearance. There was something about the view. A change in the atmosphere. Something scary, yet serene and he could almost feel a hum in the air.
"Do you feel that?"
"If you mean hunger and a strange need not to contaminate this forest with beer coasters... I guess so," Dean smirked and handed Sam the smaller weapon. "Let's go."
They started walking, Dean ahead with Sam following a few meters behind and with every passing step it felt more like they had entered a fairy land. The forest had been here long before people had settled down and it would probably outlive mankind as well. The trees around them stood high and silent, sentinels of an ancient wilderness. Their barks were covered with lush leaves from an alien looking plant that was snaking around the trunks like poison ivy on a facade and flowers with pearly white petals stood out with their brilliance. The ground beneath their feet was soft and squashy like the perfect mattress for a midday nap and Sam had to fight the urge to kneel down and touch it to make sure it wasn't made of green cotton balls.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto," Dean murmured and Sam snorted.
"I didn't know you read 'Wizard of Oz'," he said.
"Saw the movie," Dean replied with a shrug, halting to have a look around. The lake was still to their left, the sparkling surface just visible through the trees, while sunbeams were fighting their way through the leaves above, bathing everything in a misty twilight. Like there was filter in the air, swallowing loud sounds.
It almost looked like smoke or fog. Just the hint of a haze. It made the colors around them more pale and washed out giving everything a touch of a dream like complexion. The birds twittered. The water was dancing lazily against the shore, a light steady rhythm of swooosh...swooosh...swooosh causing reeds to rustle and sway in the lulling motion.
"Dean," Sam whispered, coming to a halt as he took in the surroundings and his brother replied equally huskily.
"This is... kinda awesome. I think I really want to go fishing now."
But as the words were spoken out loud something changed.
With a sudden feeling of anxiety Sam could have sworn the trees around them leaned down, the tree tops coming closer as if they were giants bowing to the ground and craning their necks to get a better view at the little ants at their feet. The wind made moaning noises, the branches trembled in what felt like anger and hostile excitement. Close to panic, Sam whirled around searching for the reason for malevolent behavior, when suddenly he heard the loud, hollering voices of men. They seemed to come from everywhere, their rage sounding alien in his ears even though Sam knew they were human. There was another angry bellow, the vibrancies bouncing back from the trees. Something splashed in the water and Sam whirled around, expecting to see an animal - a large frog or maybe a beaver – but the troubled surface of the water was already calming again as a shot rang out, hitting the water only a few feet away from where the brothers were staring at the lake.
"Shit!" Dean cursed. "Guess we found the hunters, huh?"
"I think the hunters found us," Sam corrected and they looked at each other as another shot hit too close to their position. Without another word they ran.
The trees to Sam's left blurred into each other. To his right the surface of the water formed turbulent waves even though there was no particular strong wind at the moment and some part of his brain wanted to check out the phenomena while the survival instinct kept his feet moving. Three more shots rang out in quick succession and one particularly loud wave crashed against the overgrown waterside. A loud splash made Sam stop in his tracks and as he turned around, expecting Dean to be following closely he could see his brother land in the water. Dean's body hit the surface like a stone and sank as if he was being dragged downwards. Fast.
"Dean!" Sam yelled, fear for his brother's life overtaking his own instincts; he didn't even realize the bullets were passing him like drops in a heavy rain. "Deeean!"
He reached the water after a few strides, wondering why they tended to get in real trouble every time water was involved. He didn’t take the time to remove his shoes or his jacket and just ran into the lake. The chilly water reached to his knees when he dived in head first and immediately an unnatural silence pressed heavy against his eardrums. He blinked a few times until his eyes got used to the new circumstances and he was surprised when he found himself in a turquoise kind of jungle. There were long leaves of dark green and brown algae floating next to him and a few meters away he could see the outlines of his unmoving brother who was sinking quickly, as if an anchor had been swapped around his ankles.
Oh God. Please! Dean!
It felt like he was on another planet. His movements felt jerky and slow. So incredibly slow while his brother was fading away so incredibly fast. How much time had passed since Dean had fallen? It felt like ages even though it had probably been no more than a few seconds. But under water even time seemed to have a different consistency. Sam started pedaling, his shoes making it even harder and the air still caught in his clothes threatened to drag him back towards the surface. The sunlight above filtered through the water, making it strangely shimmering, like diamonds floating.
Something fast swooshed past him and with terror he realized it was a bullet. Then another one. And another one. Those damn hunters were shooting aimlessly into the water and sooner or later they would hit him as they had probably hit Dean.
The deeper he went the less he could see. His lungs screamed for air but he didn't dare let his fading brother out of his sight.
He wanted to send his unsaid yell into the dark abyss beneath him as a large weight pressed on his chest, not just because of the missing air and he could see the darkness approach. Reaching his arm out he fought against the urge to get back to the surface but he couldn't help it. Two strong kicks and he was floating to the surface. The bullets around him were still passing him by like falling stars and his fear of drowning was combined with the fear of being shot by hunters who aimed at everything that moved in the water.
The surface was so close. Close enough that he could see the sun beaming through it. But as his panic and his unconquerable need for air overpowered his straight thinking, something grabbed his ankles. Hard. He realized the bullets were coming in a great number and he could even track their routes as if they were in slow motion. A sharp pain nicked at his shoulder and he shuddered, opened his mouth and could feel the agonizing rush of water into his lungs.