out of the storm
As he entered the final stretch leading to Lakeside, Shades was dismayed to see another hitchhiker standing in front of the WELCOME TO LAKESIDE sign. Shades gunned the engine, risking a little more speed on this rare straightaway, as he barreled down the long hill leading into the short stretch of lakeside town that was his home. From here, he could see lights glowing on the main street, and he took some relief from this sight.
This was it. Showtime.
His relief gave way to a new chill that had nothing to do with the cold rain as he shot past another hitchhiker. Who just happened to be waiting on the corner he would have had to turn to get to his house. Now he was certain that it would be wise to stop off somewhere and find out what had happened so far before going home.
Then again, perhaps he had finally out-maneuvered him/it/them with that last move.
Besides, in these treacherous conditions, he had too much momentum to even attempt the turn anyway. Instead, he let up on the gas and coasted into town rather than risk hydroplaning with sudden deceleration. Slowing down as he glided past several businesses, finally slowing down enough to brake safely at a local gas station.
He took it as a positive sign to see both a pickup and a semi refueling out front. Being the only gas station for a good twenty or thirty miles in all directions, it was open twenty-four hours, getting business from travelers at all times of the day. He pulled up right out front, where he could keep an eye on his bike, dismounting with a wary eye for any hitchhiker activity.
Shades had frequented this place since he was a kid, and the owners knew him by name and trusted him, so no one gave him any static about his backpack. One of the travelers was conversing with the old man at the counter. As Shades made his way to the payphone, he happened to overhear a snatch of their exchange.
“…I can’t even get the weather report ’cause the radio’s all screwed-up,” the old man told the other. “Damn thing’s been like that since about midnight.”
“Yeah, and who’da guessed we’d have this storm tonight,” the customer remarked, looking briefly out the window. “I don’t like it, either. I can feel it in my bones. There’s somethin’ real’ unnatural about all this…”
Like Shades needed anyone to tell him that. You don’t know the half of it, gramps… Still he had to admit that part of him was glad he wasn’t the only one to whom strange things had happened tonight. At the same time, the fact that whatever had happened back there was also happening here hardly inspired confidence.
Since this was a potentially dangerous situation he was getting himself into, he decided to call home from here first. It felt so unreal, having come in, not just out of the cold, but seemingly out of the nightmare itself, back in the presence of other human beings again. For a moment, he was almost sure it was all just a figment of his imagination, but the images of the hitchhikers refused to vanish in a puff of logic, and as the old men behind him went on spouting strangely uncharacteristic remarks that all sounded as if they belonged in a B horror movie, something he found rather less than reassuring, he plunked in his quarter and dialed his number.
The line was dead.
That’s it. Home is out. This was just one unsettling coincidence too many. He would have to stay the night someplace else, the question was where. It was too late— and too crazy out on the road— to go back to Kalispell.
It was the thought of his mom that changed his plans, realized that he couldn’t leave until he found out if she was alright. Then he calmed down. He was so freaked-out he had forgotten that Mom was out of town on business this weekend anyway. Still the anger remained, and he found he didn’t want to leave without finding the truth. Though that didn’t change the gut feeling he had about the situation. What he needed right now was someone who would believe him.
He inserted another quarter and dialed John’s number.