In the darkness, a phone rang. And rang. And rang a couple more times.
“John!” a muffled voice demanded from down the hall, “Would ya answer the goddam phone!? And tell your friends they’re not supposed to call after eleven!”
When his family moved to Lakeside, there hadn’t been any room to pack John’s bed. Since then, no one had ever gotten around to getting a new one, so John simply got used to sleeping on his own bedroom floor. A living heap of clothes and blankets, shifted around to suit his purposes.
A hand crept out from under the pile, groping along the floor until it stumbled upon the phone, which it promptly snatched under the covers.
“Hello?…” John mumbled, his usual enthusiasm awol. His brain on vacation, communicating long-distance. His mind was on the other end of the line in its robe and slippers, demanding to know why it was being called at such an ungodly hour. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” an urgent-sounding voice replied. Just as he finally recognized it: “Shades.”
“Oh! Shades!” There was something in his friend’s voice that automatically ratcheted him several notches more awake. Trying to keep it down so his parents wouldn’t hear him, he demanded, “Dude, don’t you know it’s almost one in the morning? You know you’re not supposed to call this late.”
“There’s something weird going on around here.”
“There’s always something weird going on with you. Can’t this wait ’til morning? I just managed to get to sleep.”
Despite John’s protests, the Does went to bed earlier than he would have preferred. And he would continue to do so for as long as he lived under their roof.
“I’m sorry, John, but it can’t.” Shades spoke quickly and quietly, sounding nothing like himself. “There’re these weird hitchhikers out on the road. They all look exactly alike, and they’ve been waiting for me everywhere I go.”
“Shades, I’m tellin’ ya, this had better not be a joke—”
“This isn’t like April Fools! I’m serious, man!” Shades hissed. Then back to the conspiratorial hush. “One of them even tried to attack me! They’ve appeared everywhere I go since I left Kalispell, and there’s no one else on the road out there. I think one of them is at my place. I tried to call, but the line is dead.”
“Come off it, dude! You’re creepin’ me out.” At first he was sure Shades was trying to mess with him, but there was something in his friend’s voice that he found more and more alarming the longer he listened to it. If Shades was faking it, it had to be the best acting he had ever heard in his life. Trying to calm him, he suggested, “If the line’s dead, it’s probably just the storm. And the hitchhikers are probably just that. Don’t have a cow, man.”
“If the storm broke the lines,” Shades riddled him this: “then why am I still talking to you?” And John had to admit, he did have a point. “I know this is hard to believe… but… try your radio. You’ll hear what I mean.”
“You sure it isn’t just the storm?”
“I’m not gonna argue with you man. There’s some weird shit goin’ on out there tonight,” Shades paused for a moment, then resumed, “and I sure as hell ain’t goin’ home by myself. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Try to be ready for me.”
Before John could utter another word, Shades hung up on him.
“Shit!” he muttered as he crawled out of his warm, comfy cocoon, reaching out and switching on a desk lamp he kept nearby. Carefully turned down the volume so as not to wake his parents, he turned on his alarm clock radio. And was immediately greeted with noises that didn’t sound like any radio signal he had ever heard before.
Up until now, John had been holding out for the possibility that this was all some weird prank. But there was no way Shades could do this. That, and there was just something in his friend’s voice, the more he thought about it… something wrong.
Trying to keep it down, he threw on some clothes. Once he was dressed, he opened his closet and dug in the corner. Beneath a bundle of shirts, underneath the pile of magazines, was a small steel lock-box.
So spooked had he been by the bizarre nature of what he heard on the radio, that he decided to bring along Old Betsy. Originally, the compact Derringer pistol of whimsical namesake belonged to his great uncle, though now it belonged to him, and his mom insisted that he keep it locked up. Sure, it was low-caliber, and only a single-shot weapon, having to be reloaded after every round, but it was also easily concealed.
John stuffed it in his coat pocket, along with a half-empty box of ammo, as he tip-toed to the door. No harm in being prepared. He stopped in the little entry room, digging in a drawer for a flashlight. Now that he was aware of it, he knew that in a storm like this, the phone lines might not be the only things to go out before dawn.
Shutting the door behind him as quietly as he could, he made his way over to the garage. Seeing as how his parents were probably going to ground him even if everything went smoothly, he concluded that he would rather act now, get chewed out later. He had no idea what kind of trouble Shades may have gotten himself into, but he was going to try to help him as best he could.
On his seventeenth birthday, his father had given him a key to the quad ATV. All he asked was that he kept the tank full and rode sensibly. He doubted this was what Dad had in mind, but he saw no other way. At the least, it would take many moons to save up for a car of his own.
It would be a few more minutes before Shades showed up.