riders on the storm
“…I’m not gonna argue with you man,” Shades told his friend. “There’s some weird shit goin’ on out there tonight,” (He paused for a moment, feeling the old men’s eyes on his back, and he shrugged, turning to them with an irritated expression that seemed to say, What? You never heard the word “shit” before?) “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.”
Shades hung up, bolting back out front. As much as he hated to cut his old friend off, he wanted to tell his story face to face. He just hoped John wasn’t too angry with him.
All he caught was the tail end of the old men at the counter, apparently having moved on to a new topic: “…But I heard the guy was from outta town, just moved here last week, so they had to let him go.”
“Then I guess that means the real black van driver’s still on the loose…”
But Shades had bigger problems to worry about as he breezed out the door.
“Good, nothing happened to you,” Shades commented to his bike upon seeing that it was still there waiting for him. All the same, he felt a moment of apprehension, remembering his fun meeting with Carlos, until his motor started easily enough. Then he took off.
He had contemplated calling the police, but, just for starters, he had nothing to report. On top of that, although he hated to admit such a level of paranoia, he wasn’t sure the authorities were a wise choice to drag into this just yet. For the moment, he would keep this between himself and John, pending more info.
He continued down the highway past the post office, the bar, the grocery store. Then, at the church that loomed over the turn leading to the local elementary school, standing out in front of it, right in the middle of town, was another hitchhiker. He accelerated past the church, spotting another one standing in front of the café.
Shades hung a sharp right, departing the highway once again. This was the shortest way to John’s house from here.
Even as he neared the top of the hill, he could already see, walking down the long dirt road leading up to the specter of another church, yet another hitchhiker. Without any thought, Shades found himself riding the brakes, then he turned it into a dangerous, but doable, U-turn on this narrow stretch of road. Then again, he also knew the roads would only get worse from there anyway.
Shades cruised down the highway a bit farther, relieved not to see any hitchhikers before his next turn.
As he turned the next corner, he wondered again if he had finally out-maneuvered the bastards. At least there was nothing even resembling a church along this way, though he knew the final test was fast approaching. The compound ahead used to be a military base, but was later shut down and given over to civilian use.
As he rode past lines and lines of trees, he thought about all the things he knew to be behind them. A playground, a park, houses mostly. Somewhere beyond that playground, he had seen an ultra-modern-looking building whose purpose he was never able to ascertain. That just never seemed to belong back there. Yet even knowing this failed to alleviate his anxiety about not being able to see it.
Then there was no more time for such ruminations.
“Oh no you don’t!” Shades told the next hitchhiker even as he detected him. Just as he figured, his next assailant was standing out in front of the run-down guard booth at the old base complex’s entrance. Conditions be damned, he gunned the engine for all it was worth, swerving into the other lane to dodge him.
As he blazed past the rather suburban-looking housing project sprawled out next to the base, he slowed down a bit. Keeping in mind that around the next corner the roads would only get worse from here on out. He splashed past another hitchhiker, this one emerging from an old, spooky-looking road leading into the woods.
The road he took led through open fields, leading farther up the mountain. He traveled some distance before noticing that the hitchhiker at that mysterious entrance was the last one he had seen for about a mile. Now that he was getting close to John’s house, Shades found an uncertain moment in which to ponder his next move. Anymore, he couldn’t shake the feeling that things were shaping up too much like events in one of many books he had read. He was no longer sure what worried him more— if there really was something strange going on, or if this all turned out to be just some bizarre series of coincidences, signifying nothing.
As Shades neared the turn-off to John’s house, he killed the motor, warily walking his bike the rest of the way down. He knew his friend’s parents well enough to know that stealth was of the essence if they didn’t want to get busted. They would hardly approve of the little adventure the two of them were about to set out on, and hearing a motorcycle so soon after his phone call would be a dead giveaway.
John was already waiting out front, and he had brought out the quad ATV.
“Now Shades,” John asked quietly as they pushed their vehicles away from the house, “what the hell is this all about?”
What he wanted more than anything else right now was to be as far out of his parents’ earshot as possible.
“Well, John, that’s what I hope we can find out.” Shades could see that his friend’s leather jacket wasn’t soaked, suggesting that he couldn’t have been standing out here for more than three or four minutes. “This is what I do know. Ever since I left Kalispell after work, I’ve been running into these weird look-alike hitchhikers on all the roads. And I haven’t seen a single car on the road either. And as if that wasn’t weird enough, the radio’s all—”
“I know dude,” he conceded in a voice that was scarcely a whisper. “I tried it, too.”
“And the phone at my place is dead,” Shades finished, wishing he had more to go on. As they finally reached the road, he said, “I just keep getting this strange feeling something’s terribly wrong. You know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah.” Ever since he heard those eerie sounds on the radio, John also felt a growing sense of disquiet, of something not being right. He really wanted to go back inside and await the dawn, but Shades was his friend, and he refused to let him go it alone. “And I don’t like it. So where to now?”
“My place,” Shades told him with quiet determination. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this…”
By now they decided that they were far enough from the house to risk firing up their engines, and they set out.
This time, though, they took a different route to Shades’ house, one they often used as a shortcut. It was a lesser-known way; if anyone was waiting for them, Shades planned to take them by surprise.
They splashed through impossibly deep potholes, the kind that could only exist on lonely mountain backroads. Thin, dead-looking trees flashed by on both sides in the darkness. At one point they narrowly dodged a fallen tree that took up half the road.
Along the way, Shades wondered if he had seen the last of the hitchhikers. They had appeared with increasing frequency since he passed Somers, and seemed to be lurking around every corner after he entered Lakeside. At least until he hit that last road to John’s house, that was the last one he had seen. For a moment he wondered what would happen if they only appeared to him, how long John would continue to believe him if they didn’t find something.
At last they reached the water tank past the half-way point. From there, their way would take them down a long hill called Troutbeck Rise. They would drop right in on Shades’ home street, completely bypassing the highway entrance.
They both hit the bottom of Troutbeck running, giving any would-be intruders only seconds’ notice of their arrival. Not more than a block’s distance, and they hung a sliding left, heading up the MacLeans’ long dirt driveway.
Shades had lived the last nine years of his life in a white double-wide trailer. The trailer itself sat behind a full acre of fenced-in hillside, where his mom’s Shelties would ordinarily be yapping their heads off, and Shades wondered if she had let them in before leaving on her trip. On top of that, all the lights were out, which he really distrusted; Mom always left a light on for him when he had to work late.
Both of them skidded to a halt in front of the place, peering under its deepset, white-columned porch. The front door hung partway open, something he liked even less than no lights. As he hit the kickstand, unstraddling the bike, a bolt of lightning lit up the night, illuminating the scene in stark clarity, followed seconds later by a blast of thunder. A black-and-white snapshot of broken windows all across the front of the house.
“Dude, I don’t like this,” John told him in the ringing silence of their stilled motors.
“Neither do I,” Shades agreed. He knew the neighbors were on vacation, so there was no point in going next door. He was torn between his fury at whoever had broken into his house, and the disconcerting intuition that he should enlist professional help investigating this, but there was one thing he could make up his mind about. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I’m with you on that one,” John said, already turning around. “You could stay at… my… place…” He trailed off as he looked back down the driveway, spying a figure in a trenchcoat and hat, matching Shades’ description so perfectly it scared him, plodding slowly up the muddy road. “Uh… Shades…”
“Not again!” Shades muttered. In light of this recent discovery, the only good news he could derive from it was that at least he wasn’t the only one seeing these guys. “Let’s go!”
“Dude! You don’t have to tell me twice!”
As they fired up their engines again, Shades looked over his shoulder, seeing the front door slowly swing wide open. That was the last straw, and he pulled out. They went partway down the driveway, then cut across the neighbors’ sprawling lawn, allowing their mysterious adversary a wide berth.
Neither of them saw the black van rolling out from behind Shades’ house.
Shades and John pulled back out onto the road, but overshot the turn that led back to the highway. Both of them simultaneously wished now that they had made an escape plan as John continued up the road. While Shades went left onto an old logging road leading deeper into the mountains.
Before he could slow down enough to turn around, lightning blasted a massive tree near the corner, sending it crashing down across the road.
He stopped, looking back for a long moment, but John showed no sign of coming back for him. The tree blocked the entire width of the road, and was way too large to get his motorcycle over. And the banks on both sides were too high and steep to attempt in such muddy conditions.
Taking one last look at the smoldering, steaming embers near the base of the shattered tree before starting up again and heading out. He felt terrible about dragging John into this mess; it was his problem, and now his friend was caught in the middle of it. For now all he could do was wish his friend a clean escape to the highway while he attempted to find another road out of this backwoods maze, hoping there was an exit.
But he seriously doubted it. Like his old friend, he was now on his own again.