“Whoa! Dude! That was a close one!” John cried as he stopped at the top of the hill. His sigh of relief at their escape was really more like a gasp. He looked back down the road, pleased to see that they had not been followed. “But we made it! Come on, Shades! Let’s make a break for the highway!”
When he received no reply, that was when he realized that not even Shades had followed him.
His attention was taken back by the freak lightning strike that downed a tree along the other road below. He listened for a long moment as Shades’ engine faded out.
Now that he knew whatever was going on was for real, he didn’t want to be alone out here. For a moment he was torn between his desire to find Shades before they did, and his natural impulse to get the hell outta Dodge. If he moved quickly, he believed he could catch up with his friend. As creeped-out as he was now, he still felt ashamed of the voices in his head urging a swift retreat to the highway, even if it was to call the police.
In the end, his fateful moment of indecision proved a few seconds too long, for even as he heard what sounded like Shades doubling back to the fallen tree:
“Please! Don’t run!” a voice called from behind him.
John turned and saw another hitchhiker, this one approaching from the side of the road. Confirming one thing about these guys he had so far refused to swallow. Shades was right about these dudes! They are everywhere!
John hit the gas, taking off before this stranger could reach him.
“No! Wait!” the hitchhiker called after him.
Then John remembered he was still headed the wrong way. This way led to Shades’ favorite clifftop lookout, from which one could see all the way across Flathead Lake, even to Big Fork, with binoculars. The problem was that the road there was treacherous to take on a vehicle. In broad daylight— and at reasonable and prudent speed— he could do it easily enough, but at night, in this storm…
“Crap! Why’d I do this!?” he demanded of no one in particular as he struggled to stay on the deeply rutted path.
After he felt he had a safe distance to do so, he stopped and listened, preparing to turn around.
“Aw! Come on! Cut me some slack!…”
The hitchhiker again, and closer than he had expected. These bastards are persistent. Not that Shades hadn’t told him, it just simply sounded so far-fetched at the time. In the distance, he heard the stranger call out again.
“Please don’t run! I just want to talk!”
John decided that if he couldn’t shake his pursuer, he would rather face him here than next to a cliff. Not fully trusting the stranger’s words, he clutched Old Betsy in his pocket, ready to take off any second. If talking was all this guy wanted to do, John wouldn’t mind getting some clue about what the hell was going on, as long as talking was all he had in mind.
A moment later, the hitchhiker came in sight, stumbling headlong through the muck.
“John!” the stranger panted, “Please! You gotta help me dude—”
John stared in shock and astonishment as the hitchhiker, still running toward him, simply vanished into thin air.
John sat there for a long moment, not sure what to think about what he had just seen. Even the sound of his voice was cut off, echoing weirdly. That, and there was something oddly familiar about that voice…
“And how’d that dude know my name anyway?” he muttered. He liked that fact about as much as he liked seeing what he just saw. In both cases, it just cast this whole situation in a new light. If they knew his name, that didn’t bode well for Shades. It meant that both of them were somehow more involved in this than he would ever have guessed.
Mostly his mind kept jumping back to the moment that guy disappeared, kept going in circles in its attempts to make some sense of that scene.
“Hello! Anybody out there?”
John just about jumped out of his seat before realizing that this new voice was a decidedly female one. And from farther up the trail rather than from behind. If there was an ordinary person up there, she could probably use his help.
Deciding that it beat being alone on such a freaky night, he called back, “Who are you?”
Gripping Old Betsy and hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
“Amy!” the voice called, after an apparent moment of thought. Then Amy O’Connor stepped out of the trees. Flashlight in hand, soaked through, her long blonde hair hanging straight down. “Dexter, is that you?”
“No… it’s me, John,” he replied, at first thrown off by her choice of names. Dexter? Did I miss something… He wondered if he had somehow disappointed her. Oh well. She’ll just have to live with it. “Amy? What are you doing out here?”
“John…” she said, for a moment pondering what to say next. Not him, but one of his friends. Though she had been hoping for him. Even though he had gone by his chosen handle for years, she had never really thought of him as “Shades” no matter how she tried. “Well, I’m not really sure. I thought I saw him up on the cliff, so I came up here to talk to him. I thought maybe he had seen something. But when I went up there, no one was around.”
Then she paused for a second, seeming to realize that she was getting ahead of herself.
“You see, I’ve been looking for my little brother’s dog. He’s too young to be out here so late, let alone in this weather.” And quite frankly, she wasn’t too happy with the boy right now. If he would just take decent care of his damn dog… But there was an alarm in John’s voice earlier, and a lingering perplexity on his face, and she wanted to know what all that indistinct shouting earlier was about. “But what are you doing here?”
“Well, I don’t know where to begin,” he confessed. “You see, Shades called me about… half an hour ago, said he was in trouble…”
“What kind of trouble?” She had heard about his fight with Carlos, and now he had her undivided attention.
“It’s a long story, dude— uh, I mean dudette…”
“You don’t have to be politically correct with me. But really, what happened to Shades?”
“Well, Shades called me and told me he needed my help.” John was already second-guessing how much of this she would actually buy, pondering the irony of having to sell the truth. “He said he was being chased by these weird hitchhikers that all look exactly alike…”
“Is this some kind of joke?” she demanded, not entirely buying that. Yet she also sensed that he was upset about something. “You guys aren’t pulling my leg here, just because I told him I believed in paranormal stuff?”
“Huh? No dude, I’m totally serious.” Though he knew the next part would be even harder to swallow. But what he really wanted to know was, “Why were you looking for Shades anyway?”
“Well…” Amy paused for a moment, wondering why these sort of things had to be so awkward. “We met at the mall this afternoon, and I kinda asked him out to the movies tomorrow… Didn’t he tell you?”
“No, but I wish he had…” He was mad at being left out of the loop, but only for a moment. For now, he decided to give his friend the benefit of the doubt, telling himself that Shades would have told him tomorrow if he hadn’t had more pressing matters to contend with tonight.
“By the way,” Amy asked, trying to change the subject any way she could, “you wouldn’t happen to know what time it is, would you? I kinda forgot my watch.”
“It’s after one. That’s all I know.”
“Dammit! I’m gonna kill him when I get home! He’s not even my dog, and I’ve been out in this for three hours, shouting ‘Pookie!’ at the top of my lungs like a spaz…”
Her brother Roy was a bit of an afterthought, only in the third grade. Most of the time, she thought of him as something special, though he could also be annoying at times, as was a little brother’s prerogative. Now she remembered bumping into Shades up here a couple years ago, and Roy making smartass remarks about her and Shades— looking back, probably sending Shades on his way before a real conversation could ensue. Realized now that she had been so busy being embarrassed, she hadn’t even considered that he might have been on to something.
She saw the chagrined smirk on John’s face, for a moment getting the irrational feeling that he was somehow giggling about her memory.
“What’s so funny?”
What was so funny was remembering overhearing that name in a conversation, nudging Shades and asking, Who the hell would name their dog “Pookie”?
A blast of lightning straightened him out, and he answered, “Nothing.”
He looked around for a nervous moment, half afraid the hitchhiker might somehow reappear at any moment, then Amy asked him, “Really John, what is going on with Shades?”
“As I was saying, he kept running into these hitchhikers. I’ve even seen these dudes for myself! There was one…” John trailed off in frustration at the tall tale that was his account, when he hit on something he did have proof of. “They even broke into his house.”
“What?” Amy gave him a more serious look with that piece of news.
“Somethin’ real’ weird’s goin’ on tonight,” he told her, hoping that a visit to Shades’ burglarized home would persuade her. Then he remembered what got him out the door in the first place, and he added, spotting her portable radio, “And it’s not just the hitchhikers, dude. Try listening to your radio.”
“Okay…” Amy switched it on. She had originally brought it along on her search to check the weather reports, but it dawned on her that it had been at least an hour since the last time she bothered to tune in.
She was immediately bombarded by a barrage of the most unearthly sounds she had ever heard in her life emanating from the tiny speaker. Of all the possibilities she had expected, this one caught her completely by surprise, and spooked her in a way that not even the most surreal of news reports could have. Enough to believe that maybe John wasn’t yanking her chain about this whole hitchhiker business.
Out of sheer curiosity, she switched to FM, getting a signal that was part weather report, part otherworldly gibberish:
…Now for… —eather… —ight, we’re call— … —eavy thunder shower— …electrical storm…. —ple are advi— …stay in tonight— in… —ust in… calls from… who say… —eir radio recep— …is bad…
After hearing as much of this as she could take, Amy switched it off, asking, “What is going on?”
“I wish I knew, dude. I wish I knew.”