Up here at night, the eyes can start to see things the mind don’t believe. If your smart you just ignore the eyes and keep right on. Since the cutbacks we do a lot more of the ghost shifts, as we call em, alone. Its quiet most nights thats true enough, especially in the small hours. The Appalachian trail covers over 2,000 miles and crosses 14 states, and one of those is North Carolina. If your ever heading that way and you don’t slow up you might pass through Hot springs without even noticing. The sign either end says we welcome careful drivers, and the tourist books say its a rugged place for those seeking charm and adventure. My patrol takes me 20 miles either side around I-46. I have an eye on the quite roads as far North as Stillwater and South to the edge of Buies creek. The official population is 563 but I can’t think of that many folks round here. Though from what I hear Truly Wilson might be doing her best to get us up to 565 by the summer.
What I’m gonna tell you I never told no one, there just never seemed no sensible reason to do so. Besides there’s no one I could tell, not no one who wouldn’t ball up double laughing.
Molly runs a small grocer shop in town an it doubles as a bar in the evenings, she has a take out alcohol licence. Last time I mentioned her licensing restrictions all she said was “But some folks just don’t seem keen on takin em away.” So in the main theres no trouble and one or two of the local boys get to drinking there, particular on a Friday. As far as the license goes we all have an understanding, no ruckus or brawlin and we all stay friends. I take a cruise by most evenings and chew some shit with the Tollen brothers or Rick the Kick. So called on account he took one clean on the side of his head from a steer as a kid and he was never the same since. He preferred that name to Thick Rick as used by some folks. Tommy Crimson was still bitchin about his stolen Heffer. We all knew that thing was probably lying at the bottom of Grafton creek after getting through his fence. But Tommy keeps on about goddam cattle hustlers, the more he drinks the more hustlers there are. I don’t want upset the fella so I tell him I’ll take a ride by his place. So he carries on his illegal drinking while an officer of the law checks his place for rustlers, thats Hot Springs, North Carolina in a nutshell. Thats why I never do pass by his place, but this particular night I actually did. It was late October, freezing cold and the sky was black as pitch. Some nights out here the moonlight can be clear as day but not this night. No Sir, I swear it was dark as hell in a sewer and you can roger that. I headed out of town on the 46, crossed the bridge at toll point and finally swung left up the high lane. As I took the bend just before Tommys place I thought I saw a light. It was so fast I hardly knew for sure, as if maybe a motorcycle or car had turned up Tommys lane. I pulled the patrol car over and switched off the lights, winding the window down to listen. If any vehicle had gone up Tommys lane it would follow the single track up the hill, I might hear or even see some light through the trees to my left. All I heard was the crack of the patrol car engine cooling but holy shit if I didn’t see a light. There it was heading up Tommys lane 100 ft above my head, moving real slow. It flickered between the branches and occasionally the beam shot up and cut through the low cloud above. I switched on the ignition to check the time, it was getting on for midnight. I felt exposed in the dashboard light and quickly switched it off.
It was right then that my skin turned to ice and I swear my hair stood up. In the silence a voice screamed out.
“47 are you awake over?” My tired old heart was pounding like a bull in a beauty salon as I snatched the radio off the dashboard.
“Sharlene, for christ sake whats the 10 for ‘You scared the shit outa me?”
I could hear her cackling in my head without her even having the button down.
“I think its 10-10 till I do it again.” She squawked and there was an intake of breath at the end of her words and I just knew.
“Sharlene, are you smokin in there? I told you.”
“Quit it Alan no I ain’t.” She said angrily.
She was too, I knew it. I could see her sitting there, puffing away with her big tits hanging out over the window ledge. I have told her so many times and caught her on more than one occasion. She made the sheriffs office look like a goddam whore house. There was no point getting into it right now.
“What can I do for you Sharlene?” I sighed.
I was ducked down across the passenger seat now looking up the hill towards Tommys place. The light was still moving up the hill and had reached the dip at the top before finally disappearing on the other side.
“The 10-37 you attended earlier was a false alarm. The owners are home and it was the cat set the alarm off.”
“Roger, Sharlene thanks for the update.”
I was gonna sign off when I stopped. Now if you know me, then you know thats how uneasy I felt, if you get me. That light had disappeared over the hill towards Tommys place. I had seen Tommy down at Mollys not half an hour ago an since he lost Marge in 94 there was no one up there for sure.
I squeezed the radio handset once more. “Hey Sharlene.”
“I am over at the Tommy Crimson place, I thought I saw somethin up there, probably nothin. Backpackers maybe lost.”
“K.” she droned
“Yeh I’m gonna take a ride over the hill, just to be sure.”
“Dodgy Lodger Alan.” she said.
I was about to complain, but click and she was gone and the darkness fell on me again like a blanket. My heart was beating a little faster now and my palms felt sweaty. I took out my revolver and checked it was loaded and the safety was on, returning it to my holster. I turned the key and slowly pulled out. As I turned up the single track road up to Tommys I put full beam on and hit the blues and twos. The cruiser bounced slowly up the unkept track as I watched the trees reflect the rotating neon lights. It was almost certainly a motorcycle and it had nowhere to go. Tommy kept his gate padlocked and so it must be somewhere right over the hill.
I crawled slowly up to the hairpin right where the road doubled back and could see the ridge up ahead. No sign of anyone either side. The surrounding trees were too thick to handle a motorcycle, even just to hide it off the road. As I crested the hill the hairs on my arms bristled when I saw what I thought was a child standing on the track. As I drew closer I relaxed a little seeing it was the bike, parked up and slightly listing to one side on its stand.
Pulling up behind the machine I unclipped my pistol and reached under the seat for the torch. It was pitch dark outside save for my lights and the full beam headlights. The beam shone like a cave, cutting through the blackness. I reached for the car door and it creaked as I opened it to step out into the darkness.
“Hello.” I shouted. “Anyone here?”
There was a crack of a branch breaking to my right as a buck panicked and bounded deep into the woods.
I was hoping for someone lost, backpackers or suchlike but there wasn’t a sign of anyone. It was days later when I remembered seeing the time and date on the dashboard before I got out of the car. Sometimes I wander if my mind just added that bit in after the trauma.
’12:00 Midnight 31st October 1998’
In the years since, I know that standing there at midnight on Halloween would never have meant a thing to me.
If it weren’t for what happened next.