AM in the Evening (unreviewed)
It was a warm August night. The sun had just gone down, and the sky in my rear-view mirror still had traces of orange. The tall, dark clouds ahead and the relatively sparsely-covered sky behind me made it feel like I was driving into the darkness.
I had graduated from university in the spring of that year, but I hadn’t been able to find a decent job due to the coronavirus pandemic. The poor job market meant a lot of things for a lot of people, but for me it meant I was working the same shitty summer job I had had since the end of high school. I worked for a driveway sealing company. This meant I drove an old pedophile-style white van full of equipment and machinery to somebody’s house to swindle them by spraying asphalt on their driveway for a couple hours. (I’m convinced that the way we do sealing is purely cosmetic, and that it does pretty much nothing for the actual strength of the driveway.)
Anyway, my last job of the day had been a rich person’s house in the country with a driveway about ten times as large as an average suburban one, and it had taken me longer than expected to finish. Now I just needed to return the van to the lot, get in my own car, and get home.
I didn’t mind having to drive through the country. Where I live (southern Canada) the country consists of mostly farmland interspersed with forested area, so the scenery can be pretty nice. Also, I could listen to music on my phone over the van’s speakers using an FM transmitter. If you’ve never encountered one of these things, an FM transmitter is a small device you plug into your phone that basically creates a mini FM radio station of your music that’s just strong enough to be picked up by a car radio. You select an unused channel that no real radio station in the area is broadcasting over so that your music doesn’t get overpowered. I’m getting sidetracked at this point, but sometimes when driving in the city you’ll drive past someone with their own transmitter on the same frequency, and your music will suddenly get interrupted by random (usually weird) other music. This is the kind of stuff people had to put up with before AUX cords I guess.
The road switched from pavement to gravel again, so reached to turn up the volume on the radio. As I turned the knob, the music was suddenly replaced by loud static. I quickly checked my phone and realized the battery was dead. I had been listening to music all day on wireless earphones so I wasn’t really surprised. I tossed the phone down onto the passenger seat and fumbled with the radio. It was pretty much dark at this point, but there weren’t many cars on this wooded country road so I didn’t mind being a little bit distracted. I found a dad-rock station and listened to that for a while, but I always find that genre makes me feel strangely depressed and lonely for some reason.
On a whim, I switched the radio to AM and decided I’d try to find something a little more outlandish. I think AM stations are cheaper or something so you get weirder, more “niche” stations there. I remember when I was a kid I had found a weird conspiracy theory talk show about aliens, shadow people, and ghosts when browsing the AM dial. That’s the kind of crap I was in the mood for, so I figured I’d start at the highest frequency the van had (1710 kHz) and work my way down (to 530 kHz). I’m not sure if it’s like this everywhere, but in my area all of the popular stations seem to be below 1000 kHz.
At this point, the road was still gravel and was bordered by farmers’ fields with a bunch of large, half-dead trees in between. I could just about make out the tall, steel electrical line towers making their sombre march beyond the field on my left. My Google Maps navigation had died with the phone, but I was still going west. This meant I would eventually arrive at one of the major north-south roads that would take me back to the suburbs. Not being on the optimal route didn’t bother me since I was getting into the semi-creepy atmosphere that was building. As if on cue, it started to rain. In under a minute it was pouring.
I would listen to a radio frequency for about five seconds, then turn the dial down one notch. The highest frequencies were just static. As I got slightly lower, I passed by some stations that were clearer than static but not by much: some garbled classic rock and an evangelical preacher whose voice was rendered almost demonic by the chaotic static.
By now the dull LCD screen reported through the darkness that I had reached the upper channels in the 1500s. It had been several channels since the freaky preacher, and I was back to the pattern of *turn dial*, *listen to static for 5 seconds*, *turn dial again*, etc. I was about to turn the dial down again after a few seconds of static when I heard a faint voice through the audio blizzard. I turned up the volume, but it seemed to be getting louder and clearer on its own. The voice was buzzy the way power lines are buzzy, and at a pitch that made it hard to tell whether it was a male or female. It was reciting numbers. “Two. Eight. Seven. Seven…”
The numbers continued to get louder and clearer. All of a sudden, they were interrupted by something that sounded like a cross between highly discordant hard-style electronic music and what I’m pretty sure old dialup modems sounded like. This went on for about ten seconds before a few seconds of silence, after which the numbers began again, still lacking any noticeable pattern.
I was obviously pretty weirded out. This station wasn’t like anything I had heard on the radio before. What could these numbers mean? Why was it gradually getting louder and clearer? Maybe it had just started up, or maybe I was gradually getting closer to the source, or at least into areas of better reception.
As I kept driving, the station started to gradually become quieter and more overrun by static. I stopped the van to see if my location had anything to do with it. Sure enough, the numbers kept to a constant volume. I looked around through the windshield and side windows. The dark outline of the trees seemed about the same as it had been before, making it unlikely that it was due to moving in and out of an area of better reception (although I guess there are probably more factors involved in radio transmission quality than the number of trees in the way). It also didn’t seem likely that I had been moving toward the actual antenna before, and then passed it and was moving away from it. I couldn’t imagine I was close enough for the effect to be that pronounced. There had been a dark farmhouse driveway a couple hundred metres back, but no huge radio tower. I pulled to the side of the road and turned off the engine, determined to listen for awhile where the reception was decent. With the engine off, it was just the radio and the sound of the raindrops drumming on the van’s roof.
The numbers buzzed on, and I was waiting to hear if there would be anymore “music”. I wish my phone wasn’t dead so I could have made an audio recording of the station. I was still parked, but now the static was building again. Then, all of a sudden the static got really, almost painfully loud. Just as I reached to turn the volume down, BOOM! Lightning struck closer to me than it ever had in my life, and the thunder came at pretty much the same. “JESUS CHRIST!” I yelled aloud. I couldn’t see exactly because of the trees on the side of the road, but the strike must have been within 200 metres.
Shaken, I decided it was probably better not to stick around too long. I turned the engine back on and began to drive again. The static had gone down to how it was before, but now that I was moving again the numbers were getting quieter and less clear once again. The “music” came on for another ten seconds or so, making me jump when it did. It was somehow reassuring to have it confirmed that there was some kind of pattern or regularity to the station, although I was pretty sure that there was a difference between that “music” clip and the one before.
One more slight bend in the road and I could see a main road up ahead, some car lights zipping past in either direction. By now, the reception of the numbers had dropped to point where they were barely audible and almost entirely overrun by static. Then, just as I thought I was about to lose them, something came over the speaker, cutting off the faint numbers mid-word. As clear as a radio ever was, a normal human voice said, “Goodbye,” as though it was asaddressing me directly. Then, a few more barely audible numbers after which the frequency sank into pure static.
I turned onto the main road, sort of freaked out. Obviously the lightning strike had been scary, but that wasn’t what was on my mind. I knew it was silly, but I couldn’t shake the fear that the person on the radio knew someone was listening and was talking to me specifically.
I returned the van to the lot and drove home in my own car. Later that night I had a hard time sleeping as I wondered what was up with that station. Since that night, I’ve tried the same frequency in town several times and found only static. I’ve told some friends about the station and I’m thinking of taking them to the road to see if we can pick it up again. I’m planning on doing some research into AM radio to see if it’s possible there could have been some antenna transmitting near the area, or why else the location could play such a big deal in the level of reception. If any of that pans out to something interesting, I’ll post back here again.
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