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After I'd got back from the Army, I'd drifted around the Midwest a bit and ended up living just outside a small village in rural north central Ohio. This was back in the late '70s, early '80s. About the only place I could afford in those days was an old trailer in a dingy little park off a two-lane county road. I was delivering pizzas for a little shop in the village, and being out in the middle of nowhere the business dried up around 10:00 or so every night.
These were in the days before the internet or even TV as you young ones know it now. Because of a freak of geography or propagation, my area could barely get the big stations out of Columbus, so the only TV we had in my corner of the county was a small independent low-power station run by a local family out of their barn. They'd inherited the transmitter and studio equipment of one of the Columbus stations back in the '50s when they'd converted to color; it was really antiquated stuff. They only broadcast in black and white. Aside from 15 minutes of local news every evening, a farm report on Saturday morning, and an evangelical Christian sermon on Sunday, the programming was nothing more than scratchy 16mm prints of old Monogram serials, government training films, public domain cartoons, and whatever other random junk they could find. I gave the family credit; it wasn't Hollywood, but they did the best they could for the community with what little they had.
This was what constituted after-work entertainment in my neck of the woods. After I'd get home from my shift my routine was to crack open a beer, settle in on the sofa, and drink myself into a stupor while Doc Garrett stared down the Black Vaquero on Main Street in Tombstone for the twentieth time, or whatever. The station shut down at midnight every night--it was peculiar, in the middle of a movie it would just cut abruptly to a photo of the transmitter, a brief announcement of the call sign, technical details, the National Anthem played from a scratchy vinyl record, and then to the familiar Indian Head test pattern accompanied by a 1 kHz test tone. I pictured in my head at that moment the lone studio engineer flipping the switch to the ancient test pattern generator, yawning lightly as he turned the light out in the studio, putting on his hat and coat, and heading out into the night for his 30 minute drive home. The transmitter tower stood guard over the countryside, solemnly blinking red warning lights up its length, and beaming out this unchanging signal from another era. Now it was truly nighttime; the county was asleep.
By this time I'd already be at least half out of it, swirling lazily in alcoholic eddies, with the steady reassuring tone in my ears and the unchanging luminosity from the picture tube illuminating my eyelids from one side. Maybe the furnace in the back would cough to life, blowing a gentle warm breeze across me. It was comfortable, womb-like. Another anonymous day in an anonymous life, passed into anonymous history.
One anonymous night--
Something caught my eye. Even when they're closed and you've faded off into neverland, you somehow remain acutely aware of your surroundings, and when they've changed however slightly. I dragged one eye open.
The test tone was still there flowing from the TV speaker, but the familiar circles and crosshatches of the test pattern were gone. It was dark. The only thing visible was a horrible, grinning white face floating, washed out bright white, in a field of black, on the right side of the screen.
I started out of my position on the sofa, shaking my head out. By the time I looked again, the pattern had scattered itself back onto the screen. It took a couple of minutes of heavy breathing to calm myself back down. Weird dream. I drifted off again, uneasily.
The next day passed much like the day before, and the next; I mentioned my vision to one of my work buddies and we laughed it off, he suggested I switch brands of beer. By the end of the week I'd nearly forgotten about it.
Friday night. Beer in hand, a couple of cold slices of pepperoni and mushroom from an order that no one was home to take and pay for. The address was right, but the house was dark and empty. My boss and my friend divvied it up and I took my share home for dinner. The station signed off in the middle of an instructional film for a 1940s Burroughs adding machine; a smartly dressed career gal with lacquered hair and a lipstick smile was pressing buttons. Oh say, can you see by the dawn's early light…? 1000 hz filled the air. The county slept.
Sudden darkness from the other side of my eyelids wrapped cold fingers around my heart. I had to resist the urge to open my eyes suddenly. I managed to creep them open slightly, ever so carefully--
On the right half of the screen, a bright white blob twisted around, leaving a smeared trail. I could see now that the grinning, rigid face was one of those comedy masks that you usually see paired with a frowning one when referring to the theatre. It was attached to a man's torso, tense and glistening, every muscle taut, bound with some kind of thin cord. The stiffness of his struggling suggested a chair.
The picture was murky, indistinct. I'd seen video like this once, when I'd drifted through Columbus years before and attended an experimental theatre exhibition by some student radicals at OSU. They were using one of the newfangled portable videotape machines that were all the rage then; one of those Japanese companies made them, Sony I think it was. Movies for the masses. The technology was primitive; the images looked like ghosts.
This was no dream. I looked around the room, picked up my empty beer can. I was awake, no question about it. The man in the mask was still there on the screen.
Except now there was another person beside him, occupying the left half. I only saw a thick arm and a torso clad in what looked like a short sleeved work shirt. The head was off screen.
The arm raised and crossed the mask. A quivering, straining motion bringing the muscles to the surface, and a brief narrow flash of reflected light that lingered on the screen at the man's neck. The rigid smile went horribly sideways, then up and around at an impossible angle; I saw for only a moment an ear framed by hair and sideburns. Something dark and copious poured down the bound man's shoulders and chest below where the head had been.
The picture zigzagged with static, and the test pattern returned. The old war chief peered stoically to the right half of the screen, unperturbed.
All of this took place within five seconds or so.
It was about a quarter to three in the morning.
Once I'd gotten my hands to work again, I piled my clothes back on and set out towards the pay phone at the entrance to my trailer park, marked by a solitary blue-white mercury lamp. The soft crunch of my boots in the snow evaporated in the air; the still winter dark seemed full of silent eyes.
I spun the dial around to zero; relays clicked in the earpiece. A bored, slightly annoyed sounding woman answered, and after putting up with a few seconds of my gibbering connected me to an equally bored police dispatcher in a town thirteen miles away.
There was no physical crime to investigate. I was probably just drunk and had a bad dream. There was nothing to warrant a police officer to come and inspect anything at that time. He was nice enough to take a statement over the phone, while I stood there freezing, trying to piece together what I'd seen.
The next day, a cop did stop by the farm where the family operated their station. They were baffled; the studio was locked and unattended overnight after the studio manager had switched over to the test pattern and gone home. They had no videotape equipment and didn't bother monitoring what went out over the air at night. No one else in the area that they could find was awake at night with the TV on, and hardly anyone had VCRs in those days. As far as I know, the only witnesses were me and whoever had intruded into the signal.
I left the TV off at night after that, but unaccustomed to the silence it was even more oppressive. I managed to get used to it eventually.
There is a postscript. About a month afterwards, I came home from my shift at about 10:30. The snow had melted, but it was still cold, and the ground was frozen. There was a pizza box on my doorstep. I picked it up. It was far too light. It was cold. Something stiff rattled inside. I opened it up in the dim glow from my porch light; what was inside was a blood-smeared comedy mask.
None of my neighbors had seen anyone in the area; they'd gone to bed early, as people in the country usually do. The police told me it was probably some bored kid playing a sick prank. There wasn't much to do around there in those days.