Midnight, Midwinter: Who's There?

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Midnight, at zero degrees, the full moon hung in a clear sky above our snow-covered mountain. The phone rang. I rolled out of bed, thundered down the stairs, grabbed the jangling instrument, and the woman on night shift at the security company in town, 15 miles down the mountain, said, "The alarm at the intake house went off."

I couldn't think of anything to say. She asked me for my security number, to be sure she was talking to me and not to someone who had tied me up, and I told her what it was.

Two hundred fifty feet up the hill from the water intake house, inside the caretaker's house, with the sound of the waterfall behind the house drowning out other sounds, I couldn't hear the alarm. "Is it still going?" I said.

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"It shut itself off."

"So that means whatever set it off isn't there anymore?"

"Or has stopped moving."

"Oh, good. Standing very still and waiting. Those things can go off when no one's there, can't they?"

"They aren't supposed to, but it does happen sometimes."

The alarm was set off by a sensor that detected motion. Warm motion, which was good, because I didn't want to meet anything coldblooded in midwinter several miles from our nearest neighbor, and me with no weapons and committed to a nonviolent existence. I watch no television and very few movies, so my imagination about what I might meet down there was limited to my own inventions, which were more than adequate.

The woman on the other end of the telephone line said, "I can send the sheriff up."

It was a long trip for a sheriff, who might be needed somewhere else, and I was almost sure nothing was down there that shouldn't be there. There was nothing at the intake house to steal but water, and the water could be reached without breaking into the locked building.

"I'll go down there," I said, "but it's going to take me a few minutes to get ready." I put on my insulated coveralls and boots. I phoned the woman back and said, "I'm on my way, but I plan to take my time. Give me 20 minutes to scout it out."

"OK. If you don't call me 20 minutes from now, I'll send the sheriff up."

It's good to have backup troops. Twenty minutes until she called the sheriff, and then 20 minutes for the sheriff to get up the road. Meanwhile, the desperadoes would patiently wait.

I took my dog with me. Not exactly an attack dog, he would probably welcome new friends. At least he would bark to alert me if something was out of the ordinary, and he might frighten breakers-in by leaping on them to welcome them. He was somebody to talk to, very quietly, as we walked down the steep hill.

The metal-sided building stood silent in bright moonlight, with snow on the roof and all around. No tracks but mine and the dog's marked the snow. Water pooled deep on the far side of the building. No one could enter from that side without swimming. The doors were still locked. All the windows were intact, locked from inside.

My worst moment came when I unlocked the door and stepped into the dark interior. Attempts to discipline my imagination nearly failed. All manner of sinister activity seemed to writhe around me until I flipped the light switch, then stepped over and punched in a series of numbers to shut off the sensor so I wouldn't trigger the alarm.

There wasn't anyone there. I looked in each room, and there still wasn't anyone there. I picked up the phone and called the security company, with several minutes to spare.

It had been an interesting experience. I was wide awake, so my dog and I walked the mountainside, up to Tumalo Falls and up the creek above the waterfall, then back down to the house. I sat down at my desk and wrote until daylight, then went to bed and slept until late morning.

No one ever did know why the alarm went off. Theories were offered in several forms of technical jargon, all of which translated to: "Machinery is even more fallible than humans are."

The alarm went off three more times that winter, every time after midnight, but not always on a moonlit night. I never got over some fear as I approached the dark building, silent except for the sound of strenuously running water, which could cover the sounds of stealthy motion. I conquered the moment of wild imagination as I stepped inside and reached for the light switch.

Fear and imagination helped ensure that I approached the building carefully, because no matter how many times the alarm cried "wolf" without cause, it could someday mean there was danger.

And always, having been keyed up to an extreme degree, when I determined that all was safe, I was quite awake and fired with new energy and enthusiasm, ready to explore the nighttime mountain and then settle to writing from new depths of appreciation for life and safety.

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