The Thing in the Road
The trucker came upon it shortly before dawn, thirteen miles out of Ayres City, on a stretch of road that goes narrow and tricky, with state forest crowding close on both sides, and he thought he’d hit a deer. He hiked back with a flashlight.
But it wasn't a deer. “Nor like to be anything else I've seen,” he told the ranger who showed up forty minutes later in response to the trucker's call on the CB. Between them they got the thing into the back of the ranger's pickup truck.
That was about 6:30 a.m.
The thing sat around the ranger’s yard waiting for the state Fish and Game people to show up.
Before long, kids—who were the first to gather—had poked in one of the eyes with a stick. Later, someone who claimed to have been present would say that originally there had been three eyes and that the kids had poked out two of them; most people, however, dispute this. The remaining eye was a large, round, milky blue orb, though whether this peculiar color was caused by death or nature wasn't clear.
By midmorning a fair-sized crowd was on hand to have a look at the thing, seventy-five to a hundred people at a time, by one estimate. With the September wind lifting the vomit smell off the fresh-cut cordwood in the side yard, it was hard to tell if the thing had any smell of its own, but up close it seemed to give off a quiet musk, less tart than a bear's. “Sweetish,” some said.
“Nasty,” said others.
Folks stood around in Pendletons and leather-top boots, talking the whole time, their voices quick and exalted and smoky in the chill air.
Shortly after 3 p.m. the men from the state finally arrived in a motor pool van. They were an unlikely pair, one too young to be that overweight. He had a small dark mustache and dimpled hands. The other, twice his age, with white papery hair and rimless glasses, appeared to be in charge. The young one looked at the thing in the yard and frowned. He had sweated through his khaki shirt just sitting and was intent on not exerting himself. The older one was full of fussy curiosity. He squatted near the thing a long time, the flesh on his neck pinched into folds by his collar and tie and tweed jacket, never mind the heat. He took notes.
“Are you the fellow who found this?” he asked someone, who said no, and pointed to the trucker.
The younger, pudgy one was questioning people about where he could get some iced coffee. He was directed to the Do-C-Donut shop.
In Ayres City the thing was the only topic people talked about. All day, at the bank and at the superette and at Do-C-Donut, they talked. A good quarter to a third of them had run out to the ranger's to see for themselves.
“Some warm, huh?” the ranger lamented once the men from the state had looked the thing over.
“Yeah, late for September.”
“So, what do you think it is?”
Jittery with coffee, the young man from the state mopped his brow. He for one hadn't ever seen anything like that before. But there would be no decision on the identity made here, the older man established. Nossir. There would need to be lab tests, an autopsy and biopsies, comparative analyses, tissue cultures: and those just for starters. Nossir, not today. Not by a long sight.
The trucker had stayed all day, patiently waiting to give his testimony or whatever. He felt it was his duty. After he'd talked with the men from the state, he shooed kids away from his Peterbilt and drove his load of folding armchairs on ahead to their destination.
A humorous note (though not for the fellow in question) —a salesman named Ed Jubinville, from out of state, heard about it on a local AM radio talk show as he was passing on the interstate. He detoured into Ayres City, locked up his car and went to have a look. In the heat, all of his aerosol samples went up like cherry bombs, blew the windows right out of his car.
On Sunday, in a sermon, one of the ministers referred to the thing as the “Beast.” Her purpose, she explained later, had been exegetical, not zoological, but the name stuck.
A teacher in the town middle school introduced the phrase "missing link” into a fifth grade science lesson. A parent complained to the principal and wrote a letter to the newspaper, the Ayres City Advocate, railing against the school for trying to force evolution into the curriculum when it was just an unproven theory, not the truth of God.
The thing found on the wooded stretch of road thirteen miles out of Ayres City was brought to a lab at the state university, three hundred and forty miles away, and stored in a walk-in freezer, along with specimens of a gray fox and two skunks suspected of rabies, a crow that was being tested for West Nile virus, and a two-headed goat. Before the tests could be concluded, the specimen vanished.
“Chicanery in Alien Creature Case” a headline declared the next day.
The thinking was that competing scientists, eager to make names for themselves, had taken it. An anonymous phone call to a radio station's listener line said a cult of Satan worshippers had snatched it for use in rites.
A national tabloid was said to have debated running the story as its lead before going instead with “Hitler Alive in Miami Beach Nursing Home.” The Ayres City Advocate carried the story on the front page for a while.
Then, other cares—municipal budget cuts, the new state-mandated standardized tests in schools, a law allowing developers to skirt some zoning restrictions, and the like—eclipsed the creature in editors’ and readers’ minds.
All that was some time ago. Lately another story about the disappearance has been circulating, though it is unconfirmed. According to this account, a state lab assistant responsible for carting vivisected animal carcasses to a crematorium inadvertently took the thing and it was incinerated.
The older scientist from the state Fish and Game Department, retired now, occasionally speaks of organizing an expedition into the forest north of Ayres City, but so far nothing has come of it. The City Council have talked of opening a small museum dedicated to the thing (or the Ayres City Beast or the Missing Link; there's been debate over the name) as a way of drawing tourist revenues to the once-great city. A public meeting to discuss this has been scheduled for some time next month.
A tragic note: The trucker who found the thing on the road jack-knifed his rig on a narrow stretch of Route 101 out west somewhere a few months after his find and was burned to death. Someone said he may have been high on amphetamines and liquor, leading some others to wonder if he was high early that morning outside Ayres City, too, and perhaps had invented the whole thing.
Townspeople sometimes meet over coffee at the Do-C-Donut and bring up what they remember of the day. Mostly, though, folks have moved on. The woods around there are big and dark, and life is full of pressing matters. Last Wednesday's snowstorm is the hot topic now.