3:00 a.m. Night shift of road construction, and Ray was point man. A giant white bulb atop a black pole bathed him in false daylight. In the distance, two headlights approached.
“Got someone coming,” Ray murmured into his walkie.
“Keep ’em,” his counterpart three miles away warbled back. “Got two going your way.”
Ray flipped his sign as he hooked his walkie. The headlights slowed, and their light shone upon the STOP held in Ray’s hand. The door opened and the driver stepped out.
“Care for a drink?” the driver asked. He was a black blob hidden between headlights and Ray’s floodlight. In one hand he held a bottle. In the other, a gun.
“Don’t touch that,” he said as Ray’s hand shifted toward his walkie. “None of that. Just a drink, and a chat.”
Ray lowered his hand and nodded.
“Sure thing,” he said. “Never turned down a drink, even when on the job.”
“A smart man,” the stranger said. “A good man. Aren’t you?”
He stepped into the light.
His jeans were torn, his shirt wrinkled and stained with sweat. His hair was wild and brown, his skin shriveled from untold hours in the sun. Several days worth of stubble covered his face. He offered the bottle.
“Name’s Brad,” the stranger said.
“Evening, Brad,” Ray said. “Or morning. Never sure at this time.”
Brad laughed, but the smile never reached his eyes. He stretched out his arm. Slowly, Ray took the bottle from him and drank. It was absurdly strong. He wondered how the headlights hadn’t weaved like two fireflies on approach.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Brad said as Ray kept the bottle. His eyes rarely met the other’s as they talked, instead sweeping left and right, scanning the nearby trees. “But you don’t seem to scare easily. Course you don’t! Sitting here in the middle of nowhere, not a soul around. How can you not get scared out here, uh…?”
“It’s Ray. And I don’t get scared. Nothing out there in those woods but deer and coyotes.”
“Coyotes,” Brad said, his whole body heaving with laughs that frightened Ray more than the gun. “What if a coyote comes at you?”
“I’ll kick it away.”
“What if it’s too big?” Brad asked, a drunken smile stretching across his face. “What if it’d eat your whole leg in one bite?”
“No coyote out there that big,” Ray said, taking another sip. “We both know that.”
Another dry, heaving laugh.
“Not coyotes, no,” Brad said, glancing back at the long stretch of road behind. Ray thought about making a lunge for the gun, but Brad turned back. His smile was gone. He was afraid, horribly afraid, and Ray felt that fear rolling off in waves.
“I saw something,” he said. “Two days ago. Ever seen something you wished you could unsee? Not just blot from your eyes, but truly make it never been?”
“Can’t say I have,” Ray said. “What’s wrong, Brad? Catch your wife cheating?”
“My wife? Hah!” He raved like a lunatic. “My God, man, I wish. I wish. I’ve been driving, what, fifty hours? I haven’t stopped, just been going in beer bottles and daydreaming about food. But I seen you, out here alone, and I got to tell someone. I’ll be a stranger to you soon, a name attached to a story, and that’s fine with me.”
Two cars approached from the west. Brad saw and stepped back into the dark. Ray ignored the passing cars as one with years spent working the roads could. Though they were gone, Brad stayed in the darkness.
“What I’ve seen,” the man said, his voice deep and shaking. “It’s clung to me, like a stink. No matter how far I drive, it follows. And they can smell it. Taste it. Track it. God help me, I don’t want to die.”
Ray didn’t know what to say. He offered back the bottle, but Brad shook his head.
“All I did was look. Guess sometimes that is all it takes. Saw it out of the corner of my eye, and I looked, and now I’m dead. But at least you know. Someone knows. Keep the bottle.”
He got back into the car, which still idled before the closed lane. Feeling outside his own body, Ray flipped the sign around and motioned Brad onward. Brad never looked at him as he drove past. The taillights faded away, deeper, deeper, until they were among the trucks and steamrollers and crowds of men in their orange vests and white helmets. Ray was still staring, thinking of warning some of the guys on the walkie, when he saw the creature land.
It latched onto a tree as the ground cracked and shifted beneath its weight. Its legs were bent like a frog, its forearms, massive trunks of muscle. The gray fur that covered its body darkened to a swampy green. Two serpentine eyes shone blue in the darkness.
All this Ray saw from the corner of his eye. With every shred of willpower he focused on the fading taillights of Brad’s car. He didn’t move, didn’t twitch, didn’t breathe. He heard a deep sniffing sound, followed by an exhale that sounded like a whale coming up from the deep.
The frog-legs kicked, and all the muscles throughout the creature tightened in perfect unison. Without a sound it jumped into the air, far above the trees, its hulk briefly blotting out the stars above the construction crew. Ray collapsed to his knees, and he felt his bladder let go. The bottle rolled from his limp fingers.
“Keep driving, for the love of God,” he whispered to the far distant taillights as they exited the other side of the construction.
David Dalglish writes in Missouri.