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Title: The Thing in the Truck

Author: Stephen Marlowe

Release date: June 23, 2021 [eBook #65676]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


The Thing In The Truck

By Darius John Granger

There's nothing peculiar about a load of
potatoes going to market—but we knew something
was wrong when the spuds suddenly came to life!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
December 1956
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

It started with a load of potatoes.

Joe Loftus and I were driving the big semi-trailer back from Montauk that night after delivering a load of fishing gear to one of the big resorts out there and wondering if we'd be able to pick up a truckload of anything on the way back to increase the take when Joe spotted this sign.

It was one of those standard hand-painted Return Load signs, so we pulled in and I climbed down from the cab while Joe remained behind the wheel, ready to roll if they had nothing for us.

The sun was going down in a bank of heavy black clouds. I figured it might rain before the trip was over. I went over to the door of the farm house and knocked. Pretty soon I heard footsteps inside and a man chewing a mouthful of his supper opened the door for me. He needed a shave and he had tired, defeated eyes.

"What's the load, friend," I said. "I saw the sign."

"Potatoes." He named a price.

"Well," I said in surprise. "That's cheap."

"Tell you the truth, bub. They got blasted."

"Blasted? What do you mean?"

"Well, now, it's hard to say. Something fell and hit the storage barn."


"Fell, bub. A bitty explosion. But nothing much. Maybe seventy percent of the load is good. The bad ones will be in sacks in the middle. Won't even know it. What do you say?"

That season potatoes were going good in the wholesale markets around the city. I figured Joe Loftus and I could clear a neat profit even if thirty percent of the load was waste. So I agreed to the deal and for the next hour or so used the muscles of my back along with Joe, the farmer, and the farmer's two grown boys to load the sacks of potatoes into the empty van of our big semi-trailer. When he had finished I paid off the farmer and his wife gave us each a cup of coffee. Then Joe and I climbed into the cab and we rolled.

"Hear something?" Joe asked about half an hour later.

It was dark by then and traffic on the Montauk Highway was light. "Potato sacks shifting around," I said. "We didn't pack 'em too good, I guess."

The noise came again. Maybe it didn't really sound like sacks shifting around in the van. I don't know. I was in a hurry to get home. It had been a long day.

I was driving. Joe squirmed around and peered through the rear window of the cab but could see nothing. "Stop the truck," he said.

"What for?"

"'Cause I don't like that noise. Something's going on back there."

"Sure," I said, grinning, "our farmer's a shrewdie. His boys are back there and they're eating up all the potatoes."

"Very funny. Just stop the damn truck."

I turned my head and looked at Joe's face. He was scared. Maybe he had one of those premonitions you read about. I shrugged and found a widened stretch of road shoulder and pulled the big semi up. Joe hopped out of the cab and went around back. After a while I heard the rear doors swing open. Then they closed again and Joe came back. I hadn't heard him stomping around inside the van or anything.

"Sacks shifting around like I said?" I asked.

Joe's face was white in the dash light. He shook his head.

"Harry," he said. That's my name. Harry. "Harry, we was tricked."

"What do you mean, tricked?" I was getting a little annoyed with Joe. He stood half in and half out of the cab. I wanted to get moving.

"Ain't no potatoes," Joe said.

"No potatoes? What the hell are you talking about? We loaded those spuds ourselves."

"Ain't no potatoes," Joe repeated in a funny voice. "Harry, listen. Let's just leave the load and truck and everything and get the hell out of here."

I looked at him and snorted, then swung out of the cab on my side and went around back. I undid the chain and the door-bar and pulled the tongue down so I could open the rear doors. Then I swung up into the van in the darkness.

There was a smell in there. Not a potato smell. To this day I still can't say what it was. But it was a funny smell and it made the short hairs on the back of my neck feel all cold and prickly-like.

I lit a match and swore. Joe was right. There just weren't any potatoes, I don't care who loaded them.

But there was something back there.

Call it jelly, if you want. I saw it and I can't do better. Say, two or three tons of quivering jelly filling up the center of the floor of the van.

Joe called: "Well?"

I was carrying a lighted match into the van with me. It burned my fingers. I lit another one and slowly approached the jelly. It didn't seem to have any color, so it took on the orange glowing color of the flaming match. It pulsed. I went near it, then stopped. There were still a few potatoes on the floor of the van, after all. I stood by while the jelly rolled sluggishly toward them. The potatoes were enveloped. In a minute there weren't any potatoes.

Then the jelly-thing stopped quivering. I came close and touched it gingerly with one finger. It burned. I withdrew my hand.

"Harry?" Joe called.

Just then I heard the sound of glass breaking. A section of the jelly had blubbered over against the van's small front window, smashing it. I didn't think a soft jelly would have the strength.

"Harry!" Joe shouted. It was like a shout of animal fear. I heard the sound of more glass breaking. The rear window of the cab, I thought. I hopped over the rear tongue of the van and sped around to the cab.

Joe was sitting there, smoking a cigarette.

"What's the matter?" I asked him. "What happened?"

"Nothing's the matter," he said. "You want to drive or want me to drive?"

"You just now yelled."

"Me? You sure I yelled, Harry?"

A car sped by, following its headlight beams. "Window's broke," I said.

"Is it?" Joe Loftus asked me in mild surprise. "Is it now? That's what you get for trying to shift those potatoes around in the middle of the trip."

"Potatoes!" I yelled.

"Hell, yeah. Potatoes. Hey, what's the matter with you, anyhow?"

"Potatoes," I said. "All right, so go take a look."

Joe scowled but went. In a little while I heard the tongue and doors slamming and the chain being dragged across. Joe came back and gave me a long funny look. "Yeah, potatoes," he said.

I didn't push it. We'd been on the road a long time today. Sometimes the road can get to you like that. Maybe you read something about highway hypnotism. If you're driving too long on a good road like the Montauk Highway or one of the throughways, after a while you get to see things which aren't there or don't see things which are there. It can be plenty trouble but it wasn't going to hurt me tonight if I imagined a return load of Long Island potatoes was a big glob of jelly.

I scratched my head. "Highway's got you, huh?" Joe said. He knew the symptoms. "Tell you what, Harry? Why don't you sleep it off? I feel pretty good. I can take her in."

I thanked Joe and climbed up on the slab bunk in the rear of the cab. The window was broken back there, all right. You couldn't argue about that. But it was too dark to see into the van, except that I could see the van window was likewise shattered. I drifted off sleepily, not thinking about it much. Joe was a good driver, one of the best. Maybe when I opened my eyes we'd be in the city, heading for one of the big wholesale produce markets....

It was raining when I awoke. Thunder rolled and rumbled and then split like a pine board overhead. Lightning was stabbing at the sky.

"Joe?" I said, sleepily.

He grunted a wordless answer.

"We near the city yet?"

"You only slept maybe half an hour, chum. Why don't you catch another forty?"

I said: "That's real white of you, pal."

Joe grunted again.

The truck lurched around a turn. The rain beat down. I opened my eyes and looked down past Joe's head. Just then a flash of lightning lit up the night. I caught a glimpse of a narrow two-lane asphalt road and stunted scrub pine growing in what looked like sandy ground.

"Hey!" I shouted. "This isn't the Montauk Highway. This isn't the way back. What's going on?"

"Just get some sleep, will you?" Joe said. "Detour back there."

"Wasn't any detour when we came out."

"Well, there's a detour now."

I was wide awake. I didn't like the way Joe sounded. "Listen," I said. "The road's fine. There wasn't anything wrong with the road. So why the detour?"

"Flash flood, I guess."

"It's raining. But it hasn't been raining that long and it isn't raining that hard."

"So I'm not the highway commission," Joe said. "Now get some sleep, will you?"

It was this on top of what I'd thought had happened to the potatoes. Something was up, I didn't know what. Funny how sometimes a thing like that doesn't get to you at first. What had the farmer said? Something fell on his load of potatoes. Fell? I thought now. From where? And hadn't he said something about a little explosion? Ten hours on the road, I thought. Ten hours on the road or we'd have asked him sure.

"Hey, Joe," I called down from the bunk. "When do we cut back West?"

"Soon as there's a road."

But soon a crossroad flashed by, dimly seen by the glow of distant lightning. Joe's face was set. He didn't look at me.

"Joe," I said. "Stop the truck."

"What's the matter now?"

"I want to check the potatoes," I said. "You know the lock bar isn't what it should be. Don't want to lose the load, do you?"

"I thought you said it wasn't a load of potatoes?"

"Highway hypnotism," I said. "I'll take your word for it. Hell, I loaded them, didn't I?"

"You loaded them," Joe said, slowing the truck. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I'd look inside the van, sure. If it had been highway hypnotism, I'd know it now. Because the illusion wouldn't last. They never do. But after that? After that I hadn't figured yet. Joe was acting funny. Real funny.

The truck stopped. I went around back in the hard, driving rain. It was an unfamiliar road, but the kind you find all up and down the East Coast near the ocean, with scrubby growths of pine on either side in sandy soil and no sign of civilization except the marching files of telephone poles. I pulled out the lock bar and swung down the tongue and opened the back doors.

Just then the truck growled to life. The rear tires spun and whined and threw pebbles at me. The truck lurched forward. I lunged after it, grabbing the swinging lock-chain and pulling myself up on the tongue. My right foot scraped along the ground and for a minute I thought I was going to lose my hold and fall off. But slowly I pulled myself up while the rain beat down on me. I tried to keep it quiet. As far as I knew, Joe thought he left me back there. That crazy Joe, I told myself, climbing into the van. The rear doors swung in the wind, banging against the frame. Joe must have known I had opened them. He didn't seem to care. He was like a crazy man up there. We didn't work for any trucking company. This truck was ours. With what we made on it we hoped to buy another before long and start a fleet. Joe and Harry, trucking. But Joe was up there in the cab, acting like a crazy man, and I was back here in the van—with what?

I listened. Nothing but the sound of the motor and the rain outside. I sniffed. That odd smell was gone. I fumbled for my matches and scratched one against the flint. It made a faint sodden sound and I thought I wasn't going to have any luck. But just then the match spluttered and flared and caught.

There were no potatoes. There wasn't any glob of jelly.

"Come on in away from the rain. Come over to me, Harry, honey," she said.

I dropped the match and it went out. It was a woman. There was a lovely blonde-haired woman in the van there. She had been dressed up like for a party, at least in the little I saw of her I thought that was the way she was dressed. And she was absolutely dry, as if she hadn't somehow come in out of the rain or anything.

"Come on, Harry," she called in a seductive voice. "I'm waiting, Harry."

I walked stiffly into the van. Well, I'm human, aren't I?

I was fumbling again with the matches. I had to see her once more. If this was highway hypnotism, I was all for it. In the light of the first match she'd been beautiful. I struck the second match but the head crumbled wetly. I tossed it away irritably and was about to strike a third when her hand touched me. "Harry," she said. "Harry."

I never did get her name. What the hell, it didn't matter. She was only there for one purpose. Probably she didn't even have a name. She didn't need one. There was no before and no after for her. Only the all-containing now and a guy named Harry Miller.

"Do you like me, Harry?" she asked.

She came against me, softly firm and straining. She had a strong, musky perfume on her. Her hair touched my face and her voice whispered in my ear.

"Desire me," she said. "Do you desire me?"

Damn fool question, I thought without pushing it. Hell, yes, I desired her. Who the hell wouldn't?

Outside, the rain drummed down. In the cab, Joe gunned the motor. I kissed the girl in the van and she returned my kiss hotly, avidly. "Harry," she said. I folded her in my arms and sat down on the floor of the van. The truck lurched and something rolled against my leg. I reached down with one hand. The woman sensed this. Her warm fingers touched my arm as she tried to draw my hand back. But I found what had rolled against my leg anyway. It was a potato. It was what should have been back there in the van in the first place, no lump of glob and no beautiful dame, just a return load of Long Island potatoes for market. I pushed the woman away from me and stood up, holding the potato like it was a talisman.

"Harry?" she cried, hurt in her voice. "What is it? What's the matter?"

I didn't answer her. I walked to the rear of the van and looked out. It was dark out there. The rain came down in a heavy, faintly silver curtain. After a while lightning lit the sky and I saw the road was running parallel to the ocean now. I figured we were somewhere not too far from Riverhead. Probably south and a little west of Riverhead, down by the water. But why? Why?

Ten minutes later, the big truck rolled to a stop. I jumped down from the van and sped around to the cab, slipping on wet sand. There was a salt spray with the wind-driven rain in the air, and I smelled the sea. I thought I could make out the gleam of the breakers through the darkness, but it might have been my imagination. I did hear the pounding roar of the surf, though.

I saw Joe's dark bulk getting down from the cab just as I reached it. "Are you gonna be any trouble, boy?" Joe asked me.

"Trouble?" I repeated his word. "What are you doing? What did you drive here for, Joe?"

He didn't answer. He went around to the van and helped the woman down. She said something and it almost sounded like she was crying. "Take it easy, baby," he told her. "It won't be long now."

The rain poured down, drenching all of us. The surf roared and hissed and boomed across the beach.

"Hey, where are you going!" I shouted. They were heading down across the sand.

They didn't answer. I could stay with the truck. I could pull the truck out of there. Or I could follow them and see what the hell was going on.

But just then Joe came back from the beach. I couldn't see his face, but his voice sounded odd. "You better come down with us, Harry," he said. "She figures you know too much. I figure she's right."

We stood very close. In the dimness I could barely make out the big monkey wrench in Joe's hand. If I said no, he'd bop me one with the wrench. If I said yes and went down there with him, would he use the wrench on me later? It didn't look as if I had much choice. I went down across the sand with Joe.

The woman was waiting for us at the water's edge. The breakers were faintly phosphorescent with glowing plankton and I could see the outline of the woman's figure against them. Then Joe's bulky silhouette came between us. I stood there and stared out across the black sea.

Neither of them paid any attention to me. The breakers broke and foamed and rolled themselves out on the sand. The tide was coming in. The wind blew spray.

"You're waiting for something, aren't you?" I asked. It was a dumb question. They weren't down here for their health.

"Something coming in from the water?" I guessed. "Submarine, maybe?"

Joe said: "We're not waiting for something coming in from the water."

The woman said: "Don't tell him, Joe."

Joe said: "Funny, you calling me Joe. Still calling me Joe."

The woman: "You're Joe. You're Joe until we leave."

Joe: "Yeah, but it's funny."

The woman: "I hear something, Joe."

Joe: "No. It's the wind."

The woman: "Will it be soon?"

Joe: "Yeah, soon. What we gonna do with him? With Harry?"

"He knows too much," the woman said, "but does it really matter?"

They were talking about me as if I wasn't there. Or like two grown people will talk about a little child in his presence, or maybe even like two people will talk about a dog, right in front of the dog, feeding the dog a juicy bone, maybe—the day before they take it down to the pound.

They stopped talking. They stood there, waiting. After another twenty minutes or so, I began to hear something. Maybe they were listening too hard. Anyhow, I heard it first. A distant hissing sound. Before I knew it the sky had begun to grow brighter.

"Joe!" the woman cried happily. "Listen!"

"Yeah, and look at it," Joe said.

They ran by me, not down toward the water but back up the beach toward the truck. "Wait a minute, baby," Joe called. "You can't go near it til the changeover. The heat...."

I whirled and followed them. I saw it as soon as I turned, but I couldn't believe my eyes. It was why they had come down to the water's edge. It was why Joe had picked out the untraveled road. I gawked.

The big truck was glowing.

Not burning, not on fire—but glowing. As if it had suddenly gone phosphorescent—say, a million times more so than the plankton-glowing surf. It stood out as clear as day.

Joe and the woman stood between the glowing truck and me, standing hand in hand, watching it, waiting.

The truck changed.

It wasn't highway hypnotism. Too much had happened. Too much still would happen. The square lines of the truck were flowing, shifting, coalescing, like a slow fade on the TV, as one scene shifts slowly into another. The glowing truck flowed and altered and—wasn't a truck any longer.

"Take him with us!" Joe said suddenly.

The woman grabbed my arm. I pulled loose from her and she started to yell. She came after me, throwing herself on my back. I was plenty scared by what I had seen, and I wasn't having any, not if I could help it. I threw the woman off my back and she fell away yelling into the rain, but Joe came after me with the wrench. I stumbled and fell just as Joe swung the big wrench. It thudded in the sand half a foot from my face and I got up and started running.

Joe threw the heavy wrench this time and it hit the small of my back, driving me down to my knees. Joe came after me, kneeing my face as I swung around and tried to get up. I flipped over but grabbed his foot as he tried to stamp it down on me. He didn't know what he wanted, that boy. I guess if he couldn't take me with him, he was going to try and kill me. I twisted his leg and he yowled and fell down on top of me and we rolled over and over in the sand, clawing for each other's throat.

The woman was yelling something but I didn't hear what it was and I'm sure Joe didn't either. We were both breathing raggedly and swinging without much force at each other now. Call it almost a draw—except I was fighting for my life and I knew Joe had an ally in the woman. I climbed to my feet slowly, unsteadily, and found the monkey wrench on the ground. I wielded it, shaking it in Joe's face.

I said: "You can do what you want. I won't stop you. But just leave me the hell out of it."

All of a sudden something struck my back. It was the woman, trying to knock me over from behind. I whirled and she backed out of my reach, but then Joe was on his feet again and when I turned to face him she clawed at my back. "Kill him, Joe!" she cried. "Kill him now!"

Joe came for me. He didn't pay any attention to the monkey wrench in my hand. He lunged at me and I took a swat in his direction with the wrench. We both missed but Joe was still half out on his feet. He stumbled past me and I turned and shoved him. He struck the woman and they both went down.

"Joe," the woman said. "Joe! It's starting."

She meant the truck. Or what had been the truck. It was a gleaming silver globe now, and something was hissing at the bottom of it. I didn't know what it was, but they knew. I didn't know it then, but I had won. I'd delayed them past the point where they could take me with them by force or kill me. They had to hurry.

I wasn't going to stop them. I stood there, hurting all over, and watched them run for the thing which had been the truck. It was still glowing, but the glow was fading. A hole seemed to open in its side for them, but then suddenly the glow became so bright that I couldn't see anything but the dazzling light.

Which—slowly but with increasing speed—rose into the rain and the night.

On a pillar of flame.

I blinked. I smelled ozone. The sphere was gone, but there was an afterglow in the sky.

Numbly I walked over to where the truck—then the sphere—had been.

I found Joe. Or what was left of Joe. It was a dry husk of a body, hardly recognizable, as if some great power had taken Joe and twisted him while an enormous heat had dried all the moisture from his body without burning the skin.

I never found the woman. Instead, there were a few hundred dry husky things near Joe. I didn't recognize them at first, and when I did I suddenly got hysterical and ran. I couldn't figure it out then, and I still can't although I've tried to.

The husky things were burned potatoes. Next to Joe. Where the woman had been. But the way I figure it, they went up there. Both of them....

The police gave me a rough time but eventually let me go. What happened to Joe could have been the result of lightning. Lightning, they said, can do funny things. Nobody ever found the truck. I could have told them that. It had gone—up there.


I did some investigating. There'd been a meteor fall two days before we picked up the load of potatoes. I saw the farmer and asked him about the meteors. But he merely insisted—vague as before—that something had fallen into his barn, through the roof, from the sky.

Figure it got among the potatoes. A sentience of some kind. Figure it was sleeping. Figure the motion of the truck stirred it to life. Figure it could—well, take over things. Like the potatoes. It became the girl, to keep me busy. Like Joe. It took over Joe so it could drive off on the deserted beach. Like the truck. It took over—and changed the truck into a, well, something—so it could get back where it started from. Me? I must have been immune.

Or am I? Because a few minutes ago something crashed through the roof of my new truck, into the van. I don't know what, but I'm afraid to go look. What would you do?