The bus rumbled along Highway 71 through the Boggy Creek river bottoms, taking the team to their football game in Fouke. Heavy Spanish moss hung from tree limbs, curtaining the swamps that lay beyond.
All eyes were glued to the windows, hoping for a glimpse of the legendary monster that was rumored to roam the area- a glimpse that would forever give them their claim to fame. For most, this hope battled the fear that the Fouke monster would actually appear. Jagged tree stumps and limbs blowing in the wind became possible sightings.
“I’m telling you it’s real!” Chris insisted.
Max didn’t believe the legend of the ape-like creature was true. At least not as much as Chris did.
“My grandpa’s friend saw it when he was hunting. He said it walked on two legs and was at least two feet taller than him. It had long, dark hair all over and stunk to high heaven. Like a skunk and wet dog mixed together times ten.”
“He probably saw a bear,” Max said.
Chris turned from the window to face him. “No! Bears don’t get that big. Plus, he saw its tracks. It only had three toes. Bears have five.”
“Whatever. It’s just a made-up story that…” A slap on the shoulder interrupted him
“Don’t worry about not getting in the game tonight. I’ll score enough to get you two off the bench.”
“Hey Garrett, still your own biggest cheerleader I see,” Max said.
“Just trying to help out the bench.”
“At least we’ll be able to see the Fouke Monster when it comes. You’ll be on the field and get attacked first.” Chris said.
Garrett snorted. “I don’t believe that crazy story.”
WHOOSH! The bus shook back and forth and Garrett stumbled into their seat.
“What was that?” he sputtered.
“Sit down!” Coach called from the driver’s seat. “The wind’s picking up. I’m having a hard time keeping the bus steady.”
“You ok there Garrett? You look a little scared.” Max smiled and pushed Garrett off of him. “By the way, next time you need an answer in Algebra just ask. You don’t have to sneak peeks.”
Garrett glared at him and went back to his seat.
SCREECH! Minutes later the bus came to a sudden stop.
“Something’s on the road. I’m going to go check. Stay on the bus,” Coach said.
Max, Chris, and the rest of the team rushed to the front of the bus. Mist blurred the windshield.
“What’s out there?”
“Is it the monster?”
“Don’t have to tell me twice to stay on the bus.”
“Out of my way,” Garrett shouldered his way past the others.
He jumped back when the door burst open. “Aiiggh!”
Coach poked his head in the bus. Seeing Garrett first he said, “Garrett, grab a buddy and come help me. A tree limb’s fallen across the road. I can’t move it myself.”
Garrett’s face paled. “Ca-Ca-Can’t we call somebody? We shouldn’t be out there. We’re just kids.”
“Nah. We’d have to wait too long. It’s not too big, just awkward. C’mon.” Coach headed back out.
Garrett looked around. His eyes narrowed when they reached Max. “Let’s go,” he said.
Dusk was settling in and the last remnants of sunlight were fading. Max squinted to see through the misty haze. Coach’s shouted directions swirled away in the howling wind.
Coach pointed for one of them to go to the side of the road and grab the other end of the limb. Garrett shoved Max in that direction as his own head swiveled, looking for the monster to emerge from the swamp. The wet branches slipped from Max’s hands as he tugged the large limb.
But as hard as they pushed and pulled, the tangled branches of the limb would not release their hold on the roadside brush.
“We’ll have to pull it with the bus. There’s a strap in the side under-compartment by the back wheels. Grab it for me.” Coach tossed Garrett a set of keys.
Coach wrinkled his forehead at Garrett. “You plow through lineman twice your size. You’re telling me you’re afraid of the dark?”
“Not the dark. What’s in the dark. What if the Fouke Monster is real? What if he’s out here right now?”
Coach shook his head. “Go with him, Max.”
“Thought you didn’t believe that story,” Max said.
“I don’t…but it’s creepy out here.”
Max didn’t disagree with him.
Garrett’s hand shook trying to unlock the compartment.
“Give them to me,” Max reached for the keys. He found the right one and slid it into the lock.
“You hear that?” Garrett whispered. “It sounds like something’s moaning.”
“It’s just the wind,” Max said, looking over his shoulder.
BAM! A sound reverberated off the back of the bus. Screams came from within. Garrett ran to the bus door and banged on it. “Let me in!” The door slid open and slammed shut quickly.
Max grabbed the tow strap from the compartment and turned toward the front of the bus. He stopped. “The monster’s not real. It’s just a story,” he muttered.
He turned and, staying close to the bus, inched his way toward the backend. He peeked around the corner. A small limb lay on the road, illuminated by the flashing red lights of the bus. His held breath rushed out.
“Here’s the strap, Coach.”
“Back on the bus,” Max said.
Coach shook his head. He handed Max one end of the strap. “Hook this around the bumper. I’ll connect the other end to the tree limb. We’ll get it pulled out of the way and head on to the game.”
Once it was attached they got back on the bus. Coach put it in reverse and slowly angled back, dragging the limb parallel to the side of the road.
THUMP! Coach braked hard. “Someone look out the back and see if I hit something.”
No one moved.
Max got up and walked to the back.
When he looked out the window he saw two red glowing dots. Were they reflections from the bus lights? He blinked. He couldn’t tell.
“I don’t see anything. There was another small limb laying in the road. Maybe you hit it,” he called to the front.
Coach eased the bus back a bit further then stopped. “C’mon Max, help me unhook the strap.” Max took a deep breath and went out with him.
They released the strap from the bus and limb.
“Put the strap back in the compartment while I pick up the rest of these branches,” Coach said.
This time Max pulled out his phone and turned the flashlight on as he headed toward the compartment.
As he neared the back of the bus he was hit with a stench unlike anything he’d ever smelled before. He began to retch. Forcing the bile down, he pulled his sweatshirt over his nose and mouth, opened the compartment, and threw the strap in.
“The monster’s not real. It’s just a story,” he repeated. His heart pounding, Max willed himself to ease around the end of the bus. He shone his light over the back of the bus and then the ground below it. His eyes widened and he ran to get back on.
“Everyone’s calling Garrett a chicken,” Chris laughed when the bus was moving down the highway again. “You should have seen how fast he ran through the door. Weren’t you scared?” he asked Max.
“I just kept telling myself it’s not real, it’s just a story.”
“I guess you’re right,” Chris said. “If the Fouke Monster were real this would have been the perfect time to show up.”
Max nodded, the image of large, muddy, three-toed prints covering the road forever burned in his mind. He shivered.