by Bryan Bolden
The only thing darker than an Alabama night on the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1960’s was one with heavy clouds and no moon. Like on that night.
It got even blacker when Ben’s dad cutoff the big car’s engine. They were parked in a scraggly stand of pine trees in the middle of nowhere in front of a lonely house. Some tall grass marked the start of a swamp a little way down to the right of the car. A few lights were on in the house making it hard for Ben to know if it was haunted. He was five years old, afraid of the dark, and didn’t like this place. His dad got out of the car. Ben quickly scrambled over the front seat to follow. A strong arm kept him where he was.
His dad leaned in the car so that the ceiling light shone on his face. He winked at the boys and pointed to the swamp. “You boys stay here and guard the car. People tell me that the three-legged boogeyman is loose somewhere down yonder.”
Ben looked over at his seven year old brother sitting beside him in the backseat. Rick’s face, like always, showed nothing. Ben tried to make himself believe that he and Rick would be okay alone by themselves. But he wanted his nightlight. He was sorry now that the night before they had snuck watching “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” through the door of their bedroom that Rick had opened just a crack. It hadn’t seemed so scary then.
The car door thunked shut throwing the car into darkness. Ben’s dad walked up to the house. Ben’s eyes followed him.
A lady who wasn’t his mom opened the front door to let Ben’s dad in. Light from the living room sparkled in the ice of her glass when she reached up and put her arms around him. It didn’t look right but Ben didn’t think much of it. He was too busy fretting about the three-legged boogeyman. He peeked out the window from the giant backseat for any sign of it. A rustling noise came from his side of the car.
“Rick, did you hear that?” Ben said out of the side of his mouth.
“Nope,” Rick wasn’t a big talker.
Ben sat still and listened harder. He was sure that he had heard something. A woman’s squeaky laugh broke the humid air. It sounded like Minnie Mouse on high speaker. The tone was so high that the frogs stopped their croaking. The spooky rustling noise didn’t stop though. Ben rolled up his window and locked the door.
“Gosh darn Ben; roll your window back down.” Rick ordered. “It’s hotter than Mars in August.” That was one of their dad’s favorite expressions.
“You’re fixin’ to get yourself into trouble by swearing like that. You know dad don’t favor it.”
“He won’t know if you don’t snitch,” Rick reached over and flicked the back of Ben’s ear.
“Quit it,” Ben said. He began rolling down the window but stopped when it got half way. Something was poking him in the ribs…a monstrous rebel yell roared in Ben’s ear. A claw dug into his shoulder. Ben yanked the door handle to get away. It wasn’t opening. “Cain’t escape from the three-legged boogeyman!” A voice not of this world yelled. “Cain’t escape the three-legged boogeyman!” Ben yanked the handle harder. He started to cry.
“You’re always so easy to fool,” Rick said laughing. He gave Ben’s whiffle cut a good rubbing.
“Not funny, I’m tellin’ dad.” Ben said drying tears with the bottom of his red striped tee shirt.
“And let him know what a scaredy-cat you are? Don’t think so,” Sometimes, Ben hated his brother.
Loud music began playing inside the house. Light weakly spilling outside between chinks in the closed curtains fast disappeared into a night without moon or stars. No bright lights of future resorts or casinos had yet come to the Gulf Coast to choke out the alligators, snakes, and bears. More weird laughter rocketed out of the house. Ben decided that maybe it was really haunted. He hoped his dad was okay and willed him to come back to drive them home. Mom was waiting.
A strange snapping noise came behind the car. It sounded like it could be the three-legged boogeyman. Ben wondered how its walk would sound. Would he hear all three feet? He didn’t want Rick laughing at him anymore so said nothing. He stole a glance over at his brother. Rick’s head was cocked. He was listening to something. Even he looked a little scared.
No more ghostly snapping was heard. All was quiet. Ben could hear Rick’s breathing, making him remember to take a breath himself. The crickets’ chirping without warning was crushed by a shriek coming from inside the haunted house.
“The three-legged boogeyman’s attacking Dad!” Ben screamed. He sniffed back new tears, but they came anyway. “Rick, do somethin’…”
Rick quietly spoke, “Sounds like the way Mom squeals when Dad tickles her.”
Ben uncovered his eyes. “What?”
“Said that squeal sounds like Mom does when Dad tickles her, you know, when they ‘get playful’, Dad calls it.”
Ben didn’t know what Rick meant but was afraid to ask and be called stupid for the millionth time. He didn’t like sitting in the dark car. He was sure that the three-legged boogeyman was out there. He wanted to go home. He’d be safe in his bed with the covers pulled over his head.
A loud growl came from Rick’s side of the car. “Hear that?” Rick whispered. He rolled up his squeaky window as softly as he could. Ben rolled his own window back up.
“Yup,” Ben breathed. He squirmed over to the middle of the seat to get further away from the window. Rick must have had the same idea because Ben found him already there. They sat close together. Ben swallowed hard. “Think it’s the three-legged boogeyman? Dad said he’s loose in these woods!” He didn’t care if Rick thought he was a scaredy-cat or not – some monster with three legs was close by.
“Don’t be stupid, ain’t no such thing,” Rick said feebly.
Ben didn’t believe him. He knew better.
Another growl came from Rick’s side of the car, only this time it was closer. Rick sat up straight, straining to hear.
Ben stammered. “Sure, sure hope…that thing ain’t got three legs.”
“Hush,” Rick hissed.
They heard groans from inside the house through the open windows. Slowly, the groans died away. Ben was sure that the three-legged boogeyman had eaten their dad. He wanted to go make sure his dad was okay, but he was afraid to leave the car. Neither brother spoke. Time froze.
The front door of the house opened. His dad was standing in the doorway. Ben let out a sigh of relief. The lady was leaning against his dad and had her arm around him. His dad was saying something to the lady but Ben couldn’t hear what it was. Whatever his dad said had made her giggle. She was still giggling when she closed the door behind him. He walked to the car and got in.
A strange flowery smell filled the air of the car as his dad slid under the big steering wheel. His dad smelled funny, different. He looked different, too. His face had that sorry look like it did after he’d whupped one of the boys too hard. Something was wrong but Ben didn’t know what. He looked questioningly at his big brother. Rick’s face was blank. No answers there.
His dad’s voice broke the silence. “So, did you boys see that old three-legged boogeyman?”
“No sir,” Rick answered for them. “Everything was real quiet,”
“Well, promised you boys ice-cream tonight if you were good. Guess you’ve earned it.”
Ben’s dad started the car but kept it parked. He turned sideways, leaning into the backseat so that he faced his sons. “Boys, there’s no need to tell your Mom about this little detour, I don’t reckon.”
“No sir,” Ben and Rick answered together.
They never did see the three-legged boogeyman. Still, nothing ever felt quite right or quite safe to Ben after that night. The three-legged boogeyman was loose.