Listen to this story:
Fiction by Brandon Mull
Illustrations by Heath McKenzie & Kevin Hurley
Abandoned buildings sagged on either side of the dirt road as we rolled into Larill, Arizona, in the dead of night, our headlights flashing across broken windows and peeling paint.
No other lights hinted at life in the area. Our troop of 14 Scouts and three leaders caravanned in two SUVs and an old minivan.
The three vehicles stopped in the town’s main square. Our leaders killed the engines, and we got out. When I slammed my door, the echo bounced four or five times. A warm breeze sighed across the desert, carrying dry dust and the smell of sage. Off in the parched wasteland beyond the town, a coyote gave a lonely howl. With my arm fully extended, my hand couldn’t quite cover the pale hugeness of the bright moon.
“Did you check the date?” I asked.
Our Scoutmaster, a lanky man with a mustache, held up his clipboard and clicked on a flashlight. “The Monster Jamboree is scheduled to begin here tonight at midnight. We’re right on time. Maybe a minute or two early.”
“Midnight is a weird hour for opening ceremonies,” I said.
“I checked when I called,” our Scoutmaster insisted. “The tradition dates back many years.”
I shrugged. “I don’t see anyone.”
Our Scoutmaster huffed. “They promised this would be very well attended.”
A ragged cloud drifted across the moon, dimming the night. Some of the younger guys in the troop crowded together, eyes wide.
I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Chase Davis, senior patrol leader of Troop 6526 out of Highland, Utah. I’m a Life Scout just two badges and a project short of Eagle.
Last year, our Scoutmaster really wanted to take us to the national jamboree in West Virginia, but he couldn’t arrange it. While in a cemetery this past Memorial Day, he found a flyer for the Monster Jamboree held in Larill, just over six hours by car from our hometown.
Determined not to miss this one, we raised the funds, packed up our gear and hit the road. We would have arrived earlier in the day, but a stretch of Highway 89 was closed and we got lost trying to find an alternate route.
“This is a ghost town,” I said, shining my flashlight at a skinny possum on a windowsill.
Our Scoutmaster shook his head. “My map and GPS agree that this is the right …”
He was cut off by the gong of a church bell. It seemed as loud as a cannon, and we all jumped. The bell clanged a second time, and a third.
From shadowy alleys and derelict buildings, Scouts began to pour into the square. They marched in orderly lines. Some carried torches, using them to light bonfires.
“This is more like it,” our Scoutmaster said.
I instructed my fellow Scouts to form up into orderly ranks. As another troop positioned themselves beside us, I dug out some patches I had brought for trading. I had lots of Utah National Parks Council patches, but wasn’t sure if we were far enough from home for them to generate much interest.
I approached a Scout in the neighboring troop. He was pale with dark eyes. “Have any patches to trade?” I whispered.
“Maybe.” When I showed him one of my patches with Delicate Arch and a dinosaur, his expression brightened. “I’ve never seen that one!”
He accepted mine and gave me a patch from the Transylvanian Council. “Is this from Europe?” I asked.
“You sound surprised,” he said. “This is an international jamboree.”
Encouraged by the good trade and noticing many Scouts still coming to the square, I wandered over to another troop. They wore shabby uniforms and smelled like they desperately needed showers. A Scout with a crooked back limped over to me, eyes on my patches. One of his arms hung useless at his side. I tried not to stare.
“Trade?” he asked.
I showed him my patch. He sniffed it, then gave me one from the Necropolis Council. I hit a couple other nearby troops and got patches from the Bermuda Triangle Council, the Lost Mines Council and the Stonehenge Council. One of the troops wore weird shoes. In the bad lighting, their feet almost looked like hooves.
The other troops had mostly found their positions by the time I returned to mine. Some of the troops on the far side of the square looked like they were wearing costumes under their uniforms. One whole troop was dressed as skeletons. Our Scoutmaster had never mentioned that possibility.
A figure in a hooded robe shuffled to the center of the square.
“Welcome to the 75th Annual Monster Jamboree,” said a slithery voice that reached my ears as if whispered from close by. “We have Monster Scouts from 19 countries in attendance tonight. Troop 23 from the Barbary Coast will serve as color guard, after which Troop 888 from beneath the sands of Cairo will lead us in the Scout Law.”
An orderly group of Scouts in perfect formation brought out a flag and raised it with dignity. Instead of the familiar stars and stripes, this flag depicted a skull and crossbones on a field of black.
“I thought the ‘Monster’ in ‘Monster Jamboree’ referred to the size of the event,” I murmured to our Scoutmaster.
“With or without a monster theme,” he muttered, “this seems disrespectful.”
A group of Scouts wrapped in bandages marched to the center of the square. One Scout stepped forward. “Please join us in the Scout Law.”
I started saying the familiar words, but stopped when I realized everyone else was reciting different ones. “A Scout is Bloodthirsty, Tricky, Harmful, Deadly, Ominous, Fierce, Obscure, Vengeful, Sneaky, Grave, Mean and Irreverent.” At the end, scattered voices added, “And Hungry!”
I knew something was wrong. The monster theme was going too far.
The kid who had given me the Transylvania patch stood nearby. I sidled over to him.
“Have you come to this before?” I asked.
“First time,” he replied. “But I’ve been a Monster Scout since I was little. I earned my Arrow of Darkness, and I’m on the path to Dragon.”
“Dragon? What rank are you?”
“I’m a Death Scout. I just need my Lifetaking merit badge and a few others. Seems like just yesterday I was a Tenderthroat.”
The scraggly cloud moved away from the moon. Several troops instantly morphed into wolf shapes. A winged flock of uniformed gargoyles landed not far away.
“You’re not Boy Scouts,” I groaned.
He grinned, revealing fangs. “Some of us were, before we got bitten.”
I backed away. Several voices started crying out, “Humans!”
“Time to go,” I told my troop. Breaking ranks, we raced toward our cars.
As the kid who had given me the Necropolis Council patch staggered toward me, his arm dropped off. “Gross!” I shouted.
“Brains,” he croaked.
With dozens of Monster Scouts trailing behind me, I was last into the minivan. We yanked the doors shut and locked them as bodies pounded against the windows, teeth bared. Our Scoutmaster floored it, and monsters dove out of the way. Dust sprayed behind us as we whooshed out of town.
Now you might think some of this sounds too crazy to be true. An alternate Scouting program full of werewolves, vampires, zombies, mummies and gargoyles might seem like a lot to swallow.
You could argue that we dreamed it. And I might have to agree, if I didn’t have some truly unusual patches in my collection!
About the author: Brandon Mull is an Eagle Scout and has authored many novels, including the Fablehaven, Spirit Animals and Beyonders series. His newest series is Five Kingdoms.