The crunch of loose gravel disappeared as the two young men left the overgrown, nearly invisible drive and continued their trek through the high grass and scrub brush. As they made their way to a clearing, a second, even less discernible dirt path further from where they'd pulled off the main road and parked the old Chevy van in the tree line made itself apparent as the crickets whispered in the late April evening hours.
"And you're sure this is cool?" Nick asked, picking up his gait to catch up to his friend, who was more familiar with the area and less concerned about all the potential dangers that lurked in the neglected pine grove. "Like no one is going to come out here looking for us or something?'
Nick wasn't ordinarily an overly nervous kid, but tonight he was consumed by frenetic energy, filled with an exhilarating anxiety he couldn't seem to shake.
"No," Brandon shook off the concern. "My uncle used to keep hunting dogs out there, but no one has touched the place since he went to jail.
It wasn't the resounding endorsement of safety Nick had been hoping for.
"What if your dad calls my house looking for you?" He asked, still following closely behind, trying his best to follow directly in Brandon's footsteps to avoid briars or, worse, one of the many venomous snake species prevalent in the area.
Brandon continued without turning around, shining the dirty yellow boxy flashlight on the ground to illuminate the path.
"No offense, dude, but I didn't tell him I was staying the night at the gay kid's house." His hurtful words were of casual indifference. "I wanted to come out here and have fun tonight, not get the shit beat out of me by my dad."
Nick was the only openly gay male in his high school. There were three girls who claimed to be lesbians but were also self-professed witches. They had not been a strong support system.
Nick's outing had not been by choice, but he had owned his designation, as the damage had been done to his reputation either way. He understood that as a transplant in a rural northern Texas community, he was fortunate even to have friends, let alone ones who would publicly claim him. He felt a tinge of guilt knowing the things Brandon's father must have said to him in the privacy of their own home, having bore witness to some of the things he said unabashedly in his presence. He could only imagine the abuse that Brandon and his brother suffered because they chose to be friends with him.
"How much further?" He asked as he scratched at his leg with the heel of his shoe.
"Calm down, dude," Brandon said with playful annoyance. "It'll be worth it. I told you. I want to show you something," Brandon said with excitement.
"Look, if it's your wiener, we don't have to go in the middle of nowhere for me to tell you I'm not interested," Nick joked, trying to recover with self-deprecating humor as not to seem ungrateful for the invitation to come smoke weed in the woods.
"Shut the fuck up," Brandon laughed good-naturedly. "Asshole."
Perhaps that had been part of the nerves on Nick's part. This whole evening had been cryptic. Brandon had said he and his brother, Michael had something they wanted to show him. They wouldn't say anything more, and now Michael was nowhere to be seen.
"Shh–" Brandon said, moving his hand, motioning for Nick to stop. "I don't want to freak it out."
"Freak what out?" Nick whispered back reflexively. He was freaked out.
Brandon slowly hopped over a scrub oak and pushed some tall grass to the side, picking up a small, rectangular metal cage. A rabbit shook nervously as it pressed itself against the furthest corner creating as much distance as possible between it and its captor. Tiny round pellets hit the ground as it expelled them out of fear.
Nick felt for the rabbit at that moment. He felt like the rabbit. Trapped. He tried his best to hide it. But he suddenly wondered if this were a set-up. Hazing. He was a fucking idiot. Brandon was on the baseball team. Why on earth would he have been hanging out with him except to trick and torment him? He was too deep in the middle of BFE to run, and he wasn't physically equipped to fight back. His thin frame would do little more than provide his tormentors with a boney punching bag. Nick's heart raced as he prepared to become another statistic and a cautionary tale about trusting the wrong people.
"The dog kennels are right up here," Brandon said with unbridled excitement. "What till you see her eat it."
"The Rabbit?" Nick had to remind himself of what was happening as he'd gotten lost in his own paranoia. What was fucking rabbit about to eat?
The pair came through a thin line of pines that opened up on what appeared to be an old house pad for a mobile home and a line of half a dozen run-down dog kennels. A single electric drop light hung from a pole swaying slightly in the breeze and flickering ominously. It caused the treeline to dance with shadows in each pendulum swing.
"Look, I don't know what–" Nick was cut off.
"Shut up!" Brandon said, scanning the tree line with his flashlight, looking for something or looking out.
"Hey man, this isn't funny," Nick said, not understanding whether this scare tactic was part of the evening's plot. "Look, I'm into whatever is going on –"
"Shut the fuck up!" Brandon said with an angry, forceful whisper. "She got out."
Brandon's fear was real. He backed up, almost stepping on Nick's shoes as he closed the gap between them as he continued to whip the thin sliver of light across their surroundings.
"Who got out?!" Nick now knew this wasn't a joke. There was an evident lack of humor in Brandon's normal easy-going demeanor. "What got out, Brandon!" He repeated more forcefully than he had expected.
"A vampire," Brandon said with zero room for questioning the incredulous statement. "We caught her three nights ago. Michael was buying mushrooms from those hippies that camp out in the woods by the interstate, and she was hiding in the backseat when we got in the van. He punched her in the head so hard that we thought he killed her. But she wasn't dead. We drove her out here and locked her in the kennel. She was locked in that kennel."
Brandon turned around, looking at the open padlock on the kennel.
"She was locked in there!" Brandon frantically tried to explain to Nick.
"We've got to get out of here," Nick said with no hesitation. "We have to go right now."
"We can't leave without my brother?" Brandon asked.
"Fuck Michael!" Nick reasoned, "If there is some crazy methhead who thinks she is a vampire out here loose in the woods, we need to get the hell out of here right now!"
"We can't," Brandon whispered as he covertly slid his hand up Nick's arm and gripped it tightly just below the shoulder. "they're in the trees."
Nick turned his attention to the treeline and saw it. They weren't shadows dancing. They were people. Nick realized what Brandon must have surmised. They were surrounded.
"Get in the kennel," Brandon whispered, barely audible as he exhaled a shallow breath.
"Are you fucking crazy?" Nick asked, meaning every word. The last thing he had any intention of doing was voluntarily getting into a trap.
"Get in the kennel!" Brandon said as he tightened his grip on Nick's arm and practically drug him into the chainlink kennel slamming the door behind them and fumbling with the padlock to secure them inside as a woman darted across the field, reaching them with only seconds to spare, she clawed and hissed at the metal pen. The harsh glow from the flashlight illuminated every terrifying inch of her naked, grass and debris-covered body. The blood smeared across her face was dry but still fresh. She nimbly tried to get her fingers through the small diamond-shaped openings causing the boys to step backward further into the kennel. She delighted at the fear in the boys' eyes.
It was at that moment he heard it.
It wasn't his. Nick realized it moments too late.
They weren't alone in the kennel.
Michael pulled his body up from the cold concrete floor of the kennel. Newly bitten and hungry, he lunged, catching Nick on the leg as he went to scream and warn Brandon.