“Can’t be much farther,” Scooter Keyshawn panted as he and his young golden Labrador charged through the darkening woods, racing the rapidly setting sun The redheaded boy gasped, his breath short, and his heart hammering loudly in his ears. His eyes stung from the sweat dripping down his face.
What would happen when darkness descended, he wondered? His canine companion, Flash, whined in response, as though he’d heard Scooter’s thoughts.
Scooter put on a burst of speed, his gaze flicked about as he searched the woods. Flash had no trouble keeping up, loping alongside Scooter. Except for their crashing strides echoing in the silence, the air was unnaturally still, the twilight, eerily calm. Even the crickets and frogs were dead quiet, the woods absent their usual lullabies.
A faint mist gathered near the small stream to their left, threatening to obscure part of the darkening woods. Scooter knew the fog could get thicker than smoke from a chili cook-off. If that happened, he might get confused, unable to find his way back to the abandoned house where he’d left his bicycle.
Scooter shivered. He’d better slow down. He certainly didn’t want to get lost out here.
He paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was thoroughly soaked. The humidity was suffocating; the evening air draped about him like a wet blanket.
Beyond the forest and above the lake, the setting sun sat teasingly upon the flat Texas horizon. The high cirrus clouds were crimson stains smeared against the golden twilight. The waning light was low angled and weak, barely touching the shadow-filled forest. Any moment now, the sun would disappear, plunging the woods into darkness.
“Come on!” Scooter encouraged Flash, then began running again. The Lab needed no encouragement; the pure joy of running radiated from his sparkling eyes. His ears flapped like wings and his flailing tongue seemed to reach all the way to his lively tail.
Despite the ninety-plus heat, fear chilled Scooter to the bone. Where were they? What would they do to him? Again, Scooter cursed the flat tire he’d had to fix in front of the old Pilot Point cemetery. His new-found friends would be mad with him for being late.
Getting into the Graveyard Armadillos meant a lot to him. Heck, until two months ago, the only friend he’d ever had, besides Flash, was Russell Knight, the sheriff’s son. Then he’d met Garrett Brashear and the rest of the Armadillos. Today at lunch, Garrett told Scooter that if he wanted to join the Armadillos, he should meet them outside the fence on the woods’ side of the Pickup Ranch.
Scooter hoped that Jo wouldn’t call him a “wimp” — afraid of fun and scared of adventure. Cause it just wasn’t true! It wasn’t! He’d show her! Show them! Tonight was the first night of summer! The first evening of three months free of school! Free of time constraints! Full of long days and total freedom!
At last, off to his right, Scooter saw a trio of white buildings beyond a cluster of tall mesquite and oak trees. The ranch was quiet, unearthly still even for sunset, as if holding its breath, waiting for something strange to happen.
In many ways the old place looked the same as other Texas farms — mostly used for livestock with a huge garden along the side and a modest-sized chicken coop out back.
In other ways the Chandler’s Pickup Ranch was very different. A line of pickup trucks spread out from the driveway as though a metal picket fence, halfway surrounding a barn and a single-story house. The back acres ended in water; the grazing field sloped along the backside of Lake Tawakoni’s earthen dam.
A moat and a metal castle wall, Scooter thought. He studied the line of trucks buried nose first and hood deep in the dirt. Most were in good condition as though repainted before being buried. All their windows were intact and their rear bumpers were shiny. The oldest models started at the road, with the newer makes farther away from the driveway.
Why would anyone do that, Scooter wondered? A Texas-sized picket fence? A historical museum of pickups? He’d always heard the Chandler folks were peculiar. Some people were glad they died. Well, most of them were dead.
The barn to his left was being repainted; it was all red once, faded and peeling, but now bone white swathes covered it. Against the pink sky, a star-shaped weather vane stood starkly atop the rusted corrugated metal roof. The hayloft door slowly swung back and forth as if moved by an invisible hand.
A gentle lake breeze brushed Scooter; he smelled hay, dung, and freshly-mown grass.
A pigpen was on the left side of the barn, and a horse corral surrounded the back of the building. Strangely enough, Scooter didn’t see any livestock. Where were all the animals?
As though compelled, Scooter’s gaze was drawn to the house. The place caught the last light of day and appeared to radiate an odd, hypnotizing glow. The shadows seemed darker than normal. Cave dark. Tomb dark. The strange sight mesmerized Scooter.
He was still running, but he felt as though he weren’t moving. And yet, the house continued to grow larger and larger, looming and distorted; the details becoming sharply defined as if magnified. He had never before experienced such a wierd feeling.
The house was painted off-white with green trim and shutters. The massive chimney stretched into the twilight like a blunt finger — pointing out that this was someplace special. Across the front was a covered porch where the waning light failed to reach. The shadows seemed strangely opaque and foreboding.
He saw something move, at least he thought he did. The dark swaths seemed to writhe as though striving to break free. Scooter had the sense the shadows were waiting for something. Waiting for darkness. Waiting for release. Waiting for a victim to come near. Too near. Scooter grew closer. . . and closer. Scooter told himself he should cut back on his favorite comic book, SPAWN. His imagination was getting the best of him, again.
Scooter and Flash suddenly burst out of the woods and into the row of pickups. Scooter immediately slid to a stop. “Oh. . . .”
“Quiet!” someone shushed and grabbed Scooter, pulling him to the ground behind a blue `74 Ford pickup. The hands shifted quickly, one clamping across Scooter’s mouth. He smelled garlic.
Flash barked, ready to defend Scooter. A familiar voice off to their right spoke the Lab’s name. Flash grew quiet.
“You’re late, Scoot boy,” came a voice from behind him. “And you brought your big ugly mutt!” There was a heavy sigh. “Not a good way to start . . . if you still want to join the Graveyard Armadillos.”
“We do! I do!” Scooter mumbled. “And so does Flash.”
“No dogs allowed,” the handsome, dark-haired boy snapped, implying a double meaning as he released Scooter.
Flash stiffened, glanced up, and then cocked his head as if understanding. With a highly insulted look, the Labrador took a couple of steps forward. Flash began gagging, then suddenly threw up on Garrett’s boots.
Garrett didn’t step back in time, getting the toes of his boots sullied. “Hey! Damn your mutt!” Garrett reared back preparing to kick Flash. The Lab looked up with shining eyes and an expression of wonderment — an angelic face of innocence.
“Don’t kick my dog!” Scooter said forcefully.
“Shut up!” Garrett snapped. “You still want to join the Graveyard Armadillos, don’t you?” Scooter nodded. “Then listen up and keep your mutt away from me. Tonight’s your initiation and you’ll do exactly what I tell you to do or you’re gone!”
Flash chuffed, then with tail and nose in the air, the Lab returned to Scooter’s side. “He’s not a mutt, and I will.” Scooter leaned down to the Lab and whispered, “Always a comedian, aren’t you?” Flash grinned.
“Don’t be a smart-ass, or you’ll be out on your butt,” Garrett said. “Hey, I’m talking to you, you know.” Scooter nodded to the older boy. With piercing blue eyes, a charming smile and the looks of a movie star, Garrett was the heartthrob of Tawakoni High; and he reveled in it, as proud as a strutting peacock. Despite the heat, Garrett wore a dark leather jacket without breaking a sweat. “Listen up. We need to get in gear. That movie-guy ought to be coming soon.”
“I’m tired of waiting,” Scooter heard someone drawl, then noticed BJ Mochrie. Below his black cowboy hat, he was scowling. As far as anyone could remember, Byron Jefferson Mochrie had always worn a look of barely restrained impatience. It went along with his arrogant walk that proclaimed he wasn’t afraid of anything. Despite his air, with his curly, white-blond hair, green-blue eyes, and the build of a rodeo champion, BJ drew lots of attention from girls, although none of them seemed to stay around for long.
With BJ and Garrett were the other members of the Graveyard Armadillos; BJ’s twin and bespectacled brother, CJ; the stout tomboy Jo Gunn; skinny Russell Knight and his coldly beautiful sister, Racquel, who had a crush on Garrett; and redheaded Kristie Candel, the minister’s pretty daughter.
They all nodded at Scooter. Russell smiled, looking as though he wanted to wave but unsure if it was cool. Scooter shot Russell a look that said “you didn’t mention Kristie was a member!” Scooter tried not to stare but wasn’t succeeding; Kristie was very, very cute.
Flash went over to Russell, was petted for a moment, then moved to Kristie, settling in her lap as if it were his new home.
Kristie smiled warmly as though she’d read Scooter’s thoughts and patted Flash. The Labrador’s eyes rolled back, as his tongue lolled lazily.
Scooter smiled back at Kristie, his flush hidden in the twilight. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined that the minister’s daughter would be part of this group.
She’d changed a lot in the past year, no longer gangly, but tall and pretty–on the verge of being beautiful. In some ways, she reminded Scooter of himself, tall and trim with auburn hair. Beyond that, the similarities ended. She was pretty and looked composed. He was awkwardly gangly and felt very out of place.
“Ouch!” Scooter slapped at his neck. “Damn mosquitoes!”
“Here,” Kristie tossed him a plastic bottle. “It keeps the `skeeters at bay.” Her voice was lilting, reminding him of the times he’d heard her singing in the church choir.
“Really?” Scooter asked. Kristie nodded, so he applied some to his exposed skin. Scooter found himself wishing she’d offer to help, and that thought surprised him. Embarrassed, he avoided eye contact and stared at the others. They were all dressed in dark clothing, and to his surprise, wearing homemade necklaces of garlic. Each absently clutched a crucifix as though it were a life preserver they might need at a moment’s notice. What was going on here? Certainly not a prayer session.
“This is gonna be great! We’re gonna prove there’s a vampire in Gunstock!” CJ announced. BJ’s nearly identical twin wore thick glasses and a cowboy hat similar to his brother’s. Calvin Jefferson was a little taller, but the main difference between the brothers was their expressions. CJ’s face projected so much innocence that no one could possibly believe he’d ever done anything wrong–was even capable of doing wrong.
“A vampire?” Scooter wondered dumbly. What was he missing? Oh, that explained the garlic and crucifixes. But he didn’t believe in vampires. They were a myth or characters in a fictional tale.
“Yep, a vampire,” Jo Gunn began, “we’re gonna make the TV big time!” Her already wide face stretched with a crooked, toothy smile. Her brown cowboy hat pulled down tight, its shadow all but hid her doubled chin. Jo was thick everywhere, through the face, neck and shoulders with legs the size of tree trunks.
“You s. . .see S. . .Scooter,” Russell Knight began, stuttering as usual. “Garrett believes t. . .that the moviemaker, Marcus Chandler, isn’t sick like the paper says, but actually a v. . .vam . . .vampire.”
Russell was tall, dark-haired, tanned and as skinny as a tent pole. His expression and gray eyes were placid and unreadable. Russell was half-Hispanic and rarely showed any emotion, especially his frustration over stuttering. He compensated by singing — which never led to stuttering — or humming Grateful Dead songs. He wore a t-shirt with a skull on the back and dancing skeletons on the front.
“He came back last month to kill his parents,” Garrett explained, “and now that they’re dead, he’s hungry again. Ready to prey on someone else.”
“I guess that line of metal didn’t protect them like they thought,” BJ chuckled, giving reason to the strange museum of pickups.
“That’s why people have been disappearing,” Garrett continued.
“By revealing Chandler’s a vampire, we’ll show everybody we’re not kids anymore,” Racquel said bitterly. “We’re adults.”
Other than their coloring, she and Russell looked very little alike. Racquel was a blossoming beauty with nearly flawless features and cold uncaring eyes the color of obsidian.
“Soon, Chaquita,” Garrett looked at her, then Scooter. “This is gonna be fun — and memorable.” With a wicked smile, Garrett pulled out a Polaroid and handed it to Scooter.
Made uneasy by Garrett’s expression, Scooter licked his lips as he accepted the camera. “What do you want me to do?”
“When he comes out for his evening walk, you’ll be hiding nearby, ready to snap some pictures. Vampires can’t be photographed, so when the picture’s blank, except for the background, we’ll know he’s truly one of the legion of undead.”
“How can you be so sure he’ll come out now?” Jo asked.
“He always comes out after the sun sets,” Garrett replied.
“H. . .how do you k. . .know?” Russell asked.
“Been watching him,” Garrett replied. “There’s something very, very strange about him.” “I’ve seen his picture. He’s one weird looking dude! Never seen a white African-American,” BJ chortled. “This Chandler fella looks like he’s been bleached!”
“Yeah,” Garrett continued. “His face is pasty white, almost colorless. His eyes are red, sorta like a rabid wolf’s. Boy howdy, he is ugly! Butt ugly! The kicker is he can’t stand the daylight. It blisters and burns his skin. What did I tell ya? He’s a vampire. Why else would he look like that and make movies about the living dead?” Garrett asked. “He knows all about being one with the darkness. It’s a perfect cover!”
“Maybe he’s related to Michael Jackson,” BJ snickered.
Scooter didn’t believe any of this and was fairly sure none of them did, either.
“P. . .paper says he’s an anemic albino and has Vitiligo,” Russell responded. “Don’t ask me to s. . .spell it.”
“What’s that?” Jo asked.
“A lie to cover up for the fact that he’s a vampire,” Garrett persisted.
“Maybe he has AIDS,” CJ suggested.
“And notice,” Garrett continued, “there’s no livestock around. No pigs, cows or chickens. Not even a horse! He probably sucks the blood from them when he can’t get ahold of a person!”
“I got a b. . .bad feeling about t. . .this.” Russell stammered.
Scooter looked at the camera again. Ever since Marcus Chandler returned to his hometown, Scooter had wanted to meet him — to talk to him about writing — but not like this! Scooter started to ask a question but Garrett interrupted him.
“I got something that’ll make the waiting easier. And fun!” Garrett reached underneath his shirt, pulling out a bottle.
“What’s that?” BJ asked.
“Red Hot Cinnamon Schnapps, buddy boy,” Garrett said as he unscrewed the top. He took a slug, then licked his lips.
Scooter’s apprehension grew stronger. Flash felt it and returned to his side. Scooter began scratching him between the ears, seeking comfort in the contact.
“Well, I’d like to try some,” BJ replied. Taking the open bottle, he repeated Garrett’s actions, then smiled broadly. “Yee-ha! Smooth!” He took another slug and gargled.
Jo’s smile was huge as she followed suit.
Trying unsuccessfully to imitate his brother, CJ drank, then choked and began coughing.
“QUIET!” Garrett whispered harshly. BJ smiled broadly, then took the bottle from his brother, holding it out to Russell. “First beer. Now schnapps, Russ ole buddy.”
Scooter was surprised. Russell never said anything about trying beer. Scooter looked at Russell who just shrugged. Was Russell starting to keep secrets from him? Scooter didn’t know if he was upset because he hadn’t been told or had been missing out.
“You ready, Russ?” Garrett asked. “Or afraid your papa will find out?”
Russell snatched the bottle from BJ and took a sip. With wide eyes and a beet-red face, he looked as though he’d swallowed liquid fire.
With a defiant and disdainful expression, Racquel took the bottle and managed a big swallow. She coughed delicately, then smiled, her eyes watering.
Garrett snorted, then said. “Good shot, Chaquita! Another step in getting y’all out from under your old man’s law-biding thumb! Learn about life! Be your own person, I always say! Kristie?”
With a slight frown, Kristie took the bottle from Racquel and drank. She reddened immediately and had trouble breathing. Tears rolled down her face. She held the bottle away as if it was a viper.
“You’ll get used to it,” Garrett told her. “Your turn, Scoot. It’s part of the initiation. Part of being one of us — one of the Graveyard Armadillos.” Garrett gave Scooter the bottle. He remembered Russell’s expression and Kristie’s reaction. He didn’t want to “get used to it.” Trying to appear cool, Scooter casually took a swig. It tasted of cinnamon and medicine, then lava ripped down his throat, exploding and expanding throughout his stomach. He grew dizzy and began to cough quietly, then uncontrollably louder, hacking harshly as if his lungs were tearing free.
Everyone but Kristie shushed him. Understanding completely, Russell patted his friend on the back. Scooter finally got it under control, coughing apologetically only now and then.
“Got something special to show y’all,” BJ said as he reached into his backpack. He pulled out something metallic. “I just bought it. It’s sweet!”
“A g. . .gun!” Russell squeaked.
Scooter bristled. A gun? For hunting, he hoped.
“A .38 special. Just in case there’s an emergency. Course I only shoot what I’m gonna eat.”
“He eats lots of stop signs,” CJ joked.
They all laughed. “Then we’re set!” Garrett replied as he pulled out his knife. “I’ve got Trusty here ready for trouble.” The knife reminded Scooter of the ones in the Rambo movies.
“Me, too!” Jo announced, pulling out her switchblade and clicking it open.
The tension that had been welling inside Scooter suddenly bubbled free. He couldn’t stop laughing. It grew louder and louder.
“Damn it, Scooter!”. “Be quiet! We don’t want him to know we’re here!”
Kristie looked at Scooter, their gazes locked, then she began to snicker. Russell, unable to control himself, began to do the same.
“I’m warning all y’all. . . .” Garrett whirled, looking directly at Scooter. His face tightened and his nostrils flared as he slowly spoke, “If you can’t shut. . . .”
A kitchen light in the back of the house came on.
“Time to get rolling,” Garrett said. “You ready Scoot?” He pointed to the camera in Scooter’s trembling hand.
He really didn’t want to do this. There was no way Chandler was a vampire, but for some reason he was suddenly scared. Scooter couldn’t stop shaking. “Wh. . .what am I supposed to do again?” Scooter almost choked on the words.
“Like I said, you’re gonna get proof that Chandler’s a vampire by taking pictures of him!” Garrett repeated. “Hide by the front gate and when he steps out, jump in front of him and start taking pictures. The flash will blind him long enough for you to escape. Trust me. Besides, I hear nobody can outrun the Scooter.”
“Y. . .you can d. . .do it,” Russell stuttered. Scooter tried to smile back and failed. At his feet, Flash whined. “C. . .come here, Flash,” Russell called quietly. Flash looked at Scooter who nodded. The golden Labrador reluctantly moped over to Kristie.
“I’ll take care of him,” Kristie promised.
Scooter nodded, tried to smile and failed again. He felt miserable. Trying to relax, Scooter breathed deeply several times, then scampered off toward the house, staying low to the ground and hidden in the tall grass and weeds. He could barely see anything in the dusky light.
As he climbed over the split-rail fence behind the trucks, he wondered what would happen if he tripped, fell down and broke the camera? What was he doing out here, anyway? Did he really want to be in the group this badly? Oh well, it was a harmless prank. Nobody really believed Chandler was a vampire, did they? He suddenly wished he had a crucifix. Just in case.
The silence was stark and unnerving. Scooter’s heartbeat and breathing was almost deafening. As he climbed the fence and headed across the hard-packed dirt, Scooter felt his laughter rising again. He was almost shaking.