It had been a hot summer already, but the August sun beating down unhindered by clouds on the football field at Tennessee Valley High School was hot enough to cook breakfast on the surface of the clay-colored track. The temperature was hanging just over 100 and the football players, coaches, cheerleaders, and few students sitting in the stands could feel every single degree of it against their skin. This was just a practice session. The game wasn't until tomorrow night where, thankfully, the sun would be gone and they could play under the stadium lights. The only people here on this hot afternoon were either required to be or loved watching the team practice enough to stand the scorching temperature; everyone else had gone home as soon as the afternoon bell rang or were engaging in activities held indoors, away from the unforgiving sun.
In his white football pants, gold practice jersey, and white helmet with a black stripe down the middle, Brandon Welch lined up behind the center. If not for the black paint smeared under his eyes, the reflection of the sun off the center's bright jersey would probably be blinding him. He dug his cleats deep into the soft grass as he crouched down. His hands readied to receive the snap. "Blue, forty-one!" he shouted. "Blue, forty-one! Set...hike!"
The ball pressed hard against his hand as a flurry of movement began. The sounds of pads and helmets smashing against each other surrounded Brandon as he dropped back into the pocket. His eyes shot up, looking for a target as he held the ball up to the side of his head. One receiver was still heading down field, the other had turned in and was crossing the middle of the field unhindered. He smiled. He had an open target.
Brandon sent his right hand back, ready to hurl the ball down the field, but a movement to his right caught his peripheral vision. Someone had failed their blocking assignment because there was a defensive end coming around the line with his arms stretched out to either side. Brandon lowered the ball as the defensive end charged him, his black jersey getting closer by the second. Brandon's brow lowered as his nostrils flared.
The defensive end dove forward, but Brandon cut a sharp left and ran out of reach. The would-be tackler fell to the ground with a loud thud. Brandon's eyes shot back up as he continued to run towards the left end of the field. His man was still open, but was now moving in the opposite direction that Brandon was, making the potential throw longer and longer by the second.
Though the receiver was still open, even waving his arms in the air to get his attention, Brandon turned his gaze towards the end zone. It wasn't a completely clear shot between him and a touchdown, and they weren't exactly near the goal line, but Brandon figured this was the best way to pick up a few yards without risking an interception. He tucked the ball in close and bolted down the field as fast as his legs could carry him.
The yards raced by with each couple of steps. The wind helped to cool his sun-baked skin. He was a few step from the scrimmage line before anyone on the defensive side realized that the play had suddenly changed. A tackler dove for his legs, but Brandon acted too quickly, leaping over his arms before they could make contact. Another defensive linemen made his way into Brandon's path. The lineman lunged forward with his arms out as wide as they would go. He was less than three feet away, certainly close enough to ensure Brandon couldn't get away.
To the lineman's surprise Brandon cut a sharp right, moving away from the his left hand in time for it to just miss him by inches. The bewildered lineman continued to fall forward onto the grass, leaving wide open spaces between him and the end zone. Brandon smiled as he raced towards the end zone at full speed. Even with several players chasing him down, he knew he was going to score now. There wasn't a person on this team that could out-run him. Heck, he didn't think there was a person in the school as fast as he was.
The whistles started blowing by the time he crossed the goal line. Brandon put the breaks on, slowing to a stop just on the other side of the goal post. Stopping to catch his breath, he dropped the ball and leaned over placing his hands on his thighs. One, long whistle sounded as Brandon picked the ball back up. He turned back down field and began jogging back towards the line of scrimmage where the coaching staff was heading from the sidelines.
"On the double, Welch!" head coach Shook shouted. He was a leathery-skinned man in his late forties who was a little overweight. He had a graying goatee and thinning hair which was covered by his black ball-cap sporting a cartoon drawing of an angry looking panther.
Brandon picked up speed as he quickly made it over to cluster of coaches. He stopped and reached up for the buttons on his chin strap. Gripping the straps, he pulled them down, releasing the strap. Brandon brought his other hand up to his helmet and pulled it off of his head. His wavy brown hair was matted down from sweat and the weight of the helmet. He gave his head a quick shake, causing his hair to swing back and forth and sending a shower of sweat flying in all directions.
"You plan on taking on Central all by yourself this Friday?" Coach Shook shouted.
"What do you mean, Coach?" Brandon asked.
Shook grunted and his lips curled. "The play was for a pass to Roberts!" he shouted. "He was wide open! Why did you run the ball?"
Brandon extended his helmet out towards the field. "If Karofski had made his blocking assignment, I could have made the pass!"
"You had more than enough time to get that ball in the air!" Shook retorted.
"I scored, didn't I?" Brandon asked boldly.
Shook opened his mouth to speak again, but stopped short of letting any words pass his lips. There was an argument he wanted to make, but he couldn't find it. "Set it up again!" he finally shouted before blowing his whistle again.
Brandon laughed a little to himself. For all of Coach Shook's talk about teamwork and working as a unit, he knew as well as anyone else that the Panthers would be nothing without Brandon taking the snaps. As the quarterback, he was the third highest scoring player on the team, and not for passes. He always managed to find his way into the end zone at every game. He had a good arm, but he was also fast, really fast. When Brandon took off he was almost uncatchable. He was light on his feet and could change direction on a dime.
Brandon rotated his head to the left and right, stretching his neck muscles. His whole body was sore, very sore. His muscles ached like he had the flu, though he had no other symptoms. Normally, he would chalk it up to taking too many hits in practice, but school had only been in session for a couple of weeks and this soreness had been coming off and on since June.
At first, Brandon thought nothing of it. He figured he'd exercised too hard or come down with a bug of some kind. However, the soreness became stronger and more frequent as the weeks went by. It felt like his muscles were stretching, twisting, forming themselves in new ways. He thought me might need to go see a doctor, but what would that help? He had no other symptoms, and sore muscles are not so uncommon.
Brandon put his helmet back on and fastened the chin strap. As he turned back towards the field, a face in the stands caught his eyes. There was hardly anyone sitting on the scorched metal bleachers that afternoon, so the face of Dawn Masterson wasn't hard to spot.
Dawn was a new student at TVHS, but she had wasted no time becoming the most peculiar girl in the whole school. For a school in the country of eastern Tennessee where most kids dressed like farmers, she looked more like she came from a Rob Zombie concert. She had on a black tank top with black, leather pants and tall, black, lace-up boots. She had on dark makeup and her shoulder-length hair was bright pink. Needless to say, she stuck out in the hallway pretty well.
It wasn't Dawn's look that had caught Brandon's attention, but the simple fact that she was here at all. He didn't know her that well, but he was sure she wasn't the type to care about football. Her outfit also wasn't good for sitting out in the hot sun and he wasn't sure how she was standing it.
Despite the fact that they had never even once spoken to one-another, Dawn always seemed to be wherever Brandon was. She was in nearly all of his classes. At lunch, she would always sit at the next table from him, no matter where he moved to. No matter where he went at school, there she was, usually stealing glances at him here and there.
At first he thought she was crushing on him or something. Being the quarterback, he wasn't unaccustomed to being flirted with, but all the other girls would smile, wave, or giggle. Dawn always just observed. Even now, out in the blazing heat, she sat there looking bored as can be. It was like she had been hired to watch him or something. Whatever her reason, it was really starting to freak Brandon out. He wished she would just leave him alone.
"Welch!" Shook shouted.
Hearing his coach yelling broke Brandon from his quiet contemplations about his mysterious stalker. He quickly raced back to the middle of the field where the rest of his offense was already huddled up.
"Off daydreaming?" one player sarcastically asked.
"Shut up," Brandon replied with a quick roll of his eyes. He braced his hands against his legs as he leaned down into the huddle. "Coach wants to see a pass play—we'll give him a pass play. Sanders, get down field in a hurry, I'm gonna throw you up a prayer."
"A hail Mary?" asked a player to Brandon's right. "Coach is gonna have yo' ass, you run a stupid play like that."
Brandon knew he was right, but he didn't care. He was feeling cocky, and he was a little ticked off that coach had tried come down on him after he ran in a touchdown. "Hail Mary, on two."
"Break!" the offense shouted in unison. Their huddle disbanded and they made their way to the line where the defense was poised and ready. Brandon stayed back in the pocket, ready to take a long snap. He had his hands out in front of him and his right leg back.
"Set!" Brandon shouted. Before he could call the hike, his muscles suddenly twinged again. His body cringed. It was like touching an electrified fence. He felt his legs and arms shaking as his head began to pound. It made no sense. He couldn't understand why he felt this way. His muscles seized and loosened in random, spastic attacks.
Brandon shook his head, trying to ignore it. He didn't want to let on to the rest of the team or the coaches that he wasn't feeling well. "Hut, hut!" he shouted. The ball came flying towards him as both lines of players collided into each other.
Brandon took the ball and dropped back several steps. His offensive line was holding strong, giving his receiver plenty of time to get way down the field. He could already predict how Coach Shook was going to chew him out for this, but a completed pass could take a lot of sting out of the coming lecture. Everything looked good, his man was wide open and only ten yards from the goal line. Some defensive linemen were breaking through, but he could get the pass off well before they got to him.
Confident with his setup, Brandon reared back to launch the ball into the air. However, a series of sudden whistles suddenly blew the play dead. Aggravated, Brandon lowered the ball as he saw two yellow squares of cloth go flying through the air. The coaches must have caught a penalty. So much for bragging rights.
Brandon took a deep breath through his nose as he started back towards the line of scrimmage, but stopped dead in his tracks after only one step. There was a smell in the air. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was driving him crazy.
With his muscles seizing harder than ever, Brandon dropped to his knees. He could see the veins in his arms rising up against his skin. His breaths quickened and his eyes grew wide. He could feel his nostrils flaring up. What was this? He couldn't understand what was happening to his body, but this familiar, yet undefinable smell was making it worse.
This wasn't the only sensation the smell was triggering. In addition to twinging muscles and heavy breathing, Brandon also felt very...hungry! He was suddenly salivating for no reason. This was very strange indeed. He fell down onto his hands and knees. His fingers dug down into the soft, Tennessee dirt as his hands wrenched. He felt like he was going to bust out of his own skin at any moment.
"I think your cleat got me in the arm!" he heard a player shout.
"You bleeding?" asked another player.
"Yea, a little."
Brandon gasped. That was it. That's what that smell was. He knew he'd smelled it before, but he couldn't place it. Now, there could be no mistake. It was blood. He was smelling blood and, for some reason, it was triggering an attack from whatever was wrong with his body.
"Welch!" shouted a nearby player. "You okay?"
"I'm...fine," Brandon replied as he stared down at the ground. "Just...a little tired...is all."
"Come on, wuss," the player taunted. "Can't take the heat?"
Brandon let out a low groan, almost involuntarily. He was in no mood for this. He felt like he was losing control over himself and he didn't know why. Something was taking control of him. He wanted to get back to his feet, but he couldn't bring his body to follow his commands. He just stayed there on the ground, with his fingers deep in the dirt, breathing heavily as the hot sun beat down on his back.
"Yo, pansy," the player taunted as he stepped forward. "You gonna take a nap, or are you gonna...?"
Without intention, Brandon suddenly leaped up towards the other player. He didn't know why he was doing it and he certainly didn't want to be, but he had somehow lost control over his own actions. Brandon had only a moment to catch a glimpse of the boys bewildered expression before his right palm found its way to the side of his helmet.
Brandon struck the boy against the side of his head with more strength than he could ever have dreamed that he actually had. His hand hit the side of the player's helmet with a loud thud and the boy quickly fell to the ground. Brandon just stood there. His right hand felt like it was on fire. His whole body ached horribly. He was panting like an excited dog and he could actually feel a trail of saliva running down the right side of his face.
"Oh my god!" shouted another player from behind Brandon.
"Welch, what the hell are you doing?" yelled coach Shook.
Brandon stood motionless. He wasn't sure if he couldn't move or if he just didn't want to. His muscles were starting to relax, but his breathing continued to be heavy. He could smell blood again, more of it this time. It was stronger than before and, strangely enough, it was making his senses go crazy. He felt consumed by it. The smell was so potent he swore he could taste it. He could feel saliva dripping off his top teeth and his tongue was flicking around wildly in his mouth.
"Welch!" Shook shouted as he forcefully grabbed onto Brandon's left shoulder pad.
Brandon felt his body suddenly swing around, bringing him face to face with his flabbergasted coach. Shook's eyes were wide and his face was as red as a Coca-Cola can. His body was literally trembling with anger. "What is wrong with you?" the coach bellowed.
"I...I...!" Brandon didn't know what to say. He didn't know why he'd done what he did. In fact, he wasn't even sure what it was that he did. It had been like someone else was piloting him by remote control, taking away his free will. He'd had no intention to lunge at a teammate like he did.
Brandon turned his head, looking passed Coach Shook to the group of players that were in a tight huddle and looking down at the ground. He quickly stepped around Shook, trying to get a better view. He saw the fallen player's legs first, but the rest of him was obscured by the legs of the players standing around him. He rushed in, parting his teammates with his arms. As the way cleared, he looked down to the boy he had involuntarily assaulted. He couldn't believe what he say.
The boy was lying on his stomach. He was moving slightly and making small moaning noises, but mostly lying still. Brandon dropped to his knees and placed a hand on the boy's back. "Summers!" he shouted. "Summers, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to...!" It was then that he saw it. The grass underneath Summers' head was stained with blood, lots of blood.
Brandon fell backwards onto his butt, catching himself on his hands before landing on his back. How could this have happened? He'd hit him hard, but there's no way he could have drawn blood like that.
"What's wrong with you, Welch?" shouted a player from above him.
"What were you thinking?" demanded another.
"I...I don't know," was all Brandon could say in response. Amidst the chaos, Brandon looked up towards the stands. The few onlookers in the bleachers were rushing down the steps towards the field, except for one. Dawn still sat where she had been, not moving an inch. Her gaze was locked on Brandon, her eyes unflinching. She was staring at him intently, though he couldn't understand why. Her expression hadn't changed a bit. It was still blank and emotionless, as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.
As the other players helped Summers to his feet and carried him off the field, Brandon just sat on the grass, looking back at Dawn who, for some reason, seemed to be the only one not surprised by his actions.