It was easy to miss the turnoff in the dark. Just a break in the gnarled trees, Cole winced each time the branches squealed against the sides of his father’s truck. Still, he leaned over the steering wheel and turned the clunker down the overgrown path.
Safely under tree cover he flicked his headlights back on and slowed to a crawl. From the passenger’s side of the front seat, Rhett groaned at the speed and called him a pussy. Cole jerked the wheel and truck’s right tire dropped into a ditch, cracking Rhett’s forehead against the passenger window.
Cole chuckled and righted the truck.
“Asshole. Watch the beer.” Rhett checked the unopened twenty-four-pack sitting between them, assuring that the cans were still secure and wrapped in the seatbelt.
“Should’ve used the belt for yourself,” Cole said, still fighting a smile.
The path eventually branched. He turned them left without hesitation, the cab rocking back and forth on the uneven road. They’d been coming here for a year now, ever since he and Rhett had made varsity. The seniors had driven them out that first time. Since then, they’d found their own way to the clearing, often with Rhett’s stolen beer and Cole’s borrowed truck. Tucked deep in the low trees on the edge of the Nelson property, the spot had been long claimed by the teenagers of Holt High school.
Cole locked the truck after Rhett grabbed the beer. He checked the door handle while Rhett hefted the drinks triumphantly at their friends. The truck took enough abuse getting out here, Cole didn’t want to explain stained seats or the smell of spilled beer.
When he turned around Stephanie Davis was there. She hopped up on her toes and snaked a hand behind his neck, pulling herself up and his head down. The kiss was awkward due to the height difference between him and the cheerleader. Stephanie enjoyed complaining about the discrepancy to anyone who would listen, making sure to point out exactly how tall her quarterback boyfriend was.
She smoothed her long yellow hair after he stepped back. “Took you long enough, c’mon we have a surprise for you and Rhett.”
He put an arm around her shoulders and let her lead. The rest of the group were clustered in one part of the clearing, a half ring hiding the middle from view. Cole knew all of them, it was a small town, though he was more used to seeing football and cheer uniforms than jeans and jackets. Rhett was already there. Cole moved up to him, curious to see what he was frowning at over his beer.
Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t a cage. The makeshift kennel was bent, but functional. It had to be, or the dog inside would have been gone. The large mutt had its belly to metal panned floor, pressing itself as far away from the teenagers as possible. Its lips vibrated in one long low growl as it stared up at them.
“What is that?” Rhett asked deadpan while Cole just stared.
“It’s the Tuscaloosa Wolf.” Stephanie answered Rhett, an unsaid duh oozing condescension. She sent an eager look up at Cole. When he didn’t react, or even look away from the terrified dog, Stephanie continued, “Thought you’d recognize it.”
“I do. Why is it here?” Rhett returned with a withering look, his disdain for Stephanie overtaking the shock of their hangout’s new addition. Cole recognized the dog too, from the games against Tuscaloosa High School. The opposing team would trot out this dog, some shepherd husky mix, as their mascot, the Tuscaloosa wolf. It’d looked slightly less miserable sitting on the sidelines by cheerleader pyramids than it did now.
Stephanie ignored Cole’s stunned silence. She leaned forward and the dog twisted away from her with a sharp warning bark. Cole grit his teeth and tugged her away from the shaking animal.
“I’m fine.” Stephanie put a hand on his arm and his skin crawled. She grinned at her audience, still awaiting an explanation. “It’s a present for the team, we stole Tuscaloosa’s mascot.” The other cheerleaders nodded and began filling in the details of the heist. Cole’s teammates were mostly enraptured.
Rhett rolled his eyes and drained the beer. He turned and knocked into Cole’s arm. “C’mon let’s play beer pong or something.”
Cole shook his head. The dog was still there, exhausted from its panic. He watched it pant between growls, its sides heaving up and down. Rhett grabbed his arm, “Come off it Cole, you just got back with Stephanie. Don’t piss her off. The dog’s fine, it’s not like Tuscaloosa treated the thing any better.”
Cole glared at him.
“Yah, yah.” Rhett let go of Cole’s arm. He grabbed a new beer and toasted his friend. “Stephanie’s gonna hate you forever. I’ll get Madison to give me a ride back.”
Half an hour later Cole turned his truck back onto the main road. He and Rhrett had managed to wedge the cage between the dash and the seat cushions. With the cab finally on even ground, the dog had finally stopped trembling. Curled into a ball, it watching Cole silently from across the seat.
His phone lit up again with Stephanie’s name. Cole turned it over on the seat and concentrated on driving.
He didn’t take the west road to Tuscaloosa. Instead Cole turned south, the direction that would take him towards his house. His dad would have a lot of questions, and Cole would do his best to answer them. But like Cole, the dog needed a break from school politics.