It should have been just another quiet night on the farm when Logan witnessed the attack, but it wasn’t.
Something is in the woods.
Hundreds of miles away, Chrystal’s plans for summer in Manhattan are abruptly upended when her dad reads tabloid coverage of some kind of grisly incident in Oklahoma. When they arrive to investigate, they find a witness: a surprisingly good-looking farm boy.
As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, Logan and Chrystal will have to find out the truth about whatever’s hiding in the woods…before they become targets themselves.
In the Woods by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel will be available on July 16. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
[dropcap type=”circle”]I[/dropcap] look at the lines I’ve just written, read them again, then again. I don’t like them. Walt Whitman and Robert Frost probably never wrote such horrible poems. Maybe if I add one more couplet to the one I have, it won’t be so bad. I tap the eraser of my pencil against my chin, something I always do when I think. Studying the early night, I look for clues, searching for something that will move me. It’s a hot, still night in late May, the first weekend of summer vacation. Off to my left, somewhere in the pecan grove, a cricket is singing. It’ll have to do.
Sitting on the grass beneath a full moon, I think about you, hope to see you soon. A lonely cricket sings a lonely song;
I know he’ll be singing it all night long.
The lines stare back at me. I murmur them to myself, not bold enough to shout them to the stars. They’re soooo bad. I don’t understand it. Every line has the same number of syllables. The rhymes are real and aren’t corny, like when I once rhymed “short stack” and “six-pack.” That was back in freshman year, though. That’s when my Robert Frost kick began, all because of one silly report about how landscape is a metaphor for human things. It felt like some sort of magic language that poets spoke. I thought maybe I could do it—make the metaphors, make the magic. Like crickets can be hearts singing or something. I don’t know. By this time, as a high school junior ready for my senior year, I should be able to do something better than the words staring back at me from the lined paper of my composition notebook.
Somewhere behind the barn a cow lows. No way I’m adding that to my future trash can ball. Nobody wants to read about contented cows standing around at night. Maybe that’s my problem. All I know are dairy cows, pecan trees, and farm machinery. And fishing. And hunting. But those are things every farm boy in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, knows. No magic. Nothing special.
I close my notebook. The problem is that I can’t write about being lonely and longing for somebody because I’m really not. Sure, it’d be nice to have a steady girl, I guess. Maybe. I don’t know, though. Me and my best friend, David Thompson, used to hang out all the time, fishing in the morning and hunting at night. David got a girlfriend, Yesenia, and I hardly ever see him. He goes to a lot of movies up in Tahlequah now.
I lie back on the old blanket I spread on the lawn and stare up at the stars. Thunder, my bloodhound, takes that as a sign that I need his attention. He burrows his nose in my armpit, then runs his snout under my arm until my hand comes to rest on the back of his head. I scratch behind his ear, but I’m not really into it.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I mean, really. Here I am lying on a blanket just out of sight of the house where my parents and sisters are sleeping, staring up at the stars because I can’t write poetry. Poetry! It seems almost ridiculous. My best friend has a girlfriend, and all I really feel is jealous that I never get to see him anymore.
“Wow. Thunder, am I weird or what?”
His only answer is a snort, which is pretty appropriate given the question. Then he looks at me with those sad brown eyes. There’s not another dog in the world that looks as sad as a bloodhound. I laugh at him a little, then bring my other hand over to grab the skin behind his face in both hands and push it backward, pulling out some of the wrinkles. He patiently stares at me, waiting for this old and silly game to be over.
Last summer at this time, David would have been over here spending the evening with me. We’d play video games and eat popcorn (and anything else that we could sneak) and talk about fishing and hunting and girls. But David doesn’t have to talk about girls anymore. He has a girlfriend.
“Remember when David pulled that snapping turtle out of the river?” I ask Thunder, who continues to ignore me. That had been a good day last summer. We drove my pickup truck over to the Illinois River and had our lines in the water way before the sun came up. At about dawn the fish started biting and we pulled out channel catfish and sand bass for a while, then the day got hot and the fish stopped biting. But David swore he could still catch something.
“You won’t catch anything until it cools off,” I told him.
Still, he kept casting his line. Finally he put a regular old earthworm on the hook, set the weight so the worm would go deep, and threw it in and sat down beside me and our lunch. He was halfway through a ham-and-cheese sandwich when his line jerked.
“Ha! Told ya!” He jumped up and started reeling. Ah, but he was too proud. He kept turning around and taunting me and didn’t even look to see what was on his line when it came out of the water. “Who said I couldn’t get another fish?”
Then he reached for his line. When his hand touched that turtle’s belly, the thing let go of the worm. The hook never set. The turtle fell to the ground. Snapping turtles can be aggressive, and pretty fast for turtles. It went after David’s foot.
I laugh out loud remembering David dancing around on that ledge a few feet above the water until he finally got a good angle and kicked the turtle back into the river. “That was a good day,” I tell Thunder.
Another cow lows. I check out Thunder, who has perked up. That cow isn’t simply making a contented noise in the night. Another cow, a little farther away, moos. Thunder jerks his head out of my hands and jumps to his feet. His nose twitches as he scents the air. Zeus, our cranky old bull, bellows a challenge, then comes the sound of many hoofed feet running.
“Coyote!” I yell, rolling to a sitting position, then jumping up. It’s not magic, but it’s something. “Let’s get him, boy.”
Thunder barks once. Behind us, Galahad and Daisy answer him. A second later Galahad streaks past us, running for the northeast corner of the fence. A mostly blue heeler mix, he’s younger than Thunder, and not the smartest dog I’ve ever seen. Daisy is old and no longer interested in nighttime activities that don’t involve table scraps. I’m sure she’s settled herself back down on the porch, but is listening. Thunder looks back at me, then after Galahad, then back at me again.
“Go on,” I tell him. “Get him!”
Thunder takes off and I follow at a trot. My dog slips under the bottom strand of barbed-wire fence. With the help of the thick corner post, I vault over the top, out of the yard, and into the hilly cow pasture. The cattle are still running and Zeus is still bellowing. Galahad’s short, sharp barks come back to me from the darkness ahead. He’s already vanished into the thick night of the trees beyond the barn.
Then there’s another sound. It’s not a roar, really. No way it’s a cow, or even our angry bull. It’s not a coyote, either. I slow down as I pass the backside of our milking barn.
No, I don’t think so . . . the sound’s not high enough in pitch, though I’ve never actually heard a real panther. The most likely animal is a black bear. In the back of my mind I remember a report saying the black bear population here in the Ozark Mountains has been on the rise.
For a moment I think about going back to the house for a rifle, but the sound of a screaming calf stops me. Blackness nestles under the trees some thirty yards from where I’m standing. Something’s got one of our calves. No way I want to face off against a bear without a gun, but it’s not like it’ll be a grizzly bear. You can scare away black bears pretty easy. And I’ll have Thunder and dummy Galahad with me. I take off running into the dark.
The sound of panicked hooves is moving northwest, out of the trees and into the grass pasture. The calf still bleats. A cow, no doubt the calf’s mother, moos frantically. Galahad’s barks are constant and fierce. Then Thunder opens up with his deep voice, baying to let me know he’s trailing something. I follow the sound of his voice into the dense forest of sycamores, oaks, maples, and other trees, watching for roots and rocks, whooping to encourage Thunder.
“Get him, Thunder!” I yell. “I’m coming.”
In my pocket, my cell phone bursts out with a snatch of Toby Keith. I pause long enough to dig the phone out, then keep running.
“Logan?” Dad’s voice asks. “What’s going on? You’re not coon hunting around the cattle again, are you?”
“No, Dad,” I say, panting. “There’s something out here. Do you hear that calf?” I hold the phone in front of me for a second, then press it back to my ear. “Sounds like a bear or something.”
“Get back here, Logan,” he warns. I can hear Mom beside him, asking what’s going on.
“I can’t, Dad. It’s got one of our calves. Can you bring a gun?” Thunder’s baying turns into a serious of deep, frightened barks. That’s not good. “Thunder’s found it.”
The calf’s screaming stops suddenly. That’s really not good. Then the predator makes another sound. It’s almost a howl, like a coyote or a wolf, but different. It sounds . . . almost human.
“Holy crap, Dad! Did you hear that?”
“Logan, you get back to the house right now,” he orders.
But it’s too late.
Oh God, it’s too late.
I see Thunder first. He’s standing between two trees, the hair all along his back standing straight up, his tail out stiff behind him as he looks ahead of him. Galahad is running in half circles around a tiny clearing in the woods, barking, barking, barking at something in the deep shadows.
The Holstein calf is elevated, its shoulders about four feet off the ground. The white hair on it seems to glow in the darkness, making its black spots even blacker. Its black eyes are so wide, the white rims are visible. The calf’s mouth is open and it’s bleat- ing in fear, its long pink tongue protruding and curling up at the tip. The clearing smells of fresh cow poop and pee.
I can’t quite see what is holding the calf. It’s huge, though, and dark. Starlight reflects in moist black eyes. The eyes. I swear they are at least seven feet off the ground. I’m six feet, and they are way higher than my head. The thing’s eyes are shifting from Thunder to Galahad and back again when I walk up, but then they fix themselves on me. From the darkness under the eyes comes a low, angry growl. Teeth flash in the moonlight. Could that be a man? That can’t be a man. Could it?
“Holy crap,” I murmur. “Holy crap. Holy crap.”
Involuntarily, I back up a step. It doesn’t seem far enough away. Five thousand miles doesn’t seem far enough away.
The dogs are still barking. Thunder crouches low. He growls and barks. Galahad keeps running from place to place, lunging forward, retreating, repositioning, barking with every breath.
And the calf is screaming again.
The white pattern on the calf’s face disappears as something covers it up. Then, even over the dogs, I can hear the sharp crack of the calf’s neck breaking. The screams stop. I look again at the Holstein calf’s head, and for a moment in the moonlight I see what looks like hands.
Not a bear! My mind screams this brilliant realization over and over.
“Galahad!” I call. “Thunder! Come on!” I back away another step, my eyes fixed on the blacker-than-black shape in the shadows of the trees. The calf is quiet. Dead quiet. The shadow shifts, bending over the calf ’s neck. There is a ripping, tearing, wet sound. The blood runs off the calf, onto the ground, and then I can smell the copper of it.
“Oh my God. God help me,” I whisper to the night.
The thing shifts again. The calf dangles by its head for a moment, then is caught up, and much of it disappears into the shadows. There is more of that tearing sound.
The calf ’s head flies out of the shadows and rolls to a stop inches from my boots.
I almost pee a little.
Then I can only hear the sounds of heavy feet running away, old leaves crunching, and tree branches whipping back into place as the giant dark shape pushes through them.
Behind me, Dad yells my name.
Galahad starts after the thing. I try to yell at him, but there’s no sound. I lick my lips and try again. “Galahad! Come back here!” Thunder takes a step forward, but I stop him. “No, Thunder.”
The calf ’s big, dead, scared eyes look up at me, asking me why.
Why am I dead? What killed me? Will my mother ever stop calling for me? I can’t go with her anymore.
“Logan.” A hand falls on my shoulder. I jump forward and scream. My foot hits the severed head and it trips me. I fall onto the hard ground, twisting around to see what’s behind me, sure it’s the monster, but it’s only my dad.
He’s wearing his work boots, unlaced, and his pale-blue pajamas. He’s carrying a pump shotgun in the crook of his right arm.
I don’t know if I should cry or laugh or scream or what.
Dad looks from me to the head I tripped over, then to Thunder, then to the clearing, where Galahad is sniffing at the pool of blood in the grass beneath where that thing was eating. “Galahad! Come here,” Dad snaps, and the dog obeys. Galahad doesn’t really obey anyone else.
“Was it a bear?” Dad asks me.
I suddenly realize I’m lying down, defenseless, and that thing might not be too far away. I jump up and look behind me, toward the place where the thing disappeared. “No. It wasn’t a bear.”
“Panther? You shouldn’t have gone after it alone, especially without a gun. Logan, we’ve talked about this. There are dangerous animals out here sometimes.”
Now I do laugh. I can’t help it. It’s a scary laugh, though, and I’m really worried I won’t be able to stop. Finally Dad’s voice cuts it off. “Logan!” he commands. One more laugh escapes, a twisted, frightened thing. His hand squeezes my shoulder. “What is wrong with you?”
“Can we go home?” I ask.
Dad looks back at the head, then at the pool of blood. “I guess so. I’ll get the sheriff out here in the morning, let him call the state wildlife people.”
“It wasn’t a panther, either, Dad,” I say as we start walking downhill, toward home.
“Not a bear or a panther? What was it?”
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “A hungry shadow with wet eyes and big teeth.”
Copyright © 2019 by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel