Spotlight on In The Woods (Carrie Jones & Steven Wedel), Plus Excerpt!
Today we're excited to spotlight In The Woods by Carrie Jones & Steven Wedel.
Read on for more about Carrie & Steven and their book, plus an excerpt!
Meet Carrie Jones!
She is a distinguished alum of Vermont College's MFA Program and a volunteer firefighter in Maine.
Meet Steven Wedel!
STEVEN E. WEDEL is a high school English teacher, and lives with his wife and children in Oklahoma. He is the author, with Carrie Jones, of After Obsession.
Meet In The Woods!
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.
~ Excerpt ~
I 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 down 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 bleating 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 back 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
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.”
Instead of hanging out at Moosehead Lake with Zoe and the rest of my friends . . . Instead of getting tan and working to pay for gas money and new strings for my bass . . . Instead of being in New York City with Mom and Husband #3, also known as Bill, jamming up a storm with a bass legend . . . Instead of all these things, I am sitting on an unending stretch of interstate in a car that smells like my dad’s cinnamon gum because of dead cows and some crazy boy’s imagination.
“So many dead cows,” Dad murmurs as he maneuvers the station wagon around a piece of blown-out tire that lies flat and dead-looking in our lane. His voice loses its murmur and gets all excited. “Not just regular animal bites either . . . but mauled. Incredibly vicious. Chrystal! It’s amazing. You should see the photos. A calf’s head was ripped clean off its body.”
His eyes go all big the way they always do when he’s excited about something that’s absolutely weird-slash-disgusting.
He says, “Really. You should have a look. The folder is in the back.”
“No, thanks.” I peek over my shoulder at the manila folder he got at Walmart. I already know what will be in it: photos, copies of articles from newspapers or that he compiled off the Internet, addresses and phone numbers of witnesses. And it’s all there because of some dead cows.
We’re in Oklahoma to do some weird paranormal, cryptozoological research. He’s big into that, which is something I try not to share with people. He’s even got a blog called Strange Maine. My dad is a cryptozoologist, which means that he studies things people don’t believe in: werewolves, bigfeet, bat boys, vampires. It’s sort of cute the way his raspy dad voice will get all excited and he’ll point as he drives, talking, talking, talking, but I am not supposed to be here. I am supposed to be in New York. I want to be in New York. I want to be practicing bass with real mentors.
My dad is not the world’s weirdest person, and he is not the world’s skinniest person, but I think the combination of weird and skinny make him seem like he should be the star of a British science-fiction television show instead of a kindergarten teacher/Bigfoot enthusiast in Maine.
It wasn’t until fifth grade that I realized quite how weird he was. That was when I did my mammal report on Bigfoot. I got a zero because the teacher said Bigfoot wasn’t real. And I said, “But we have Bigfoot hair and a footprint in our house.” Everyone laughed. The teacher called me a liar. Then I did some back tucks at recess and everyone forgot to make fun of me.
Gymnastics is good like that. So is the guitar. Sometimes when you have skills—even minimal skills like doing a back tuck—that other people don’t have, they forget that you and your dad are just on the other side of normal. My bass skills were going to be insane, because I was heading to New York City, specifically Manhattan, to hang out with Mom this summer and work on my music and check out the indie scene and it was going to be amazing.
But that ended up being a nonstarter.
And here we are.
Like I said, Dad teaches kindergarten. When people ask me what he does in the summer, I tell them he’s an amateur animal behaviorist and that usually stops the questions. It’s lying, but I think it’s the kind that God forgives pretty quickly, not the kind that keeps you in the eternal fires of hell, which is basically where we are right now.
Also known as Oklahoma.
Honestly, I’m sure Oklahoma is a fine place when it’s not early summer and when you aren’t stuck in a Subaru station wagon with the heat rippling into the car in waves you can almost touch with your fingers as your dad babbles on and on and on about werewolves. Yes, werewolves.
“A werewolf is also called a lycanthrope, from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος: λύκος, as in lukos, “wolf,” and άνθρωπος, anthrōpos, ‘man,’” he says. “How fascinating is that, Chrystal?”
He guns the Subaru around a truck full of cows. They are adorable, actually. I wave at them. I hope they don’t die via Bigfoot or other means. I hope they don’t feel as powerless in their summer as I do in mine.
“It’s fascinating, Dad.” I pull my leg up so that I can inspect my toes. I took my flip-flops off states ago. “Are we almost there?”
“That we are, my little helper! I know you’re disappointed that your mom and Bill went to Europe, but I’m excited to have you with me.” He reaches over and rubs my hair. “It’s an adventure, right?”
I must not sound too excited because he goes, “Try not to be too disappointed, dear one. It’ll hurt your old man’s ego.”
“Sorry.” Guilt pushes into my chest. It’s not his fault Mom and Bill ditched me for Europe, and it’s not really even Dad’s fault that he’s so into weird. So I give him my best happy face and say, “I love you, old man, but you probably shouldn’t call me ‘dear one.’ It makes you sound silly.”
We can’t pass, so we’re stuck behind a cow truck for a while.
“Good, I love you too.” He smiles back. “Silly is a good thing. I noticed you have a tattoo on your ankle. Isn’t it illegal for minors to get tattoos in Maine without parental written permission?”
I suck in my lips, lift my eyebrows, and try to look innocent. “It’s a lollipop, though.”
“You are a sucker for lollipops!”
“Ha!” I punch his arm and then we sort of just drive more. I watch the cows’ faces. They are all so alike, stuck there staring at a landscape of green trees and rolling hills. “You know, ‘Boredom is the root of all evil—the despairing refusal to be oneself.’”
“You are still on the Kierkegaard kick, aren’t you?”
“Yep. All Søren Kierkegaard. All dead philosopher. All the time.”
“‘The task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted,’” Dad quotes at me, as if I don’t know it by heart.
I let that one settle for a second. “Is that why you do this? Search for weird things that don’t exist. Because it’s difficult?”
“Partly.” He turns his head to look at me. For a second there is a strange, almost sad look in his eyes, but he blinks it away and then there is only a hint of mischief. “And partly because being bored is the root of all evil. Don’t want to become evil.”
“You couldn’t ever.” I turn away and reach out toward the cows. The wind whips my hand backward and pushes my hair toward my dad, who has finally had enough, and guns the Subaru in front of the cow truck. It’s a bit close, so the cow truck driver blows his horn. I jump. My dad laughs.
“I’m refraining from giving him the finger,” he says.
I’ve turned around. “He didn’t hold back at all.”
“Two-fisted one-finger salute? Did that fellow give me the two-fisted salute?”
“Totally.” I wave at the truck driver in a way that I hope seems apologetic and not obnoxious. Then I sit back in my seat, readjusting my seat belt and starting the examination of my toes again. I’m a bit obsessed with my toes when I’m bored. Weird runs in the family, I guess. I give it up and grab my bass from the backseat. I will practice even without a mentor until I can get one.
Dad said if we have any summer left after this case, he’ll bring me to New York himself. He hates New York and its “teeming humanity,” so this is a big deal. Unlike Mom, Dad keeps his promises and he doesn’t forget me. He’s weird, but not that kind of weird.
A couple years ago, Mom forgot to pick me up from school and bring me to a bass lesson. She was still living in the state then. I texted her and texted her and finally got a ride with Zoe’s mom. My mom picked me up from Zoe’s, and as soon as I climbed into the car she looked at me all bright eyed.
“I have met the most interesting man,” she said.
“That’s why you forgot me?” My voice was tiny and angry. I belted myself into the car and hugged my bass in front of me. Usually I put it in the backseat, but not that day.
“Oh, honey. Mommy didn’t forget about you, but he was just so interesting.” She looked at me then, finally, and I guess she realized how shattered I was because she said, “Don’t worry. You come first with Mommy. Always.”
I strum the memory away, and as we loop and climb and coast down green slopes on the hilly highway Dad starts again. “I like to think about how many places in this world have Bigfoot myths. There’s…”
From the way he’s going on and on, I think I’m going to be inspecting my toes a lot this summer.
We have to slow down for a truck loaded with logs that’s going, like, twenty miles per hour around a sharp curve in the highway.
“I thought Oklahoma was all prairie,” I say as I text my friend Zoe another positive affirmation about her character and how no, she should not go out with the guy who does the go-karts at Seacoast Fun Park. When I’m done, I add to my dad’s conversation further. “You know, just flat and covered in waving strands of golden wheat. Like in the song.”
“That’s the western part of the state,” Dad says. “The east is pretty much all like this, according to what I read. We’re still in the Ozark Mountain range.”
“I wonder if they drive faster in the flat part of the state.”
He laughs at me. I finally put my bass safely away and reach for the manila folder behind me.
“I knew you’d succumb to curiosity,” he says.
“Succumb to boredom is more like it,” I retort as I open the folder.
The first page is not mutilated cows, thank God; it’s just facts about Cherokee County, Oklahoma. There’s a mere forty-two thousand people in the entire county: half are white; a third are Native American. It doesn’t say what nation, but I’m assuming Cherokee, hence the name.
“Not a lot of people here, Dad,” I say. “I think the werewolves would get bored. All the bigfeet, too.”
“Funny.” He smiles. “The horse who starred on Mister Ed is from here. That’s something.”
I must give him a blank look because his face turns into disappointed-dad mode.
“You have no idea who Mister Ed is, do you?”
“I’ve totally failed as a father.” He groans and turns down the radio. “How about Robert J. Conley or Jackson Narcomey or Hastings Shade or Sonny Sixkiller?”
“Nope. Nope. Nope and . . . nope.” I flip to a new page. It’s a contact list.
“He wrote Where the Red Fern Grows.” I act incredibly triumphant about knowing this because I know Dad will love it.
“Finally,” he says, all pretend-exasperated-father.
“That was the saddest book ever. We read it in fourth grade. Why do they only make you read sad books in school? Someone always has to die.”
“Not in kindergarten,” he says proudly.
I nod and start perusing the new page, which is a newspaper article. “True. It’s The Cat in the Hat and Fancy Nancy all the time in kindergarten. You know, it’s never too early to teach those developing minds that life is full of tragedy and horror. Give them some Stephen King. Some Hamlet.”
He laughs and scruffs up my hair.
“Yeah.” He switches into the fast lane of the two-lane highway again. This time it’s to go around a big green tractor. A guy is driving a tractor on the highway! I resist the urge to text this info to my friends.
Instead I ask, “All your stuff. This is mostly all about Bigfoot. I thought you said this was a werewolf sighting.”
“Well, not technically. I have a theory about Bigfoot and werewolves and it’s really pretty interesting, but it’s not an accepted theory at all, Chrystal. I’m still developing it, you know? And anyway, once we start investigating I would rather if you didn’t say ‘werewolf’ to anyone. I think it will spook them and maybe undermine our credibility.”
“Dad . . .”
“‘We start investigating’?” Seriously?
He gives me his best win-you-over smile, which is half four-year-old boy, half Cookie Monster. “I don’t want you to just hang out in the hotel room playing your bass the whole time, Chrystal. That’s not social. When you were little, you loved helping me. Remember when we looked for Gourd Head in Brazil?”
Gourd Head is a humanoid cryptic that is supposedly about three feet tall. He has been spotted in Brazil, where they call him negro d’agua, which means “black man of the waters.” His head is super-big and looks like a gourd and he has webbed hands and feet. Needless to say, we didn’t find him.
“You liked Brazil,” my dad offers. “We had fun there.”
“Dad. I was five and you dangled me over the side of the boat as bait.”
“No, I did not.”
“You totally did.”
“It was because you liked to be dangled over the side of the boat. You thought it was fun.”
I don’t respond. It’s not really the best social policy to spend the summer looking for monsters with your dad. Plus, it usually means intruding on people’s lives, or even worse, talking to stuffy professors.
Finally he says, “I’ll pay you if you help.”
I smile because I need money for gas and strings and a new amp. Seriously, what choice do I have, anyway? “Deal. Plus, with my mad skills, we might get to New York sooner.”
“Right.” He pulls off the highway and onto an exit ramp, which is a minor miracle because we’ve been traveling for-freaking-ever, and says, “But only if it doesn’t get too dangerous. If it gets too dangerous, all bets are off.”
“No dangling me over the side of the boat for bait this time,” I tease.
His face loses all its jokey dadness and becomes deadly serious. “No way in hell.”
“No way in Oklahoma,” I rephrase. He doesn’t get the joke.
In The Woods
By: Carrie Jones/Steven Wedel
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: July 16th, 2019