The Woods - Sample Chapter


Mark wasn’t at his house the next morning. I was relieved when Mark’s sister Jackie answered my knock instead of Mrs. Dyson. Jackie was eight; she told me she didn’t know where Mark had gone, only that he’d left the house before she got up.

“Where’d he go?”

She shook her head. “Don’t know.”

“Who is it, damn it?” I heard Jason Dyson bellow from the kitchen as Jackie started to close the door—I wondered what he was doing home in the daytime when every other father in the neighborhood was at work, but I also wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I thanked Jackie and left before JD decided to come and see who it was for himself. I bolted down the concrete steps at a leap and across the lawn.

Next door to the Dyson house was the Schmidt’s. Pete Schmidt, seventeen and the envy of the teenagers in the neighborhood because he actually owned his own car, an old and rusty VW Beetle, was in the driveway changing the spark plugs. He told me that a bunch of the guys were going to have a pick-up baseball game at Hilltop Park this afternoon and to tell Mark if I saw him, but no, he didn’t know where Mark was. He’d been out there all morning—if Mark had come out the front door, Pete insisted, he would have noticed him.

I knew then where Mark had gone—if not specifically, at least in general—because it was where I would have gone myself. I cut through the vacant lot next to the Schmidt house and slipped under the trees waiting there. Once in the woods, I splashed down the creek to the pocked, glacial-deposited boulder Mark and I had dubbed Salamander Hill. I checked the muddy ground there: yes, the print of a sneaker tread pressed ridges in the mud, heading away from the creek. Several minutes later, I thought I could hear Mark’s voice as I maneuvered through the passageways of the Seven Caves. Even though I couldn’t make out the words, his voice had an odd, rhythmic pattern to it. I didn’t call to him, just pushed through the caves until I reached the other side. In my head, I rehearsed what I’d say to him: Mark, listen, I know your Dad hits you. If you ever want to talk about it...

Mark was standing between the two piles of stone—his ‘gateway’—illuminated in a slanting ray of morning sun. He was facing away from me, out toward the deepest part of the woods. I could hear the words now, clichéd and predictable, considering the fantasies in which we’d indulged over the years. “ the path, I command you...” His voice was half-shout, half-drone.

In that second, everything shifted for me. Mark’s upraised hands were streaked with dark rivulets, his left hand held something I couldn’t identify, and there were splashes of bright red on the stones to either side of him. A hand axe glittered on the ground at his feet, the steel edge stained with the same color.

I realized belatedly that the red stain was blood, and that there was a frightening amount of it. Sudden fear hammered at my temples and hissed in my ears, and I wanted to run back the way I’d come. If this was a game, Mark had taken it beyond anything we’d played before.

“Shit!” I yelled involuntarily.

Mark whirled around, mouth open in a shout, and more droplets spattered with the movement, a a bloody stream arcing toward me. I ducked, my hands covering my head. I felt hot liquid strike my forearms. “Jesus!” I screamed at Mark. “What the hell is this?”

“You didn’t want to be part of it,” Mark spat back at me. “You’re leaving, remember.” I could see now that he was holding the limp, decapitated body of a dog: Joe Bell's dog Kitty-Kitty, I realized with another start. The dachshund's open eyes stared up at me accusingly from the ground not two feet away from my feet, half-buried in dead leaves.

“Mark, this is totally crazy.” I brushed at my arms, and Kitty-Kitty's blood smeared. I stared at the stains, aghast.

“What the hell do you care, Rob? It’s not about you, not any more. Get the fuck out of here. This is mine!”

I didn’t know what to say. I could feel my pulse pounding, could hear the quick thumping of my heart. We’d played at magic, a thousand times before, but the feeling had never been so dark, so visceral as that moment. Mark shook his fist, and the body of Kitty-Kitty wriggled in a mockery of life, the fur damp with her blood, an accusation. My stomach roiled, and I almost gagged. “What are you talking about? What’s yours, Mark?” I managed to gasp out.

“The gateway. Whatever’s beyond it and whatever I can bring here through it. It’s mine. It could have been ours, Rob, ours, but you...” Mark was almost sobbing, his face contorted, the bruise on his face mottled against his light skin. “Damn it, don’t you understand, Rob? You’re leaving, and I... I need...” He stopped, and with an animal howl flung Kitty-Kitty's body away, the limp brown corpse passing within a few feet of my head. We heard it crash into the underbrush.

“Stop it! Both of you! Just stop it now!”

I will always remember the shock of her first appearance, the utter surreality of her entrance into our lives. She stood maybe ten feet away, deeper in the woods just past Mark's ‘gateway’ of stones. Neither of us had heard her approach; we didn’t know how long she’d been there watching. Her imperious command, so totally unexpected, shocked and silenced us both. We turned, and I can still feel the shimmer of disbelief that went through me as I saw her, the second time in the last few minutes that the world utterly changed around me.

She was about our age, fifteen or sixteen, just past the awkward boundary of childhood. Her hair was raven-dark, long, and tangled as if she hadn’t brushed it in days. Sweat plastered a few strands to her forehead. She had on a loose blouse that had slipped slightly down one shoulder and betrayed the strap of a bra, and her patched jeans fit snugly over hips widening with dawning womanhood. And her face... She wasn’t pretty, not in the cosmetically-enhanced way that many of the girls at school were. Her nose was too wide and so was her mouth, devoid of any lipstick. No nail polish on her fingernails, either, and her hands were as dirt-stained as either of ours. Her eyes were her best feature: ice-pale blue eyes, startling under the unraveling night of her hair—they danced as if the sunlight was striking bright crystal. Not pretty, no... but there was something commanding about her that made her attractive, all the stronger for the inexplicable abruptness of her arrival. She was... different. If we’d been confronted by wolf or bear, dragon or griffin, I could not have been more surprised.

“Who,” Mark was already saying, “the fuck are you?”

“Sheila,” she answered. “And nice goddamn language. I know you,” she said as Mark guffawed at her comment. “You’re Mark.” Her gaze went to me, and I was lost. “And you’re Rob,” she said.

We were both gaping now. She stepped toward us, moving between the two piles of stones and glancing at the blood-spattered granite as she passed. I watched her face as she noticed the remnants of Mark’s blood magic—hell, I was helpless to do anything other than watch, snared by her already—and there was no horror in her eyes, no distaste in the set of her mouth. If she was disturbed by what she saw, she betrayed nothing. If anything, she seemed to smile faintly, and the too-large nostrils of her nose flared. The sharp tang of blood hung in the air.

“You’re an awful mess,” she told Mark. His hands were covered with red-brown, sticky stains. A spray had splashed across the front of his tee-shirt and droplets dappled the front of his jeans. “You need to go clean your hands in the creek, and that shirt too. It won’t get all of it out, but you can tell your mother that you had a bloody nose. She’ll believe you, because that’s what she’ll want to believe.” The speech came out calmly, easily, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “Rob will bury Kitty-Kitty while you’re cleaning up, then he can clean up a little himself,” she continued, and I found myself nodding, agreeing to all this. “No sense in having the body stink up the whole area or having someone find it. Then we’ll go back.”

She smiled, then, and we both grinned back at her. “It’s going to be OK,” she told us. “Really it is. I can tell already. Everything’s fine now.”