Into the Deep Woods
Stories & Poems
by Jonathan Arena
Thriller. Suspense. Mystery.
Light a candle and enter the deep woods. Six stories separated by poems await you. Girl hears a crash in the night and investigates. Young man understands the importance of family. High school journalist uncovers a local legend. Hero and writer journey into a dark forest to hunt a beast. Father rediscovers his role in the worst of circumstances. Old woman goes blind but sees everything.
What readers are saying.
"Dark. Fun. Mysterious. Filled with strange and unforgettable characters... It was a pleasure to get lost in the deep woods. Ps. You'll never forget the Spoon Man."
"This book isn’t a one time read, it is meant to be enjoyed multiple times. The reader who is looking for short stories and a bit of poetry will enjoy and appreciate this book."
"Very well written. It feels like you are in the story particularly the novella, The Cost of Three. Once I started to read the book, I could not put it down. Looking forward to reading more from this author."
"Superb, beautifully written, extremely talented Author & can’t wait for more!"
"Each story has a twist you don’t expect. It’s a pick up and start reading until you’re finished type of book."
"This book is probably one of the best books I’ve read lately and would make a great gift for any reader."
"Stories full of action and emotional depth."
Madeline lifted her head from the warm pillow and stared across the bedroom. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the silhouettes of stacked boxes soon sharpened.
The urge to unpack was strong but her mother insisted, rather shouted, that she get a good night’s sleep before her first day of school. Not the first day. Only her first day. At a new school, in a new city, as far away from her father as her mother could afford.
She rested her head back down on the pillow, but now it felt cold. She flipped it over, but the other side was freezing. She sighed and just lay there.
Glass smashed somewhere in the house. Madeline sprang from the bed sheets and looked to the door. She had left it open in the hope that it would help her sleep, but that was never going to be the case. She could not remember where the nightlight was packed, but now more than ever she wished she had searched a little harder.
Her heart jumped from her chest when a second crash rang through the walls.
It came from downstairs.
Her eyes were beautiful. Bluer than the sky and deeper than the sea. The sunrise on her freckled cheeks intoxicated the young man.
“We should get married,” he said.
Sorrow marred her face, and she slipped out of his hands. “You know we can’t.”
“Then let’s run away.” He gently raised her chin and gazed far back into her endless pupils where the entire world seemed captured.
“You know we can’t do that either. Our families need us.”
He laughed. “I’m the youngest of ten. My father doesn’t need me. He’s been telling me that my whole life. He only cares for his damn grapes.”
“Well…” She looked back at the blades of grass. “Mine needs me.”
The young man’s focus strayed to the distance. Movement in the valley below snatched his attention and held it. Twelve knights on horseback traversed the narrow dirt road wedged between rows and rows of vineyards and the odd villa. They flew the King’s Banner and trotted with confidence. Four of them held torches.
He stood for a better look. “They’re early. The King’s Games are not for three moons.”
The young woman joined him and seemed even more surprised. Almost stunned. “Where are the barrel wagons?”
And so on.
Spoon Man. Spoon Man. The words repeated in my head over and over. It had such a whimsical ring to it. The perfect name for such a mysterious man.
The stories from classmates offered pieces of the puzzle, glimpses of the story, but it was all hearsay. All of it except for one thing. The one thing that sprouted every rumor and every tale. Thousands of spoons decorated his lonely property in the nearby forest.
I write this story because I met Spoon Man one afternoon. An afternoon I will never forget, not in a hundred years. It was all because I wanted to win Best Student Journalist at my high school so I would be accepted by my dream college. And this was the story of all stories. Romantic, I know. I lost the award, but the visit remains close to me.
The overgrown foot trail to his home was a long and arduous one. Nearly two miles from the road but worth every step. The weather had cooled the previous week, and the leaves were beginning to change. Autumn rustled and blew, but when I arrived at the cabin, everything seemed still.
All but the wooden spoons.
The spoons hung in rows from the porch ceiling, along the roof and around the chimney, and they swung from the branches of trees. They knocked and clanked together with the shifting breeze, echoing in the empty woods. The entire property was adorned like a festival. But there was no sign of anyone or anything else. The unrehearsed symphony remained the only evidence of habitation.
The closer I walked, the more unmistakable the details of the spoons became. Carved from a variety of wood, they were stunning. Pristine and well-designed, sanded and oiled, some even painted with colors and patterns. Every shape and size you could imagine. The diligence and craftsmanship were obvious. Spoon Man had incredible talent. It must have been from all the practice.
And with each stride forward, my heart raced.
The Black Forest darkened with each stride.
Bruxton and Drunn reckoned it was midday, but sunlight dared not pierce the thick canopy of gnarled trees and branches. Drunn remained close to the light of Bruxton’s torch as his companion hacked at the thorn-covered vines.
The darkness outside the circle of torchlight was as scary as it was unknown. Drunn kept his head on a swivel. Every sound, crunch or rustle snatched his attention and held it. But only until the next.
The insects were loudest. Humming, buzzing, squirming, fluttering, slithering. All of it created a constant and uneasy tone surrounding them. The torch kept the critters at bay but would do little against a large predator.
The two men had no idea what they were seeking.
Broken fences, slain livestock and missing property offered only clues and nothing more. The most telling indication was always the great big tracks left behind in the mud, dirt, everywhere. The tracks had to belong to a massive beast. And it had to be living in the Black Forest.
The beast’s presence had only been felt in the last year. Where did it come from? Perhaps it widened its hunting territory. Perhaps it lost its previous one to an even larger predator.
The questions remained unanswered because no one had seen or heard the beast despite its great size. No one except Hargerrard. He was the first human victim.
“May we stop a moment?” Drunn asked.
“No.” Bruxton waved his torch at a giant winged insect as it frantically tried to escape the light. Slimy wings brushed against Drunn’s nose in his attempt to dodge it. The ugly creature disappeared into the black of the forest.
“I would like to scribble some notes.” Drunn wiped his face thoroughly.
“Tales are more powerful when you feel what the characters feel. I want to capture those feelings, Bruxton. My feelings. Your feelings. The darkness. The sounds. I want to capture it all.”
“I am certain you will feel the same when we stop. I am also certain the darkness and the sounds will follow us wherever we go.”
So they trekked on.
The Cost of Three
His heart pounded like a ceremonial drum before a sacrifice. Morning sunlight poured onto the new paint of Mark Frasier’s luxury car. Sweat dripped from his nose, and his hands shook nervously.
He drove into the empty parking lot of a corporate building and backed into a space next to the bay doors for loading and unloading trucks. He straightened out twice and checked his gold watch. 6:42 am.
He closed his eyes and waited a moment. Today was the first day of his new life. He was still not sure what kind of life, but it would certainly not be a good one, not how he imagined it.
He opened his cell phone.
No missed calls and no missed texts.
Communication from his family would have done him wonders, but he clipped a security badge to his belt and exited the car. He did not lock it because he planned to be back soon, and in a hurry.
Mark wore no jacket, but the weather deserved one. Goosebumps ran down his arms as he trekked all the way to the front of the building, where double doors greeted him.
He swiped the badge and stepped inside. Two security guards sat in chairs beside a metal detector and watched him enter, but not suspiciously. They nodded.
“You’re early, Mark,” Curtis said.
“Lots to do.” Mark forced a smile.
“Don’t you dare tell me the score,” Eddie said. “I recorded it at home. Plan to fall asleep to it in a couple hours.”
“I won’t.” Mark stepped through the metal detector.
“Enjoy the day,” Eddie said.
“You too.” Mark continued through the building to where a series of elevators lined the hallway. He pressed the down button and waited. And waited. He stood there for an eternity. He peered over to the guards and back to the elevator, then back to the guards. They paid him no mind, but that did nothing to settle his heart rate. His sweat dripped onto the beautiful granite floor.
The elevator doors slid open and Mark stepped inside. He pressed the button labeled B4 and then the one to close the doors. He pressed the latter again. And again.
The doors closed and the elevator descended.
Mark stared at his reflection in the stainless-steel interior. He studied the look on his face and the clothes on his back. This was it. Nothing would be the same.
The elevator traveled several stories and stopped at its destination. The door opened to reveal a metallic hallway. Two closed doors faced opposite one another and nothing else. He walked into the one labeled MEN.
He approached one of ten lockers and scrolled the combination lock. 32-17-28. He undressed and slipped into blue scrubs. He clipped the security badge to the waistband of the drawstring pants and checked his cell phone once more. 6:54 am and still nothing.
He tried centering his thoughts, but his conscience screamed over everything. It was impossible to think. He placed his phone and keys in his pocket.
The door swung open. Henry Goodison walked in and looked at Mark as if he had seen a ghost.
“Whoa, Mark.” Henry approached his locker. “You startled me. Didn’t expect to see anyone in this early.”
“I have to catch up on a few things.” Mark shut his locker. “You?”
“Uh, yeah. Me too. Did you have to work on Saturday?”
“Can’t remember the last Saturday I didn’t work. Where were you?”
“I asked for it off because it was my daughter’s birthday.” Henry smiled. “And they gave it to me, can you believe it?”
Mark smiled. “Glad to hear it.”
“And how about that game last night?”
“You? Missed the game? Never thought I’d see the day.”
“Oh, I didn’t see it either.”
“See ya in there, Henry.”
“Uh, wait, Mark?” Henry stood there in his boxer briefs as Mark turned. His eyes were troubled, and his mouth quivered as if ready to spill words, but his tongue refused to cooperate. “Never mind.”
“Have a good day, Henry.” Mark exited the other side of the bathroom. Another door requiring another badge swipe, and it led to a long corridor with bright fluorescent lighting.
He considered whether or not Henry had acted strangely. Whether he acted strangely. But he chalked it up to his imagination and shrugged it off. He had bigger matters at hand.
Mark stopped at a sliding glass door. B402. He pressed a red button and the door opened. The room was small and had little except for dispensers of hairnets, beard nets, safety glasses, face masks, gloves, shoe covers, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes.
He gowned up and looked at the mirror on the wall. He always thought he looked silly in a hairnet, especially a beard net, but nothing seemed funny now. He stared deep into his own eyes. He wanted to cry but held it together.
“You can do this. For them.”
He opened the sliding door into the next room and stepped inside. A short hall led to a single door with a digital clock overhead. 7:02 am. He swiped his badge once more and the door opened. Another airlock with additional gear. Three hazmat suits, large boots and thick gloves hung from hooks on the wall.
He put on the gear and stared at his reflection again. He barely recognized his own face, his own eyes. He punched the mirror to erase the stranger, and it shattered. Pieces rained down on the floor. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of pieces, in a Hygiene Zone Three airlock. A bizarre smile covered his face, but it was brief.
He turned to the next door. B417. He entered a seven-digit code into a keypad, and the automatic doors opened.
Three four-hundred-gallon stainless-steel kettles sat bolted to the floor. Tags on all three read SULFURIC NINE. A mutation of sulfuric acid that the company had patented four years earlier. A considerably more dangerous chemical than its parent.
Mark stared at the kettles before heading toward another door. He opened it to find a room loaded with fifty-gallon drums with toxicity warnings and special lids. Stacks of small platforms on wheels with the capacity to hold a barrel each lined the storage room as well. He unstacked and laid them out on the floor. He then worked to lift as many empty barrels as there were platforms.
He wheeled eighteen over to the kettles.
He attached a thick hose to the bottom of the first kettle. He secured the connection many times over and made several adjustments. He attached the hose to an engine pump and another to deliver product from the pump to the seal on top of the barrel lids. He inspected the connections, screws and seals a few more times.
When he was comfortable and after a deep breath, he released the lever underneath the kettle to allow Sulfuric Nine to flow freely into the hose, but not through the pump.
Mark looked at the clock on the wall. 7:18 am.
Plenty of time.
He pressed a couple of buttons on the engine pump screen, and it turned on. The hose vibrated as the chemical rushed into the barrel. The potent smell of the chemical stung his nostrils through the suit.
After thirty seconds, the pump clicked off. The barrel was full. Mark detached the hose and locked the seal on the lid, careful to hold the open end of the hose upward to avoid drips. He moved it to the next barrel and filled that one too. He did it over and over until all eighteen were full. He drained the first two kettles but only needed a hundred or so gallons from the third.
Nine hundred gallons of Sulfuric Nine.
It scared him to death.
7:41 am. Mark wheeled the barrels into another airlock after entering a code with his large gloved fingers. The airlock led to an open room with a sliding metal door. He fit as many barrels as he could and opened the other side. He moved the barrels in and then headed back for more. He managed it in four trips.
With all eighteen inside, he slipped out of the boots and hazmat suit. Back in his scrubs, he punched the code into the keypad beside the metal door, and it slid open.
It was an elevator.
He wheeled eleven barrels inside and clicked the button for the warehouse.
The elevator rose four stories while Mark watched the clock above the door. 7:49 am. The doors opened to reveal another airlock. He pushed the barrels inside and then into the large warehouse filled with rows and rows of pallet racks and materials. He unloaded the barrels from the elevator and headed back down for the others.
The warehouse clock read 7:54 am when he wheeled all eighteen to the third bay door. It took him nine trips. But on the seventh, he heard an elevator open further down the warehouse. He froze and waited.
Henry exited with a similar barrel on a platform. HYDROCHLORIC FIVE. The two found each other’s eyes and hesitated. But they both knew. They knew they’d had comparable nights and were in the same position. Henry had a family, same as Mark. After the brief moment, the two men went back to work.
Mark opened the bay door.
A tractor trailer was parked against the door with its back already open. Two rugged men armed with scars and semi-automatic rifles waited with wry smiles.
One looked at his watch and used his rifle to signal Mark to work, so the helpless chemist sprang to action and pushed the barrels inside the trailer by himself.
The armed men watched and chuckled.
When he was done, one of the men waved his rifle toward Henry, so Mark helped his coworker wheel the Hydrochloric Five into the trailer as well.
“How’s your family?” Mark whispered.
“I don’t know. Yours?”
“I don’t know.”
The armed men closed the trailer door, and the truck drove away as if headed to a routine delivery. There was a sense of relief, but it was short-lived.
Mark and Henry found each other’s eyes one last time and jumped out of the bay door without another thought. And despite their clumsy landings, they sprinted to their cars like Olympic athletes.
Mark fumbled his keys but recovered, rattling through them to find the one he needed. He found it and slammed it into the ignition. 8:06 am.
And so on.
Mahpiya opened her eyes one morning and was blind. She had known it was coming for a while now and felt lucky to have held on to her sight for sixty-six winters. Better than most.
But this was it. Total and absolute blackness. It curled around her and gripped tightly. There would be no escaping it, not this time, but she knew the layout of the tipi, and the camp stayed much the same even when it moved.
So she replaced the darkness with the familiar and started with the fire pit. The heart of the tipi, of any home. Then the several large stones confining it to the center. The few burnt logs and pile of ash from last night’s fire lingered. She’d awoken to the sight so many times, it was second nature to her.
She looked up to where she knew the dreamcatcher was hanging from a wooden beam. It swayed gently back and forth as heavy gusts from the open plains battered the outside of the buffalo skin walls. Stitched together with great skill, several tanned hides sheltered her from the howling wind she could hear so clearly. She focused on it and nothing else.
When she opened her eyes, a new scene appeared. The endless grass of the wide-open plains surrounded her as she rode bareback on a white-and-brown horse. She was younger, much younger, no more than fourteen. And her eyes worked perfectly.
She embraced the wind blowing through her thick black hair. The rolling hills, whistling winds and waving grass dominated her senses. It was the feeling of freedom, and she savored it. Only her horse offered such a thing, and she loved him for it. She leaned forward and kicked her heels to hasten the pace.
Her eyes widened. The horse tried stopping but only collapsed brutally in the effort. She and her horse stumbled into a large hole that dropped fifteen feet into a jagged cave.
They fell, and they fell hard.
And so on.