The Biggest Freak in Duskwood

On the night of her eighteenth birthday, Diana Velasquez falls victim to an attack that leaves her horribly scarred and an outcast. Worse still, nobody believes the truth about what happened.

The thing that destroyed her life was no ordinary animal.

During the next five months, the threat in the forest grows worse and worse. Diana has decided she’s had enough of being a victim- she’s going to use her twelve years of boxing training, and her family’s wealth of ornamental weapons, to show these creatures they messed with the wrong schoolgirl. She’s going to be a hero.

Then, she realises there’s far more to the monsters of Duskwood Forest than she thought. Their secret is both a strength and a weakness, but it can’t be beaten by brute strength alone. The more entangled in her tormentors’ lives she becomes, the more Diana starts to doubt she’s doing the right thing. She thought she’d do anything to keep her family safe, but how far is too far?

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Author's note

Yo! This is something I wrote under the proverbial radar. Please note it contains graphic bloody violence, as is to be expected of me. Happy reading!
AA

14. The Million Promises

I SPEND THE next week waiting for sirens. I don’t know whether my family notices my paranoia or not- they’re too busy drifting around like clouds, not sure what to do with themselves besides eat and sleep and visit the hospital to stand by Dad’s bed, listening to the beeps. I watch the news, but there’s nothing about a nineteen-year-old boy stabbed to death in a garden, nothing about a manhunt for a Hispanic girl seen climbing out of his window with a massive sword and running away to her car. Mum’s locked me and my entire family into an inescapable bubble, but after that week’s passed, I’m pretty confident nobody’s coming to arrest me. I was right… nobody cared about Milo.

I’m not sure how to feel about that.

In some sick way, Dad’s condition has provided a helpful distraction from everything else that’s going on; it distracts me from the fact I’m a murderer, and my family from the strange way I’m acting. I’ve started sleeping downstairs on the sofa in the hallway, so that if anyone breaks in, I’ll be the first to know. I’ve got a cupboard I don’t let anyone touch; it contains my bloodstained combat clothes, my one remaining knife- the one that killed Milo- and my sword. Nobody’s noticed it’s missing from the dining-room. Maybe because we’re all too miserable to eat properly.

The second week passes in an utterly stale blur. Then, Dad wakes up.

It takes Mum half an hour to call us down to tell us after hanging up the phone. I don’t know why she keeps stalling; maybe she’s frightened. Maybe she’s trying to protect us. Maybe she doesn’t want us getting our hopes up. Or maybe she’s in shock.

“Can we go see him now?” I ask. My head’s buzzing with a combination of relief, fear and desperation. Now he’s awake, maybe he knows some things about… No. How dare I be so cold? I should only care that he’s alive.

Mum takes her time to nod.

“Yes, honey,” she says. “I suppose we can.”

“Yay!” Esme yells. I bite my lip. She obviously thinks this means he’s going to be fine now- God, I hope she’s right “Daddy’s okay! Daddy’s okay! Now I can tell him all about my part in the show!”

Last week, Esme got her role in the summer show at her stage club. She’s a narrator. Again. But she’s excited because it means she ‘doesn’t have to wear a silly costume’- a phrase she’s been repeating to everyone who’ll listen and several people who won’t for the last week.

“Yes, you can.” Mum squeezes her hand. “He’s going to love hearing all about it. Come on, kids; let’s get in the car.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Minnie asks her, but Mum’s already grabbed Esme by the hand and started to fumble with her keys by the door. If she’s pretending not to hear, she’s doing a great job. If she really didn’t hear, she’s deaf. Minnie looks at me.

“Course he’s going to be okay,” I say to her. I reach for her hand, but she glares at me and picks up her pace to get away from me. I offer my hand to Louis instead, but he doesn’t take it either. He stays close to me as we get into the car and head off towards the hospital. I wonder how many times Mum’s had to drive this route in the last year. Maybe fifty. Sixty. My heart’s in my mouth again.

 

 

He looks the same as he did yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that. His black-and-red leg’s healed into a shiny white mess and the purple and yellow’s gone from his face, but somehow, he looks worse drained of colour. When he sees us, he tries to turn his head towards the door and smile, but he doesn’t quite manage to do either. I want to cry, but I swallow it down.

 “Lucas!” We all look up at Mum as her voice jumps with a high sob and she flings herself down onto the bed. I bite my lip, seeing Dad stiffen in pain before lifting his arms to hug her back. I can hear him laughing softly.

“H-hey. Hey, Camila.” He says, stroking her hair. “It’s alright. It’s alright, baby. How are you?”

“We- we… God, it’s been… it’s been…” Mum dissolves into sobs again and Dad looks up at us.

“Hey, darlings. You- you been… taking care of your Mum?”

He’s looking at me, so I nod. Mum’s been barely holding everything together back home, and I’m secretly worried this isn’t going to make things better, but worse. Until he comes back home.

“Daddy!” Esme squeaks. He holds his arm out to her and she leans on Mum so he can hug her. “Daddy!”

“I- I love you, sweetheart.”

“I love you too!” She’s smiling, and Dad smiles, so I force myself to smile too. Minnie piles into the hug next, squeezing in next to Esme and causing her to yelp, “Ouch! You’re crushing me!”

“Well, wait your turn, squirt.”

“It’s always my turn! I’m Daddy’s favourite!”

I see Mum pull back from the hug. She holds her hand out to Louis, but Louis is looking down at the floor, chewing his bottom lip and clinging to my arm. I nudge him forwards, and nervously, he lets go of me and walks over to the bed.

“Hi, Dad.” He says semi-cheerfully, putting his thumb in his mouth.

Dad lets go of Minnie. “Come here, Louis.”

Obediently, Louis hugs him. I know I’m next, and I’m not sure how I feel. He’s awake, but he’s not… he’s not better. He barely sounds like himself- his voice is grating on itself like it hurts to speak, and his skin and lips are nearly grey. He’s trying his best to hold it together, for our sakes, and I don’t think I’ve ever loved him more than I do when I see him gritting his teeth to avoid making a fuss. But I’ve known my Mum for all eighteen of my years, and I know every single one of her cries. I don’t think she’s crying in relief.

Dad lets go of Louis and holds his arm out to me. “C’mon, Di. You’re not too cool to join the family pile-up.”

The whole family laughs. Obediently, I laugh too, choking back a sob or a scream. “I’m not too cool for anything, Dad.”

When I lean over the bed, I wrap my spare arm around Louis and feel him pressing into me. When I pull back, he’s still clinging to me, and I gently try to peel him away before anyone notices.

“The doctor…” Dad says. “The doctor…”

“When can you come home?” Esme says. Minnie looks down at her.

“Honey…” Dad starts.

“Soon, Esme.” Mum says, pulling Esme back from the bed. “We need to let Daddy relax and get better, okay?”

“Okay!”

“Okay.”

“The doctor says…” Dad repeats, then pauses for a long time. I see the pain on his face. Then, he catches Mum’s eye before his expression clears and he says, “The doctor says I can eat real food again now.”

Louis takes hold of my hand, and I don’t let him go.

“We’ll bring you a Mars bar next time we come.” I say. Everyone laughs, and Dad smiles up at me. I spot a butterfly plaster above his eyebrow- and the cut it’s holding shut. For some reason, that sight’s what finally makes tears well up in my eyes. I force myself to bite my lip. My Dad. My Dad. This man, with this leg and this quiet voice and this utterly tired cold face, is my Dad- he’s been torn away from us and cut up into this mess. I know who did it. I know what they did to him. I should be feeling angry, but I just want to grit my teeth and pretend everything’s fine. I remember Milo did this- Milo, and his bloody lackeys I said I’d spare. Should I? As I stand there, listening to my family’s laughter die down and die down till it’s dead, I realise how badly I want to tell Dad what I’ve done. I want him to know the bastard who attacked him is dead- I want him to know for as long as he’s out of sorts and Mum’s out of touch, I’m going to keep this family safe. I’m the man now. I’m strong. And I’ll never break.

“How about some Smarties?” Dad says. I blink, and the cold smell of clinical cream reminds me where I am. Quickly, I smile.

“Although I think Esme’ll eat the lot before I get a hold of them.” Dad reaches over to prod Esme in the stomach and she squeals. The sound of laughter’s all around me, and it ought to be reassuring me. I should be weak with relief. Look at this, Di. Everything’s normal. Relax. You killed Milo. You won.

 

 

For the next few minutes, Mum foists a sense of normality on us all by telling Dad all about her online shopping, her work friend’s pregnancy and the dreadful storm we had last week, all while we all nod politely. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how to get him to talk to me alone. In the end, though, I don’t need to worry.

“Hey, honey. C-Camila?” He says, gently brushing Mum’s arm as she starts to bluster out that we ought to be going. Mum freezes.

“Y- Yes?”

“Could I, uh…” His voice quietens. “I’d like to see Di for a few minutes by herself. Okay?”

Mum looks at me. I look at Dad. He shoots me a weak smile.

“Course.” Mum says, nervously. She’s urging me with her eyes to say something, or maybe to not say something.

“Bye bye, my darlings.” Dad says, holding his arms out. Everyone but me piles in and I blink, no longer needing to cry but instead tuning into the warm, sick feeling in my chest that tells me I’ve got a job to do. Protect everything I see in front of me. Protect them. No time for sadness. Only a little time for anger.

After everyone’s left, Dad grins at me, and I smile back. He says,

“I know I should start off by saying I’m sorry.”

I blink, wondering what the hell he means.

“Wh- what?”

“I am. I’m so sorry, my darling.”

“Sorry for what?” I ask. My heart’s starting to pound and my head’s spinning with the smell, but I force myself to walk closer to the bed. Dad hold his hand out for me to take. It’s freezing.

“I, uh… Oh.” His face lightens. “I guess you... Well, Di, about the whole… wolf thing.” He laughs, and I know he can barely stand to say it out loud. The wolf thing. My heart starts to hammer harder.

“Yeah.” I chuckle.

“I never, uh… I’m so- so sorry, Di. But I never really believed you.”

I frown. “What?”

“But now… now, I’m in here, and I- I saw…” He swallows, and I can see it hurt him. “I believe you, darling.”

You never believed me? I want to ask. Really? You’re my Dad! You’re supposed to believe everything I- I clear my throat. I had utter faith in him. I thought he had utter faith in me. Mum’s nervous half-acceptance was helpful, but without his belief, I probably would have stopped trusting my own memory long ago.

“You were right, Diana, sweetheart.” Dad says, squeezing my hand. “I’m sure it’s been killing you these last six… six months? I’m so, so sorry- you were right.”

I choke on a million retorts and clear my throat again.

“Dad…”I say. “What, uh… what happened to you? Tell me.”

Dad doesn’t hesitate; he’s not at all frightened to tell me the truth.

“I was walking to my car after my shift and this massive thing jumped out the bushes at me,” he says. I stare and say nothing. “It knocked me off my feet and I’m pretty sure I passed out as soon as my head cracked the concrete. I’m not strong like you, sweetie. I thought I was dead, but it didn’t… It didn’t-”

“Kill you.” I murmur before I can stop myself.

“Yeah.” He says easily. “It nearly killed my leg and half my ribs- I’d show you. Di, we’re both war wounded now. When I… No. Yeah.”

A sick chill shudders through me. I breathe hard, then swallow and say. “Dad. Did it… bite you?”

I remember what Gretchen said. If he’s been bitten, he’s been turned. But then again…

“No.” He said. “Bite? No. Just claw marks. I think.”

My heartbeat doesn’t want to slow down, but I force out a sigh of relief.

“Okay.” I say. I look at Dad, who’s staring back up at me. He wipes the fear from is face the moment our eyes meet.

“It’s alright, Diana. I’m okay.”

I nod, trying not to let my face screw up. I swallow again, trying to figure out a way to keep asking questions without coming off rude or odd. I realise that’s impossible.

“Did you…” My voice is flat again. “Did you… see it?”

“What? What, the… oh, yeah.” He says. “It was a wolf. Like you said- just like you said. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it- the last thing I thought was, Oh, no, if I live I’ll have to apologise to my daughter.”

He laughs, so I do too.

“Did you-” I see him looking at me in surprise. I’m not going to tell him the wolves are human. I’m not going to tell him I know who they are, or even that one of them is dead. “Did you see- I mean, uh, what’d it look like? How- how tall- what colour was it? And its eyes-”

“Pale.” Dad says, and I pause. “Face full of needles. Massive bulbous eyes, like a frog. It had a limp- a weird clubbed foot. Mangy as all hell, like that old dog we found in our garden. Remember him? You wanted to keep him.”

An image flashes through my head not of the emaciated greyhound I’d found passed out in Mum’s petunia bed last year, but of the small creature I’d seen in the forest killing that deer. The one with the bronze eyes and the half-million scratches and scars- the older man. Milo’s drug dealer. My stomach shrivels in anger, but I force myself to nod.

“Yeah, I remember.”

I curl my fist. Right. He’s next. The rest can live.

“Dad…” I say, but he interrupts me.

“Di,” He says. “Your Mum… she, uh-”

“Yeah.”

“She needs to be taken care of, honey. I’m sorry to burden you, but you… know…” He swallows and then winces. “How she is. She can’t… I think… you… need to take charge. Okay? And, uh, when I-”

I nod. “Yes. Yeah. Of course. I have been, Dad. We all have been. Louis was great; you should have seen him-”

“Thank you, darling. And more than that, this family… now I know there’s…”

He doesn’t say it a second time.

“You have to promise me, Diana, you’ll keep this family safe. Keep yourself… safe. No more…”

“I’ll keep us safe.” I interrupt him before he cements my lie. “I will. I swear to you, I’ll keep us all safe. Nothing’s getting near us.”

“Diana, you know… what I mean?” His grip on my hand loosens and I see his eyelids drooping closed for a second. His voice is getting softer. “No more… going outside. And Louis- make sure he doesn’t-”

“I will.” I say, biting my lip to keep myself from crying or admitting to him I’m lying. “I will, I swear.”

“No more night hikes? No more playing the hero?”

I bite my lip, and I’m scared he sees the tear about to fall. “Yes.”

He smiles gently, the agitated expression on his face fading. I’ve brought him relief, so it doesn’t matter that I lied; that I’m going to keep on playing the hero till those arseclowns stop playing the villains. I won’t stop. Never. I’m not losing anyone else. I’m strong enough.

“Tha… thank you. Sweetie.” Dad says. “I believe in you.”

I smile. “Good.”

He laughs, but he’s so weak it sounds more like a cough. Then, suddenly, his grip on my fingers slips away completely and I look down to see his hand hanging limp at the bedside. Movies tell me to listen for a beeeeeeeeep. It doesn’t come. I look up, and he’s closed his eyes, his face still frozen in that same expression of semi-pained relief. I stare for a few seconds, completely frozen, not doing anything at all. Then, I look over at the nurse, who catches my eye, then looks down at Dad and starts to hurry over. I widen my eyes.

“Dad.” I say, picking up his hand. “Dad. Dad? You okay? Dad! Dad-”

“It’s okay, darling.” The nurse says. “He’s just passed out for a few seconds, okay?”

Just passed out? JUST passed out? I blink and swallow. “Okay.”

“You’ll need to leave now, alright?”

I nod dumbly, shooting one last look at Dad. I sniff. “Okay.”

I leave the hospital room, blinking and swallowing hard, staring down at the floor. Every sight and sound and smell seems magnified. As I walk down the corridor, every thump of my heavy boots against the hard polished floor rings against the walls and radiates through my body. Every step’s a promise. Thump. Daddy’s going to be okay. Thump. When I come home… Thump. Keep Louis out of the woods. Thump. No more playing the hero. Thump. I’ll kill your family, Diana. Thump. I’m stronger than you, Milo. Thump. Nobody’ll miss you. Thump. Thump. Thump.  I’ll keep this family safe. I won’t give up. I’ll live, and so will they. I’m the hero. I’m going to win.

Is everything that’s said inside the walls of this Godforsaken hospital a fucking lie?

“Hi, guys.” I say, coming upon my family piled onto a few spare chairs in the reception area.

Mum stands up, tugging Esme with her. “Everything okay?”

“Yes.” I lie. “Dad, uh… He was tired.”

Mum’s face falls, and I know she knows what I mean. She’s more of a liar than both Dad and me combined. She knows.

“Okay.” She says, her voice weaker. Then, she pulls Esme into her arms and sits back down with a thump. “I need to tell you all something, while you’re all here. Okay?”

Okay.

“Okay.” I say.

“Daddy…” Mum says with a sigh. “He’s going to have to stay here for a long time yet, okay?”

Okay.

“But why?” Esme says. “He’s awake now!”

“He, uh… He’s got a… a condition, darlings. Not just his leg, or his cuts. It’s more. Most Mums wouldn’t tell their kids this, but I want you all to know.”

Because you can’t maintain a brave face. I want to tell her.

“Okay.”

“Daddy’s leg is better, but I’m afraid it’s infected.” Mum says. “He’s got a bug in his blood.”

“He’s got septicaemia, hasn’t he” I ask before I can stop myself, realising my voice is suddenly far too high. The sight of his leg- slightly bluish off-white like it was full of fading bruises- put the thought in my head long before I’d stepped inside that room. The other signs were there too. I want to be a physiotherapist; I know everything. Rapid breathing. High fever. Shivering. Overactive heartbeat. Confusion, fatigue. Dad’s got septicaemia.

Mum nods. “Yes. Yes, sweetheart.”

Not okay. Not okay.

The rest of the family stay silent, but I see Louis take a step back from the group. I catch his eye, but he drops his head. His cheeks are stained red.

“What’s secta-cemia?” Esme chirps. I sigh and close my eyes, and when I open them, Louis is facing away from me.

“It’s a nasty infection in your blood,” Mum says, and I catch Minnie’s eye; she’s biting her nails, but she looks angry.

“Daddy’s got bad blood?”

“Yes.”

I close my eyes.

Yes. Yes, it’s true.

And you don’t get better once your blood’s gone bad.

I close my eyes for a second, this time to hold back tears, and when I open them again, Louis is gone. I jerk my head up and see him running across the car park as the glass automatic doors slide shut behind him. Without thinking, I shout his name and spring after him, my blood pounding in my head and tinging the back of my throat. I catch him after ten seconds or less- he’s not much of a runner- but he struggles in my arms, shrieking with a sob, and before I know it, he’s pulled me off-balance. We both go down, my head landing on the tarmac, his landing on my stomach, and lie there together breathing hard. He struggles, but I hold him fast. I hear him crying, loud, ugly. That’s when I break too.

“You can’t run away from this,” I half-pant, half-sob, sitting up and holding him to my chest as I stroke his hair. “You can’t run away from this.”

“But I want to,” he weeps. “I want to, I want to, Di. Why can’t you leave me-”

“Shut up.” I say. “I’m never leaving you, do you hear me? I promise. I promise. I’ll always be here for you. Whether you like it or not, Louis, I’m never letting you go.”

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