Oona Brown is 15 and the class freak. Well, not that anyone knows - to most, she's invisible.
But six months ago she learned just how far from normal she is, when she became the latest victim of a plague she's had all her life, an infection trapped beneath her skin, clawing its way out year on year...
So the summer holidays should be the perfect oppurtunity for some well-deserved R&R, a chance to get away from everyone and have Haighbrook Manor gardens all to herself... until Jack gets a s
"Oona! What time d'you call this?"
Slamming the door with a deep sigh, she dumped her bag on the stairs and headed for the kitchen. Couldn't she just stay out a bit later? She'd only been to Amy's anyway. And she'd been getting ready for the sixth form New Years Party. I mean, it's New Years Eve! she thought, moodily. Amy's going, why not me?
As she came in the kitchen door, Greg looked up from some paperwork and folded his arms. His disapproval was written all over his lined face and usually-kind grey eyes. "So? What is it this time, eh?" Trying not to meet his eyes, Oona sat down in a kitchen chair behind another stack of Greg's ‘documents'. Paper - in files, boxes, or just heaped up on top of each other like miniature skyscrapers - was always a permanent fixture in the tiny kitchen. So much so that all our other clutter (fridge magnets, Tupperware boxes, postcards, keys, et al) was constantly engaged in various battles for space. How could one shop produce so much paper? Finding anything useful here was no mean feat, at any rate.
"Oona, where've you been? One of the reasons for getting you a mobile phone was so as I know where you are."
"I know, I know. When's tea?"
"Yours is in the microwave, but-"
She jumped up before he'd finished, tired of having to hear the same old story. Plus she was starving. She hoped he'd cool down a bit while the beans on toast was cooking - but no chance.
"Where were you?"
He sighed. "Don't keep doing that, not telling me where you're going."
"Yeah, yeah... How long is it, two minutes?"
"Five, you don't want food poisoning - and once you've finished... we need to talk."
Oona turned and rolled her eyes. "Look, I sorted my room yesterday, and-"
She was about to retort, but stopped short at the look on Greg's face. His heavy brows knitted together, and his head was bent, as though he was deep in concentration. Oh God. He's serious.
Just then the microwave beeped loudly, and they both jumped. When she put her steaming plate down on the table with a clatter, Greg shifted the pile of papers to the side and finally managed look her straight in the eye.
"Now, it's not... I think you'll be... Well, this isn't to convenient, I know, what with it clashes with that party that's on, and going round to Amy's is fine. But just remember to switch your phone on once in a while. Especiacally seeing as... well you'll find out later, when Mary comes round. All right?"
Guiltily, Oona just stared down at the plate, trying to concentrate on the food, but her appetite had evaporated faster than a winter breeze as soon as he'd started talking.
"Yeah, I know. But..."
"Go on then, one question"
"Well... its not like you told me about this before, either! I mean, who the hell's this Mary?"
Greg let out a deep breath, running his fingers through his thinning hair. "Just an old friend, she wants to speak to you about... something. Those headaches and... stomach aches and things you've been getting."
"Right..." Oona bent down to her plate again, face flushing. She hadn't said everything else that she'd been getting to Greg, and now really wasn't the best time to bring it up again. Not just headaches, but muscle cramps and rashes on her skin and... the itching. Everywhere - and that meant everywhere - had been itchy.
Maybe it was a good thing a Mary, and not a Mark, was coming round.
And as soon as she'd thought it, the doorbell rang.
"You stay here, I'll go and answer it." Greg stood up, weaved his way across the kitchen and left. For a few minutes, all Oona heard was whispers at the front door.
"Oona! We'll talk in the living room!"
When Oona opened the door to the sitting room, she felt as though she'd left her stomach on the table with her cold, congealing dinner. "Oona, this is Mary, Mary - my foster daughter Oona." She barely glanced at the stranger perched on the settee, and sat in her favourite sunken armchair up against the windows. For some reason she felt strangely hot, like she had a slight temperature.
"Hello, Oona. Finally, I get to meet you at last. You know, you look just like your mum, doesn't she Greg?"
Oona's head snapped up, finally seeing the stranger for the first time. "You knew my parents?"
Mary was a short, dumpy, figure with frizzy brown hair and a dimpled smile, face deeply-lined around her eyes and above her brow. She could have been anyone's mother or head teacher, with her dark trousers, green cardigan, and one of those woolley brooch things that woman her age seemed to love. Except, Oona noticed, she had a pentagram pendant on a silver chain around her neck.
"Yes. I did. And so did Greg of course."
"Yes, and yes, I never told you," Greg cut in, "But Oona, you have to listen - that's not the only secret I've never told you over the years. There's so much you need to know-"
"And we should begin with what's most important," Mary added, peering into Oona's face, studying it to the tiniest detail. "First of all, how are you feeling?"
"Well... a bit hot, really. And I've been feeling a bit off since..." Oona thought hard, going over the last few months. "Since... since about last spring? No, last Feb- January, I think. Yeah, basically all year I've been having weird... head aches, stomach aches, and stuff. I've been all right, but not all right, if that makes any sense."
"You told me about this yesterday though, has it being going on this long?" Greg blurted out, shocked. Oona froze - was it just her, or did Greg look scared? Then Mary leaned forwards in her seat. "Oona," she asked, "What problems, exactly, have you had lately?" Oona shifted
It struck just as she twisted round to reach for the back of the car - a sudden burning pang somewhere amongst her ribs, like one was breaking free. Oona swore shrilly, thinking she'd just cricked my spine from turning sharply, when realisation hit: The Change had begun.
Panic swamped her brain like icy water over a drowning man: She couldn't think straight, fear at the oncoming pain overwhelming all other emotion. Her was screaming long before the next agony attack, Greg slamming the car into action. Thankfully, Morris threw in the towel and the car shot forwards, careering up the hill in whirl. Oona's breathing ripped out in sharp bursts as spasms rippled upwards. Clawing at the dashboard, my hand slippery with sweat, she was desperate for some kind of anchor. Skidding into Whinlatter car park, Greg lunged across her and threw the door open. "Go go go!"
Hauling her bag over one shoulder, Oona literally ran for her life, but she didn't get far: seconds later agony hit me so had she collapsed onto the stony ground with an ear-splitting howl.
"Barney? Barney! Bloody dog..."
Light washed over the ground around her as a porch light flicked on. Oh hell - she'd missed the gift-shop, the cafe, the new bike shop, only to stop slap-bang in front of a Forestry Commission workers' cottage. Heart lodged firmly in her windpipe, beating in her ears, Oona clambered onto shaking feet as quietly as possible and tore off down the path, a quiet, full-body ache throbbing malevolently. That was close - too close.
She finally reached the edge of the mill-pond at the bottom of the slope, panting furiously and clutching her heart in one hand and a stitch above her navel in the other. Pain lanced through her body, rocking her so furiously she couldn't make a sound. When it died down, Oona wheezed feebly,
Now she could only wait.
From then on, it's always the same. Greg's asked, Amy's asked... but I really can't explain it. The Change is... well, painful, but just how painful it is can't be put into words easily. It's hard to give even a vague-ish picture of what happens, but here's a quick glimpse of what happens.
After that one New Year's Eve, its been a monthly thing, like getting your legs waxed or a dental appointment, but Greg's theory is that it started when I was seven, an incident I can't forget but don't remember, but I always just saw that as the Day I Became A Freak. Could say I haven't kept it a complete secret because of Amy, but I swear she found out by herself. Don't ask me how, she's a total genius, and I was actually so glad when she knew. She said it freaked her out for about a day, but then she slept on it and decided I needed all the support I could get - that's why we're still close. But no one else has any idea, except that I'm a clearly freak/weirdo with almost no friends and that I come in some mornings with twigs smelling of cow crap (that was ONE time, but people still won't shut up about it)
But whatever. This is how it is. I've had it six months, three days, ten hours and thirty-three minutes since last December, once a month each time. People say - well, ‘new-age spiritualists', crazy cult sites, and loads of nutcases say - that it's all about sorcery and magic or just smoke-and-mirrors kind of stuff that causes the Change, but its more than that. Much more... biological. Our - Their fangs contain tiny drops of the most potent venom in the world, like a snake. When we - They strike, most victims die instantly, either from the poison or just general tearing-them-apart-limb-from-limb... stuff.
BUT. And this is a huge but: It doesn't always work. Some people, a very small minority, carry a gene, that stops the venom killing you, causing a vrus to spread, infecting you, ensnaring you, warping every cell and atom in your your body until you turn into a .... But here's the thing: If this... attack happened to me, however long ago - why don't I remember it? Greg just says I must have been too young to understand or recall what happened. Maybe it was that bad that I blocked it out. Does anyone remember their attack? I don't know. I've heard of others, but I've never met another soul like me. Not one. So why don't I know when it happened?
Not that it is an instant just-add-water thing, though. Mary's since explained how it works, and to me it kind of makes sense. Any victims who get 'infected' don't 'activate' the new gene for at least ten years. That magic number when you go from Average Jo to terrifying beast in about two minutes. And it is two minutes of pure hell. It certainly isn't pretty: if I suddenly stop screaming in the middle of all the ripping and tearing of skin, bone and sinew, it's because my vocal cords are shredding themselves up and reforming - I literally can't say a word. And the other day, with nothing to do, I managed to work out how many times I'd had heart failure in my whole life so far (Maths is the only subject I enjoy, theres only ever one right answer). So, I've had this for six months. My heart begins to fail during the change when it shrinks, which takes two minutes, with one heart attack for each sixty seconds... which means I've had 12 heart attacks in my life so far, and survived each time. I should have died in one minute into the new year.
But the Change pulls the whole way through, again and again, until the end. That's the easy bit, that's where I finish and... It... begins. I just shut down, switch off like a light, flicker out like a candle. Pass out. Just one glimpse of a full moon and I fade to black.
And then the virus is free.
The Times & Star (1st Jan.)
Local Spots 'Massive Wolf' Near Whinlatter
Just one month after last sighting, local man reports sighting of 'massive wolf' roaming Whinlatter Forest Park to the Ministry of Defence.
Paranormal investigator Eddie Smithson is said to have seen a 'massive wolf bounding through the woods' in Whinlatter, a popular tourist attraction near Keswick, just last night on New Years Eve. "It was so fast, I only just saw it run through the trees. It looked like it were chasing a rabbit or something, I couldn't catch what it was exactly."
More alarmingly, the huge (and, most likely, extremely dangerous) animal was not 5 miles from the cottage of Forestry Commission employee, Eric Addow. "I had no idea it was that close. Its only me and the dog here, see, no one else around for a few miles at least, and the phone line can be tempremental at times. I've only just realised how lucky we were."
So far there have been 48 reported sightings from local people in the Cockermouth-Keswick area from 2006 to now, although some have seen the monster wolf or wolves as far afield as Barrow.