What the Woods Keep: New Excerpt

What the Woods Keep

Katya de Becerra

September 18, 2018

What the Woods Keep is Katya de Becerra’s stunning debut, combining mystery, science fiction, and dark fantasy in a twisty story that will keep you mesmerized right up to the final page.

On her eighteenth birthday, Hayden inherits her childhood home―on the condition that she uncover its dark secrets.

Hayden tried to put the past behind her, and it worked. She’s getting ready for college, living in a Brooklyn apartment, and hanging out with her best friend and roommate Del. But now it’s all catching up with her: her mother’s mysterious disappearance a decade before, her father’s outlandish theories about a lost supernatural race, and Hayden’s own dark dreams of strange symbols and rituals in the Colorado woods where she grew up.

As soon as Hayden arrives at her hometown, her friend Del in tow, it begins: Neighbors whisper secrets about Hayden’s mother; the boy next door is now all grown-up in a very distracting way; and Hayden feels the trees calling to her. And among them, deep in the woods, Hayden will discover something incredible―something that threatens reality itself.

1

MY INHERITANCE

Eyes glued shut with sleep, I scramble around for my techno-pop–blasting cell phone.

WITHHELD NUMBER.

After a short deliberation, I decide to risk it and accept the call.

“Happy birthday, Hayden!” Doreen Arimoff’s sweet-and-sour voice is like a bucket of ice, exorcising sleep from my head.

(Doreen is ancient. She’s been in my family’s employ since before Mom went missing. And back then Doreen already looked like an unwrapped mummy, though impeccably made-up, elegantly fake-tanned, and manicured to perfection.)

This is the first time Doreen has called me directly instead of communicating with me via my father. “Now that you’ve turned eighteen,” she says, “I have a stipulation from your mother’s will to execute. Come by my office today, and we’ll go over the paperwork. No need to make an appointment.”

Doreen’s straight-to-the-point manner fails to hide her voice’s tremble at “paperwork.” And Doreen’s voice never trembles.

“Paperwork?” I rub my forehead. A spike of headache brings back the half-forgotten dream I had last night. The dream featured me (wearing full-body armor, origin unknown) riding a huge black horse-beast and leading an army through fog-layered swamps and burnt fields and ravaged cities. White birds—ravens?—rained down on me and my army while my warriors’ battle cries permeated the night. We’ll rise again!

I blink my vision clear. I need coffee. Now.

“Just come by my office, Hayden,” Doreen says. “I’ll explain everything. Oh, and, Hayden? It’d be best if your father didn’t know about our conversation. At least not until I sign your mother’s things over to you.”

Doreen hangs up, leaving me with many questions.

A burst of impatient footsteps outside my door reminds me that Del Chauvet—aspiring fashion star, French-Senegalese Brooklynite, and my long-suffering roommate—is waiting for me to wake up. I know she’s got questions about what exactly happened yesterday: as in, how I managed to scare off a guy this time. Del is the mastermind behind my fiasco of a blind date, who left me stood up and battling the storm of the century in Central Park last night. (If that was Del’s idea of a “perfect prebirthday present,” I fear what her actual birthday present might be.) Del’s impatience is tangible through the door, but she’ll have to wait.

I strip off and shuffle into the shower, icy floor tiles unfriendly under my feet. As I stand below the hot stream with my eyes closed, flashbacks, dreams, and memories spin in my head.

Dark trees. Whispers in a foreign tongue, its sound harsh. And then there’s Mom, watching me from behind a tree, a sad smile on her lips. Always sad. As if Mom knew what was coming—her disappearance in the woods surrounding my childhood home. Today, my memories of Mom are like photographs rescued from a burning house, the edges darkened, middles smudged with soot. Tainted. Vague. Incomplete.

Do not be angry with the dead, my therapist, Dr. Erich, told me again and again over the years of treatment. They’re long gone, and we remain, tasked with figuring out our lives, which go on. My response to him? Technically, my mother is missing, not dead. (Eventually she was declared dead in absentia, but that came much later.) Dr. Erich would shake his head slowly, his disappointment palpable. But it wasn’t denial that motivated me. It was a compulsion to call things by their true names.

After finishing the shower and blow-drying my hair, I dance into my skinny jeans and put on a tailored cardigan over one of my Hendrix tees. I grab my old, age-ravaged messenger bag and head for my bedroom door.

I can’t help the electricity running over my skin. It’s like the last ten years didn’t happen, and all the progress I made in Dr. Erich’s office means nothing, because the simple mention of my missing-presumed-dead mother shrinks my heart into a peanut-size chunk of muscle and blood while my eyes fog up, threatened by unwanted tears.

A long time ago now, in the name of self-preservation, I chose to put Mom’s memory behind me, but Doreen’s mysterious phone call promises a change, a revelation, ten years after Mom’s unfortunate walk in the woods.

I forget all about Del and my failed date, and even about Del’s plans concerning my birthday, as I leave my bedroom and head for the exit, determined to face head-on what Doreen has in store for me.

2

MEET THE FAMILY:
DAD, MOM, AND THE NIBELUNGS

Everything and everyone on Earth is governed by invisible forces lurking just out of reach. For instance, consider the reasons why we don’t drift off into the oxygen-deprived space to our deaths but keep our feet firmly on the ground. Thank you, gravity!

My life’s no exception. If anything, the number of forces I’m governed by is somewhat higher than normal.

There’s a force called Dad.

Even with the uncomfortable distance that descended upon us after Mom’s disappearance—a distance that seems to be growing bigger every day—Dad still tries to control what I do, where I go, and who I’m friends with. He does it to protect me, or so he says. To overcome this controlling-from-a-distance thing that he does, I stopped telling him what I’m really up to long ago. If ignorance is bliss, then my father’s ignorance in regard to my life post-therapy must be one big bucket of undiluted joy.

And then there’s a force called Mom.

Long gone but not forgotten and still very much present in my life, even attempting to dominate it by haunting my dreams and, as it turns out, by conspiring with our family lawyer to reach out to me from beyond the grave.

Oh, and there’s also a force called Del. She’s forever seeking to improve me—everything from my hairstyle to my dating situation. I’m like one of her vintage dress projects. Who knows? Maybe one day she’ll fix me, at long last.

But for now? I’m stuck in the middle, torn asunder by conflicting forces while trying to make sense of things on my own. And when I struggle to understand things that happen to me, I interpret them by applying physical principles, translating it all into a language I can comprehend.

I grew up surrounded by all things physics. My dad, Thomas Holland, is a physicist. Or he was a physicist before he let his unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories and Germanic mythologies overtake his research and his life. Dad’s academic career imploded after he decided his students needed to know that a legendary warrior race called the Nibelungs (immortalized by the epic poem Nibelungenlied, Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nibelung, and referenced throughout Tolkien’s books) were going to spill into our world via a muon-enabled portal and conquer us all.

Yeah.

Dad lost his university tenure and his PhD students and got exiled from his beloved physics labs. Now he relies on my aunt’s charity, going on with his otherworldly “science” projects out of her spare bedroom. But despite Dad’s academic downfall, I still rely on physics (the real physics, not the crackpot kind) to keep me sane.

It works. Mostly.

*   *   *

My attempt to leave the apartment unnoticed fails. Del intercepts me in what passes for our living room. (We have a derelict coffee table; old, balding carpet; and an antique fireplace we’re not allowed to use because—according to our real estate agent—it’s a fire hazard.)

In her Disney pajamas and fluffy slippers, Del is a vision of gold, silver, and pink. She has that enviable talent of rolling out of bed in the morning, already gorgeous. Her hair is a halo of tight black curls, and her hazel eyes are focused, hawklike, on me. A red velvet cupcake, its middle pierced by a tiny, burning candle, is her birthday offering to me as she breaks into an off-key, jazzy version of “Happy Birthday.” Her French accent is more prominent than usual—the only sign she’s still not quite fully awake.

She stops singing abruptly, noticing I’m dressed to go out. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To get us some coffee.” It’s only a half lie. “The good stuff.” In one fluid motion, I approach her and blow out the candle.

Seeing right through me, Del sets the cupcake on the coffee table and crosses her arms over her chest. “It’s Ross, isn’t it? What did he say to you? Is that why you didn’t wait up for me last night? How bad was it?” The words come out in a rapid stream, her cheeks reddening. She’s visibly pissed off that the blind date she orchestrated for me crashed and burned.

“Ross never showed yesterday.” I don’t sound as ticked off as I probably should. The truth is, my pride is hurt, but I’m also kind of glad this Ross person stood me up. I don’t need Del’s help to get dates.… Okay, maybe I do, but I’m never going to admit it to her.

She doesn’t need to know this, but the last time I was on anything resembling a “date” was when I was just over seven and Shannon Reaser, the boy next door, was nine. This was back in Promise, Colorado. We were out in the woods, playing hide-and-seek. We always played in those woods, and it was always silly and innocent.… But that one time, it was different. I slipped and fell, and when Shannon helped me up, he didn’t let go of my hand. We held hands as we walked back home, and I remember that wild sensation of my heart about to jump out of my chest.…

When I think of Shannon now, I get this blurry image: features undefined, all except for clear, soft-gray eyes and dark, windswept hair. I wonder what he looks like now. I wonder if he remembers me.

Oblivious to the unexpected storm of memories raging in my head, Del shrugs. “Perhaps it’s better that way.… One of my little spies informed me this morning that Ross was asking around about you long before he even approached me to set up this date. Like he was digging into your family or something creepy like that.”

“Why would he be digging?” My shoulders get stiff, and I wonder if Del notices. “And if he’s so interested in my family, why didn’t he show up yesterday and ask me whatever he wanted to know?”

“I guess we’ll never know. Whatever. Changing the topic, I thought today we’d eat ice cream for breakfast and have a movie marathon till noon-ish and then I’m taking you out for a surprise field trip. And look what I got you!” Del rushes into her bedroom and returns with a Blu-ray in hand.

I’m about to scoff at her ice cream–eating idea (I’m not going through a breakup, nor have I just lost a loyal canine friend) when I notice the title of the movie she bought me. “You found it!” I take the Blu-ray from her hands and adore the cover image in all its bloody, gory glory: a white-eyed man, his mouth twisted in a silent scream because his head’s about to explode. The cinematic masterpiece that is Cronenberg’s Scanners.

“Have I told you what an awesome friend you are?” I smile at Del.

She grins back. “Not lately. And nowhere near enough.”

“I’m totally going to have to rectify that.” My smile turns sheepish as I put the Blu-ray on the table, next to my untouched birthday cupcake. “Rain check?”

Del’s grin falters. “I have the whole day planned out for us.”

“And I’m looking forward to spending my birthday with you. I just have a little chore to do first.”

“And that chore is not getting us some good coffee, I suspect.”

“I’ll get our caffeine fix on my way back. Doubleshot for you. My treat.” I’m not sure exactly why I’m being secretive with her. It’s kind of cruel, really. Del has zero tolerance for any kind of mystery; she reads a book’s last chapter first to know what’s coming. But the memory of that unsettling tremble in Doreen’s voice makes me keep my mouth shut.

Eventually, Del lets me go. But not before she tricks me into a birthday video chat with her parents. Del’s good-looking older brother is also there, waving at me from the screen and wishing me a very happy birthday.

Ironically, I have more contact with Del’s family than I do with my own father. And speaking of Dad, he’s keeping his distance this morning, which wouldn’t be the first time he’s been low-key about my birthday. But with this being the first birthday I’m celebrating while living on my own, I’d expect at least some interest on his part. Of course, there’s a pretty strong chance he forgot about it altogether. I dig into the dark matter of my brain in an attempt to establish how I feel about it and conclude that it hurts. But I can’t allow myself to care about this distance between me and my father, the same way I can’t let myself go dark with grief for Mom all over again. Because if I do, the next moment, I’ll be neck-deep in self-pity and won’t be able to see straight.

So I do what I always do when it hurts. I ignore it and busy myself with the here and now, hoping that I can trick myself into being normal. That is, if normal is even a word that can be used to describe anything to do with my family.

Copyright © 2018 Katya de Becerra.

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