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

19. The Body in the Woods

WAKE UP.

MY eyes snap open like they’ve been programmed and I gasp in what feels like the first breath in a million years.

The ceiling above me is mottled with mould. No, wait a minute; that’s the sky, bleached bright white by the rising sun, dappled with green leaves. I gasp again, my mouth wide open, and then grit my teeth in a desperate attempt to get my breath back. After a few more seconds of wheezing, I freeze.

It’s morning.

And I’m back.

There are birds singing all around me and something’s wet on my skin. I don’t recognise this part of the forest, but it’s full of tiny, prickly twigs that dig into my back and arms and legs. I try to move- try, and fail, because my joints are rusty and my skin feels raw and new, like I’ve been burnt. This is weird. I was having a dream- a sort of black-and-grey blur, like a corrupted film- about running. Nothing else. Just running. The ground beneath me kicking up, twigs and leaves and pools of water, the sky above me falling down, the full moon and stars, the clouds, the rain. Branches hitting me in the face. Slowly, slowly, I raise my arms- the joints creak- and touch my face. It’s Diana’s. My thoughts- they’re Diana’s. I’m back. But back from what? What happened? Where’s the fire? The darkness? The moon? The stars? The blood?

I’m covered in it.

With a whimper that turns into a shriek, I sit up, my back clicking like it’s going to break. Again. I scream again, hugging my arms to my chest- the wind and the rain are freezing cold on my skin. I’m naked. I don’t know where I am- there’s a log next to my head, furry with mould and moss, and one of my bare feet’s in a puddle. Oh my God. My God, my God, my God. There’s dried blood on my arms and face, but there’s more on my chest and stomach- it’s fresh. Oh God… oh, God- it’s on my face. It’s around my mouth; it’s in my teeth and clinging to the back of my throat. It’s not mine. With a scream that turns into a gag, I double over as another wave of heat crashes over me; I throw up, but the taste doesn’t leave my mouth. Blood. Blood. In my mouth- There’s blood in my mouth. I scream again, and get to my feet. Where was I before this? Oh, yeah- saving Louis. Fucking again.

“Louis!” I scream, my throat so grated my voice sounds like somebody else’s. “Louis- LOUIS!”

I wonder how many times I’ve said that name now. I wonder how many times I’ve screamed it into the woods, with tears all over my face, or blood. I wonder how many more times I’ll have to scream it again before he finally answers me.

There’s blood in my mouth. I’m miles from home, naked in the forest, and I’ve found out I’m a werewolf, and there’s blood in my mouth.

Who did I kill?

Right. Okay. Okay, okay. I get to my feet, instinctively covering myself with both hands- there’s nobody else around, but I don’t know how far I am from the road, or a hiking trail. How do I know there isn’t some kind of birdwatching club out here, or a load of campers? I might get mistaken for a monster and shot.

Mistaken.

I need to find my way back to the clearing first- I could run home, work out whether my brother’s dead, like this, sure, but my woozy head is telling me to find clothes, for God’s sake. I look around for anything familiar, find nothing, and then start to run. I run and run and run, caring about nothing in that moment but the impending task of covering myself. The probable death of my brother can at least wait until after that, can’t it? It’s not like it’s going to go anywhere.

It must be midday before I come across the tree with the heap of fabric beneath it- during that walk, I sit down twice to scrub rags of blood off my face with my hands. I’ve nearly given up, but then, I see the pair of boots nestled amongst the tree-roots. That’s when I raise my head and see the five bodies decorating the clearing. One’s got a knife in her head, one’s got a knife in her back and the other three are sliced into ribbons. They’re all human… I remember that YouTube video. Werewolves turn back into humans once they’re killed. William’s lying next to Gretchen, naked.

There’s my sword. There’s the spot where I changed- the mud’s splattered with blood that crawls halfway up the trunk of the tree I was lying under. There are my clothes. I run towards them, then wrinkle my nose against the stench as I bend down and peel my cardboard-stiff jacket away from the puddle of blood. It’s dark brown now. My trousers are ripped at the seams. I look for my shirt, but I can’t see it at all- I guess it’s made up of those miniscule scraps I see clinging to the blood-crusted ground like leaves. I look back at the first tree I saw- the one with the pair of boots underneath it that aren’t mine- and swallow. Those clothes are William’s. They’re ripped, but not as badly as mine.

As my head pulses with a cocktail of hot anger and cold fear, I throw myself onto the ground and pull on what’s left of my trousers. I rip off a rag of the fabric and use it to tie two belt-loops together, tightening the torn waistband around my hips till it stays in place. I run to the tree and pull on the faded blue shirt that isn’t mine, but William’s- it’s ripped once, right down the middle from neckline to hem, so I put it on backwards. Then, I run back and shove my jacket on. I pick up my sword, realising I’ve got no choice but to carry it. I look around the clearing. Harry died with two of my knives in his hands- I pry them loose. I look at Nancy and Gretchen and swallow again. No- I’m leaving them in place. The Devil himself couldn’t tempt me to touch them. I realise, as I stand there, covered in blood that isn’t mine and yet more that is, that this looks bad. Really, really, really fucking bad. I’ve got no proof I killed them in self-defence- at all- and there’s no way I’m letting Louis tell a soul what he did. It was all me. If anyone asks, it was all me. I’ll take it as it comes. I’m a fighter, and a victim, and a survivor, and a killer, and a werewolf. But I’m not a liar, nor am I a coward.

I look down at myself- at my blood-matted rags of clothing, the curls of hair sticking to my cheek, my bare feet on the wet ground. I’m a scarecrow.

There’s no way I’m going in the front door.

 

 

He’d better be safe. If he’s not, I don’t want to think what I’ll do. Blame myself, and rightly this time. Throw myself into the river. Looking like I’ve just crawled out of my own grave, I heave my way up the hill, keeping my eyes fixed on the light in the kitchen window till I reach my front gate. I vault the fence, throwing my sword into the garden before me. I run around to the back of the house, looking back at the kitchen window as I pass- Mum’s in there, midway through washing a saucepan, but she’s frozen, her eyes fixed on the far wall. She’s not moving. She’s been doing that a lot since Dad went to hospital- freezing in place with her face to the wall. It breaks my heart, but today, it calms my nerves. She’s safe. One down.

I run into the back garden and stand with my hands on my hips, staring up at Louis’s bedroom window. There’s no roof underneath it like there is under my window, but he must’ve been sneaking out at night somehow, damnit, and that somehow is most likely the drainpipe. I sigh. The climb’s going to be hard, but I don’t have a choice, do I?

The first hand on the drainpipe is agony, like I’m being pulled apart at the bones all over again, but that’s nothing compared to the fear I’ll make it to the top and seeing Louis’ bed empty. When I force that hand to take my full weight, I grit my teeth to bite back the scream and feel a wave of nausea coming. I ignore it, plant my feet on the wall, and start to climb. One hand over the other. Ow. Ow. Shut up. One foot in front of the other. Till you reach the window.

I reach the window, and my blood freezes and my heart drops into the flowerbeds below me as I see Louis’ bed empty. The covers are pulled back and crumpled. There are pillows all over the floor. He’s not there.

Then, a movement at the corner of my eye makes me turn. That’s when I see him, a dark shape beyond the white smears of reflection on the glass. He’s sitting at his desk, his chin in his hands. He’s there. I sigh. My pain forgotten, I raise one hand to knock on the window, but right before I do, I stop myself dead. I’m covered in blood. I’m draped in nothing but rags. He doesn’t need to see me like this- he’s been through enough tonight.

He’s alive.

The relief has drained me so much, sucked so much adrenaline from my blood, that I barely have enough strength to pull myself back down the drainpipe. I let go about six feet from the ground and fall the rest of the way, crumpling my legs beneath me, jarring my back hard and knocking the wind out of myself. Thump. I lie there, staring up at the bright blue sky, blinking up at the clouds as they drift past, and I don’t move. For one minute. Two. I haven’t felt this weak since I was released from the hospital back in January, after Poppy was killed. My lungs constrict every time I breathe, my mouth’s dry and gritty, my bones are aching right down to the marrow, and my joints feel like they’re clogged with rust. When I try to clench my fist, a sort of itch flares up to force my fingers apart again. My skin’s brittle and cracked- I can’t widen my eyes. I can’t open my mouth. I can’t see. Everything’s going black…

I know that’s because of the change, deep down. I know it’s because one month ago, Harry bit me and planted a parasite in me that waited till last night to tear me apart and mutate me. I know it’s because I’m not myself anymore- not entirely, anyway. I’m a beast, a mutant, a werewolf. Everything’s going black…

I can’t let it win. I lick my lips, clench my fists, bend my legs and force myself to my feet, even though it feels wrong. I feel off-balance, but I can make it. I have to. Diana would know how to make it, and right now, I’m Diana. I’m not the beast anymore.

Imagine my Mum’s horror if she’d happened to be in my bedroom at the moment I pulled myself through the window, plastered with blood and muck and sweat and tears and disgusting rags that weren’t mine. Imagine her shock as she watched my hand appearing first, throwing her parents’ blood-rusted sword to the ground with a heart-stopping clatter, followed by my face- twisted by new scars and old ones, black with blood and gore and muck. My body comes next, slowly, slowly- basically still naked, trussed in rags like a mummy. I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror yet, but I’m sure she’d hardly have recognised me as her daughter. Imagine if I’d seen her there right then, standing in the doorway of my bedroom, staring at me. I’d have had to grin. I’d have had no other choice.

Luckily, she’s not there. Neither is anybody else.

“Hi, Mum. Back from my walk.” I murmur to myself as I hoist one leg up, grip the windowsill and lean sideways till I fall. Thud. Thump. God, that hurts. But it’s nothing. Nothing to the fear still bleeding through me like electricity.

Those bloody rags come straight off me again- they go into a plastic bag that I throw out of my window onto the roof. My sword and knives get one wipe each from a clean patch of my trousers before they’re wrapped in spare sheets and rammed back into my wardrobe. That’s enough. That’s enough now. I run across the hallway in my dressing-gown and take the quickest shower known to man, not flinching as the hot water finds the cuts on my hands and the burns on my wrists and the gouges at my throat. The plughole runs red. I don’t care. As I’m towelling myself dry, I feel a sudden wave of self-consciousness, like there’s someone watching me. Nobody is, but because I suddenly feel strange, I look up, take a step forwards and wipe the condensation from the mirror to stare at myself. That’s when, through the smeared haze and residual beads of water, I catch sight of my own face. Something’s different- it could be the mirror. It could be the scratches on the glass, but there’s something wrong. My scars are still there, but they look more raised and red-raw, like they’re new. What about my eyes? Against my red skin, the deep purple shadows underneath them, they’re piercingly white. One iris is black as ever; the other… It's yellow.

Bright, clear, amber yellow. Gold. It wasn’t that colour before- it was brown, and only slightly redder than the other, with a cloudy pupil. That cloudiness is gone. It hasn’t changed back; it’s still yellow, the pupil dilated all the way so the iris is barely a gold sliver. I blink, and when I blink, my human reflection in my cloudy bathroom mirror becomes my hideously distorted reflection in my bloody sword- my eyes dripping black, full of tears, and my face distorted as my skull exploded. I feel my spine shatter, my wrists snap into pieces. I feel my throat curling up to wring out my screams and my organs contorting and swelling and shrinking inside me. I blink. I’m back. That really happened, didn’t it? It really happened. And it’s going to be like that forever, too. That’s when it hits me. Like a ton of bricks. Like a lorry. Like a freight train.

I’m one of them. I’m a werewolf.

Last night, in the woods, there was a new monster - a dark-haired one with mismatched yellow eyes- and it was me. All that time I spent convincing myself those gang bastards were subhuman, that this operation would be easy- was for nothing, because now, I’m part of the problem. The forest’ll never be free of monsters for as long as I’m alive. I could cage myself up every full moon, sure- but for the first time, even after I’ve told everyone else exactly the same idea, I’m not sure it’ll work. I could break out of it. I could run wild again, like last night, like the rest of them. I could go mad from the pain or the power or both. I could kill someone.

Someone else.

My mouth still tastes of blood.

After I’ve left the shower, I run into Iain in the hallway. He’s quietly closing the door to Mum’s room, and I realise as he starts to turn that I won’t make it down the stairs without him seeing me. My hair’s still wet and I’m wearing clean clothes, but I panic for a second, wondering if he’ll spot the bandages I put on both my forearms. I stop.

Iain says nothing. He smiles tiredly and gives me a little wave.

“Hi.” I say, too loudly- he jerks his head at the bedroom door.

“Hi. Mum’s asleep.” He murmurs.

I hang my head. “Okay.”

“She went catatonic again. In the kitchen. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” I run my hand through my hair and feel the shower of tiny droplets prickling my shoulders. She’s not going to be okay. Four times in the last week we’ve found her like that- her eyes wide, frozen in place like time’s stopped around her, usually while washing the dishes or wiping down the counters. She hasn’t cried yet since the day she told us Dad was dying, and that worries me more than anything. I’m glad Iain’s here to look after her- he’s hard as nails, and the rest of us are too scared to touch her. I’ve been too distracted. I’m a terrible daughter.

Iain lays his hand on my shoulder as he pushes past me. He’s probably heading to Louis’ room, and I wonder if I should turn back. If one more person asks Louis if he’s okay I’m scared he’ll crumple. We haven’t seen each other this morning at all, and I’m scared to confront him again in case he breaks down- he nearly killed me. He saw me starting to change. He heard me telling him to run for his life. I wonder if I should knock on his door after Iain, but I’m too frightened. If he breaks down when he sees me, I’ll break down too. It’ll suddenly feel too real. In the end, I don’t turn back- I keep walking, down the stairs, trying my best to tiptoe. As I pass the hallway mirror, I sneak a glance at my reflection and realise, with a jolt of bewildered relief, my yellow left eye has faded back to normal.

I push open the front door as quietly as I can, and shut it again. It’s only when I’m out of the front gate that I break into a run. My mouth still tastes of blood, even though I spent twenty minutes after my shower brushing my teeth and gargling mouthwash, and as I start to run, the taste rises back through my throat. It makes me feel sicker still as my heart starts to pound, stirring it up. I know whose it is. I know whose it is now.

 

 

The sun’s started to set by the time I find him. At first, he was just a little pale shape in the distance, hazed out by the evening fog and distorted by the shape of the log in front of him, but the closer I walked, the redder he looked. I’m crying again, but the sobs aren’t ugly and choking- my mouth stays shut. I sniff as I reach him- I’m not shocked. I’m glad I finally managed to find him before anyone else did. Here he is- he’s naked too, the skin raked clean away from his skin and the flesh parted like rags, covered in blood like a blanket. Here he is, his eyes cracked open, his lips crusted with burgundy, his hair tousled. The blood around the bite mark on his arm has dried black. I know he died a wolf. I know it did nothing, because I don’t have any wounds besides the ones I gave myself. Silly little boy. He never stood a chance against me.

He never stood a chance against any of them.

I drop to my knees, and the impact jars a cough out of my mouth that turns into a sob. I sob again, harder, even though the tears finished falling long ago. Then, before I can stop myself, I lift Alfie into my arms and hug him to my chest, weeping hard enough to grate my throat raw. I rock him from side to side, looking up at the sky, and wish I had the strength or control over my body enough to tell him I was sorry. Me, telling him, I was sorry. He killed Gretchen, he tried to kill me… but that’s not the point. He’s a child. He was messed up in the head, but he needed a slap on the wrist, not a claw to open his throat and nearly take his head off. Not a blow to turn his chest to slurry. At worst, he needed a stint in a cage. I look down at his face. I’d try to close his eyes, like they always do in the movies, but there’s a crust of blood on his face so thick I wouldn’t have known it was him if it wasn’t for his size and that haircut. The fact he was the only person I left alive in that forest before I changed. The fact I already knew I was going to find him. What now? Oh, God- I can’t cover this up. Why couldn’t the stupid little shit have just run a little faster? I choke on sobs and push him off my lap; then, I start frantically wiping tears from my face, only to cover myself in yet more blood. I’m falling. I’m losing control. I bury my head in my hands and scream a curse- I’m not sure who I’m cursing. God? He’s to blame for all this. Satan? He probably helped. Milo? He’s dead. Nancy, and the rest of the gang? They’re dead too. I killed them all. All of them. Even though they all needed cages, not a death sentence. Surely. Surely there was another way. I bury my head in the leaves.

I stand up, fussing my fingers in my palms. Blood’s curdling on my hands and rubbing off like dirt. Tears are drying on my face. I’ve been walking all day, and my family’ll know something’s wrong, so I’ve got to come clean. Well, semi-clean. I look down at Alfie, and then I think of the gang at the other side of the forest- they’re all still there, and they were all killed by knives. Swords. A human. This boy deserves more than they did, and he was killed by claws. I bite my fist and try my best to think straight- the right thing to do’s tell the truth. But the police won’t believe the truth. If those bodies are found, I’ll be arrested. And in the end, I’ll go to jail, because I’ll lie till Louis is out of trouble and they already think I’m mad. My Mum’s catatonic. My Dad’s dying. My best friend’s dead. If I go to jail, my family’ll fall apart- my Mum’ll fall into depression, my siblings’ll be left neglected. That gang have families too, but God, I don’t know their families. The only way to keep myself out of jail, so I can take care of mine, is to make sure those bodies aren’t found. In the end, it’s blind selfishness that forces me to make my decision.

I leave Alfie in the leaves. I’ve not got my phone on me right now, I tell myself, feeling its weight in my pocket as I turn to walk away. That’ll be my excuse. That’s what I’ll tell them.

In the last few months, the Velasquez family have misplaced six knives and a sword and acquired two dozen boxes of bandages, none of which they’ve noticed. I doubt they’ll notice the loss of a shovel.

Not for a few hours, anyway.

As it turns out, burying a body’s a lot harder than the movies make it look. It’s summer, and even though it rained last night, the earth’s rock-hard a couple of inches down. I’m sweating by the time I’ve finished digging one grave- I’m crying, too, and bleeding through the bandages on my arms.

Why, William? I think to myself. Why do we have to wake up naked? I wipe my forehead. The sky above me’s plum-purple and the clouds are black. I wonder if my family are wondering where I am. They wouldn’t believe it if you told them. Burying four bodies.

Two graves later, the sky’s completely black and I’m completely out of tears; despite the voice in my head telling me these people deserve better, despite everything they’ve done, I decide to make it quick.

I bury Harry first, thanking him for the curse, and for being the only other kid I’d seen who forgot his clothes on the first outing. He makes me feel less ridiculous, at least. I bury Salem next, and thank him for never joining in with the laughing. I think he was the Louis to Harry’s Alfie. I think he was forced to join the gang. But what does it matter now? He’s just another beaten bad guy, isn’t he? He shouldn’t deserve my time. Next, I bury Nancy. I thank her for being too crazy to think straight- for delaying the execution long enough for me to cut my ropes and Louis to kill her. For accidentally saving us.

I force myself to heft William next, since I want to do Gretchen last. I chuck him into his grave as quickly as I can. I don’t know what to thank William for- I didn’t know him. He never did anything to me, nor me to him besides cutting his head off- Oh, that reminds me. I leave the graveside and hurry to the other end of the clearing to get his head, which I nearly forgot to bury. Covered in blood, with its bulging, watery eyes, it looks like a stage prop. Besides the smell, it could be made of rubber. I throw it in, then fill the grave, still trying to think of something to say. It’s only when the earth’s flat around him that I hear my mouth muttering,

“Thanks for having a stupid name. Gave me a decent laugh.”

Gretchen’s the only one who’s still human to me. The others I bent and hefted over my shoulders like payloads on a building site, flinging them into their shoddy graves with a grunt and a curse. They were dead weights; they were dead. They were bodies. Gretchen’s still… Gretchen.

Even though there’s a knife in her back and she’s bloodier than all the others, she’s still my friend. Even though her orange-and-brown hair’s loose in waves and her eyepatch has come off and her makeup’s smudged into warpaint, she’ll always be the girl with the perfect, tightly wound braids, the bambi-blue eyes, the china doll’s face, the rubber chokers and the body everyone else secretly envied. The girl everyone wanted to hate, but couldn’t, because underneath all that, she was sweet and geeky and real. The girl I sat with in Biology, and chatted to me about useless shit neither of us cared about; the only girl who spoke to me after the accident that destroyed my face and the only girl I wanted to talk to after Poppy was killed. She’s the girl with the shiny smile that was somehow always genuine, the girl who could kid a whole school she was athletic because she was a good runner. In the end, I guess she wasn’t fast enough.

I pick her up like a baby, letting her head loll onto my shoulder, and lay her in her shitty hole in the ground as carefully as I can before I lose my grip and she thumps down like a dead weight. I let out a sob and bite my fist. I can’t look anymore. I can’t look at what I’ve done to these people- I haven’t just killed them, but now, I’m covering up their deaths to save myself and my brother.

“I’m doing this for my family.” I murmur to myself as I pat down the earth above Gretchen. I want to do something else- maybe make some graves- but that’d defeat the whole point of hiding them, wouldn’t it? “Without me, there’s nobody to keep them safe. I can’t go to jail. I can’t.”

The air grows colder, the sky grows darker, home grows closer, and I grow more and more disgusted with myself. I’ve been swinging the shovel like I used to swing my sword, but I dump it in the shed as soon as I can. That’s when I take a deep breath, wrinkle my cheeks to squeeze out the last of my tears, and force myself to start running. This time, I run through my own front door, and as I hurry into the kitchen, covered in mud, I see Louis, Iain and Minnie sitting around the table. They’re playing Monopoly. I remember, at that moment, to feign heavy breathing.

“Di?” Iain says. “What- what’s wrong?”

I pant again, harder, but when he gets up to put a hand on my shoulder, I bat him away. I’m not sure I deserve his sympathy. I take a deep breath, and then, staring at Louis and thinking of Alfie, I say softly,

“I found a body.”

It’s not a lie.

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