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!
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1. The Red Hazard Lights

I’M PHOBIC. THE moment I think of pain or needles, I start to feel dizzy and hot. I guess that means I probably shouldn’t’ve agreed to get a tattoo.

“Ah. Di.” Poppy flexes her fingers inside mine. “Too tight.”

“Sorry.”

She smirks at me. I try to smile back, but my vision lurches to one side. Another jab of the needle turns the room into a blue-and-silver fuzz.

“You okay?” Poppy says.

“Sorry- sorry. I’ll stop now.”

I squeeze her hand harder and hiss through my teeth with pain, craning to look at the thin black lines the tattoo artist- a big guy with red tribal spikes ringing his throat- is gouging into me. The needle feels like it’s raking troughs through my skin- where’s all the blood? I feel like I should be covered in blood. There’s a worse pain too- a dull ache, buried deep in my flesh, twisting around my bones and filling my head with static. I swallow. Hard. My head feels hot, like I’m on the verge of a panic attack. No. Not now. Not in front of her.

“It’s okay.”

I think I go cross-eyed for a second. I’m not sure.

“Thanks a bunch, Poppy.” I say through gritted teeth.

She looks at me. “For what?”

“For picking… picking the one thing you knew’d reduce me to a quivering heap.”

She snorts with laughter. “I didn’t pick it- I only suggested it. All I said was this is something every poor English kid does on their eighteenth birthday. So I thought maybe we should give it a go, y’know?”

“Liar. You maliciously- ow! Forced me.”

“You’re in charge, Di. It’s your sodding birthday. You could’ve picked anything else you wanted.”

“Like what?”

“Like, uh… I dunno!” Poppy laughs. “Whatever you wanted! I’d have done anything with you.”

“Yeah.” I growl, clenching my fist. “Me too- ow! With- with you.”

“Well, it’s too late now.” She grins, raising her arm to look at her new tattoo. We decided on matching leaves- hers is tiny, on her index finger. It only took five minutes. Mine’s bigger, on the crook of my elbow. I turn and see she’s leaned in close to me, our foreheads nearly touching. I can smell her perfume.

“You’re trapped, Di.” She grins. “Trapped in here with your one weakness.”

My smile doesn’t take long to slide off my face. It might just be the nausea, but for a second, the thumping music fades away and the blue strobe lights calm to a glow around her. She’s all I see for a few seconds- her big yellow-brown eyes, wider than ever, glimmering with flecks of blue. Her hair, in its two lopsided bunches, green instead of blonde with its stray strands crackling turquoise. Her cheeks flushed pink, and her sprays of freckles and shiny lip gloss. I’ve known that smile for fourteen years, but I’m still not used to it.

Your one weakness.

I grunt as the needle starts up again, the artist humming through his studded tongue as he merrily resumes sawing away at my bones.

“Lemme see yours.” I reach forwards and grab Poppy’s other hand. “Shit, looks way nicer on you. Did it hurt?”

“Yeah, it hurt!” Poppy says with a grin, taking her hand back to run her thumb past the tattoo. The pink skin around it’s stained red. “Like a bitch. Like they’d stuck the needle in right down to the bone and then really, really dragged-”

I flap my hand at her as her words drag up more hot nausea. “Stop.”

She giggles. “No. It didn’t hurt at all. Barely felt like a bug bite.”

“Oh.”

“You’re all done.” The tattooist lets go of my arm, and I shake it as the sharp, ripe pain turns into a dull burning sensation.

“Cheers.” I make a show of checking out the tattoo, and Poppy presses her arm to mine so we can look at them side-by-side. Her skin feels warm. For a second, our eyes meet, and this time, she’s not smirking and neither am I.

My heart starts to hammer in my chest.

“Hey.” I turn back to the tattooist, who looks up from lovingly scrubbing the blood and guts off his clinical death-machine.

“Yeah?”

I hold up my arm. “How much extra to give the leaf eyes?”

“What?”

Poppy snorts with laughter. “Di, you said we were going for minimalist and meaningful.”

“Incorrect,” I say with a sharp intake of breath. “I said we were going for tasteful.”

“And… I’m sorry. Talk me through how giving them faces’ll turn out tasteful.”

“Taste’s objective, Poppy. I saw a guy the other day with the Hello Kitty logo tattooed on his face.”

She twists her mouth sideways. “And did it look tasteful?”

“On him?” I grin. “Oh, yeah. Definitely.”

Poppy rolls her eyes, covering her mouth with her hand to stifle her laughter. The tattooist’s looking at us both like he hates us, but I can’t help feeling ecstatic, like I do every time I make Poppy laugh.

Poppy looks at the tattooist again, then holds her hand out. “Can mine have eyes too, please?”

I can almost sense his sigh.

Poppy looks back at me, and I give her my dopey, wide eyed Yes, I Know I’m Hilarious look. The moment’s gone.

Mission accomplished.

 

 

“Diana, I’m so proud of us.”

Midnight’s just passed. I take my eyes off the road to look over at Poppy, who’s busy admiring her index finger. She smiles up at me, her face lit up in orange and silver by the dashboard and the streetlights.

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

There’s a long pause.

“I think this is the best thing we’ve ever done.” She says.

“Yeah.”

“I mean, they do look amazingly dysfunctional.”

I glance down at my tattoo, with its enormous bugged-out eyes. It’s not a work of art, by any stretch of the imagination. I grin.

“Yeah, they do. But I kinda like them better that way.”

“They remind me of those old paperclips from Word.”

“Yeah.”

“And actually, mine sort of looks a bit like my grandma.”

I laugh.

“But I love it.”

I shoot Poppy a quick smile, then turn back to the road. We drive on in silence. For a couple of seconds, at least.

“Wow, slow down, speed demon.” Poppy says. “You’re going to get us both killed.”

I passed my driving test three months ago, and my parents gave me their old car this morning, as an eighteenth birthday present. Tonight’s the first time I’ve driven with passengers. I’m terrified of it- if I don’t think about it too much, I’m fine, but eventually, there always comes a moment where it occurs to me I’m hurtling along a flat road in a steel-and-glass death trap and my hands and feet are the only things keeping me from a hideously mangled car wreck. Right now, we’re driving down the empty country lane leading up the hill where my house sits by itself, silver tree-trunks cutting pinstripes into the black sky on either side. The speed limit’s thirty miles an hour. I’m doing seventeen. I laugh at Poppy’s joke, but I’ve waited too long. She looks up at me.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Hey.” She leans over and pats my hand. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a tad spaced-out. You tired?”

“No.”

It’s true. On the way out of the tattoo studio, I felt my eyes rolling back and had to sit down hard in a puddle on the pavement to keep myself from fainting, but I’m not feeling faint either.

“Hey. Want me to drive for a bit?”

I look up at her. “You haven’t got a license.”

“I know. But my instructor said I’m a born natural.”

“I’m assuming that was before you totalled the both of you into a ditch?”

“Yeah. A couple of minutes before.” Poppy yawns. “Maybe you should keep going. At this rate…” She trails off. “We ought to get home by… maybe August time…”

The car falls into silence. Poppy and I’ve been best friends for most of our lives, but we’ve always been terrible at saying what we think. We always end up getting distracted. I’m supposed to be convinced she’ll push me away if I ever tell her how I really feel about her, but somehow, I’m not. I tried to bring it up at dinner earlier- made some dumb joke about how I ought to have taken my date somewhere fancier than a pizza place- and thought I saw her looking at me with something in her eyes that wasn’t confusion or disgust. I still lost my nerve and changed the subject, like I always do.

“Poppy?”

She looks up and smiles at me. “Yeah?”

“Um…”

I know I should’ve rehearsed the sentence in my head before starting to get her attention. Screw it. We’re five miles from my house. I’ll lose my nerve again if I don’t speak now.

“I was just, uh… wondering something.”

I expect her to interject with a question, but she doesn’t.

“I just, like… Back in the restaurant. When I said something stupid- I mean, really bloody stupid- about it being a date. And- and- and you said…”

I stop and swallow.

What?” Poppy presses me.

I don’t dare look up at her, so I turn back and fix my eyes on the road in time for something enormous to hurtle into the windscreen with a sickening THUMP and a jolting CRACK. “Oh, Jesus!”

“Shit!”

We’re both thrown forwards against our seatbelts and I curse, slamming my foot down on the brake. The car lurches to a stop, skidding a couple of inches on the icy road. My head’s spinning. I can’t breathe.

Pushing my hair out of my eyes, I jerk my head around to the passenger seat and, to my relief, see Poppy staring back at me. We’re both breathing harder, but we’re fine.

“Are you okay?” I ask her.

She nods, then laughs nervously. “What on earth was that?”

“I’m not… sure…” I admit, undoing my seatbelt and craning over my shoulder. I see something pale lying in the middle of the road behind us. My heart freezes. “Stay in the car a second.”

I pop the door open and heave myself out of the car; my head’s still spinning from shock, even though the collision wasn’t that bad. My heart sinks as I see an enormous dent in the bonnet. The windscreen’s a spiderweb. I catch Poppy’s eye as she looks over her shoulder.

“Stay here.” I say to her again. Her eyes widen.

“We… didn’t…” The laugh’s gone from her voice. “We didn’t… hit someone, did we?”

I look back at the shape huddled in the road behind our car. Poppy opens her door behind me and I wave my hand, telling her to stay back, but I know she won’t.

The road’s covered in mist and the air’s dusty with pinpricks of water. The chill presses up against my face, making my eyes and nose water- I’m starting to feel dizzy again. The hazy shape in the road’s round, with something sticking out at a strange angle- a leg. Oh God. As I get closer, I see another leg.

Then another. Then another.

I only let out my breath when I reach it, realising I’m not quite a murderer after all.

Poppy’s voice from right behind me makes me jump. “Is it-”

“It- it’s okay.” I say. “It’s a deer.”

She stands beside me; when she speaks again, her voice is damp. “Oh. Oh, really?”

I look back at my car, wondering how many eighteen-year-olds wreck their cars on the first bloody day they’re given them. Dad probably won’t mind, but I love that car, and now it looks like a crushed Goddamn sardine tin.

“The poor thing.” Poppy says, looking down at the deer. Then, she jumps backwards in shock. “Oh, shit!”

“What?”

“It blinked!”

“Oh. Really?” I look down at the deer, noticing the blood striping the fur around its neck. Then, I realise it’s not from the wreck. Poppy grabs the back of my coat as I lean down to get a closer look.

“Don’t get too close.”

“I won’t.”

“Because-”

“Bloody hell!” I gasp and jerk backwards, nearly knocking Poppy over, as the deer suddenly shoots to its feet. It stares at us for a second, its eyes catching the scarlet glow of our hazard lights, and then turns and sprints away into the treeline. Poppy giggles nervously as its shape shrinks before finally vanishing into the shadows. I look at her.

“Nearly killed by a demon reindeer: Check.” I say. “Just in time for Christmas.”

Poppy snorts with laughter. “You’d have been fine if you hadn’t been eyeballing it. What were you, trying to kiss it?”

“Uh-”

“Will the car start?” She interrupts me, and I decide it’s a good thing, because I wouldn’t have been able to tell her why I’d been eyeballing the deer. The truth is I spotted three deep wounds in its throat- claw marks. But she doesn’t need to know that.

I look back. “Oh, yeah. Definitely.”

“We should get… back,” she says slowly, hanging her head. She doesn’t make a move towards the car, and neither do I.

We lock eyes.

“Hey. You okay?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

That look’s back in her eyes again. I can see it.

“Do you…” I trail off. I know we ought to be getting back to the car- it’s bloody freezing for one thing, and that deer looked like it’d been attacked by something huge for another thing. Still, those marks on its neck might’ve just been the impact with the car. Or maybe there’s some barbed wire hidden in the treeline somewhere. Besides, Poppy’s looking at me like she wants to say something, and I’ve had enough of pretending to ignore our moments. This might be my last chance. She makes a move towards me, her hands in her pockets, her chin buried in the scarf around her neck. I can’t take my eyes off her, and she stares right back- her eyes are wide again, glittering red instead of blue. She’s standing at the edge of the pool our red hazard lights are dripping onto the road, her face shining, as I stand in the darkness outside it. God, she’s beautiful. My heart’s hammering again.

“Do I what?” Poppy asks. I think her eyes are urging me on.

I look down and fidget. Poppy grins, twirling the end of one of her bunches in her hand. She opens her mouth, then closes it, and that’s when something takes me over. Some kind of blind fucking bravery.

Poppy opens her mouth again. “I-”

“No. If either one of us’s gonna say it, Poppy, it should be me.” I laugh defeatedly. “Shouldn’t it? I mean, I’m the one with the… the... Aren’t I? I mean… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for it to ruin the night.”

Poppy blinks. “Ruin the night? What do you… mean?

“I- I’m sorry.” I say, fidgeting with the hem of my coat. “I just… you just- you weren’t supposed to know. I was gonna tell you tonight. Anyway. I swear. But I didn’t want it to ruin the night. Or… anything. Or ruin our entire friendship. Everything.”

“Di, I have no idea what you mean,” Poppy says. I don’t believe her, but for a second, I’m thrown off-guard.

“Oh. What? How could you not tell, Poppy? I’m a terrible liar. I wasn’t even fooling my- myself, you know?” It’s freezing out here, but I don’t want to let this moment escape us. I don’t want to go home. I want it out, and I want it out now. “These things- they’re supposed to be… subtle. You- you know? You’re supposed to slowly realise something’s off and then wake up one day, like, six months later and slowly realise, oh my God. I think I’m in love. But that’s not how-”

“You’re not making any sense.” Poppy looks up at me, her eyes wide.

“What do you mean?” I choke back a laugh. “What- what part of this doesn’t make sense?”

Any of it, Di!”

“I just- All I did was say out loud what we’ve both known forever. Didn’t I?”

I stop to think for a minute, my insides twisting with fear. Maybe I am babbling incoherent rubbish. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oh, God- what if she never knew? Now she thinks I’m insane.

“How can I have known th- this forever?” Poppy replies. “What? You- you what? You fancy me?”

“If fancy’s the word you want to use, fine.”

There’s a long silence. It’s gotten colder, and the wind’s rustling the dead grass behind us like it’s stamping it down. The air between us should feel awkward, but it doesn’t. She’s not outraged. She’s not disgusted. She’s just shell-shocked.

“I’m sorry.” I say softly. “This is disgustingly bad timing. We’re cold. It’s cold. Let’s get home.”

Poppy licks her lips. “No.”

I look at her. “Why not?”

“Be- because…”

I drop my gaze to the ground and kick a pebble. If I thought that tattoo was painful, this is bloody agony. Still, I decide to break the silence before it smothers us.

“I’ve known it since before I can remember,” I say. “Since we met, maybe.”

Poppy bites her lip. “We were four when we met, Di.”

“Yeah. I know. Whatever. You’re interrupting my flow. All I know’s I’ve been in love with you since before I knew for sure I liked girls. I learned what the word lesbian meant when I was ten. I heard someone say it on the TV, and I asked my Mum what it was, and she said it was a girl who loved girls instead of boys. And- and all I said was, ’Oh. I didn’t know there was a word for it.’ And my Mum said ‘For what?’ And I said, ‘For me loving Poppy.’ And then I just walked off without another word.”

I stop to take a breath and see Poppy staring at me, her head cocked to one side. She bites her lip. I bite mine. It’s too late to stop now.

“Mum likes to tell that story.” I say. “She keeps asking me- ‘Oh, Di, when are you gonna tell Poppy?’ Like it’s as easy as asking you if you want to go hang out in town or some shit. But… yeah. Now you know, I guess.”

I look up at her, and see she’s smiling. Not a shy smile, but an ear-to-ear grin. Then, she starts to laugh. Nervously, I laugh too.

“What?” I say.

“What?” She giggles. “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

Why, Di? Why the hell would you… would anybody… feel that way… about me? I’m just your idiot friend. I’m just your idiot friend with the stupid hairstyles everyone thinks is a joke. People don’t feel… things… for-for me!”

I look at her- at her beautiful eyes and her beautiful hair and her beautiful smile and her gorgeous, impeccable weirdness, and all I can think to say is; “Are you insane?”

Poppy stares at me. I take a deep breath, ready to go off on another ridiculous monologue about how she’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met, the funniest, the sweetest, the most fun, the most beautiful… but I stop. Because I see her face. I see her eyes.

So instead, I look nervously down at the icy road before taking a step into the light. We stand, facing one another, for a fraction of a second. I can’t be sure, but I think when I lean forward to kiss her that she leans forward too.

Our lips meet, and suddenly, everything feels better. I suddenly feel a little warmer than I did, and a little lighter. We’re drenched in red light like this is a horror story, and it’s so cold I can’t feel my fingers, and it’s dark and it’s muddy and our car’s ditched with a dent and a crack like we’ve driven headfirst into a wall, but her lips taste of strawberries and my heart’s hammering hard enough to turn all my nausea to adrenaline. My fingers brush her arm and she reaches up to grab my hand, just as we break apart.

“Huh.” Poppy says. “Interesting.”

“What?” I say.

Suddenly, there’s a CRACK behind us, and we both jump. Poppy lets go of my hand. I spin, and that’s when I hear Poppy scream.

“What?” I say. “What?”

But I’ve already seen what.

Some things have a slow build-up. Planted clues, creepy music, things that make you reckon you know what’s going to happen before it happens. My love for Poppy wasn’t like that- it just exploded into existence. Boom. The first time I see a monster isn’t like that either- at least, I think so then, as I stand there, watching the pair of silver-green lights that made Poppy scream rise up off the ground. They’re surrounded by a black hulking mass that grows taller and taller amongst the trees before it bothers to lope out into the road. I can hear it snorting. I stare at it- at this hideously twisted silhouette with its grimy hair and its mangled jumble of teeth- and the only thing I can think is Oh. I wasn’t expecting that.

But I suppose, actually, there were clues. I was just too busy staring at the girl I loved to notice them. The deer in the road. The claw marks on its throat. The sound of breaking branches in the woods. The cold and the dark and the mist and the isolated road in the middle of nowhere, and the red lights. No couple whose first kiss happens under a blood-red hazard light lives happily ever after.

The monster from the woods doesn’t waste any more time skulking in the shadows, breaking branches and growling and teasing its presence. It’s black against the silver-red road and nearly twice my height on two legs- eight, nine, ten feet tall. The sound trickling through the air towards us is a mindless mumble of a growl, rasped and gurgled like the thing’s lungs are full of water. Poppy lets out a shaky breath with a petrified whimper that sucks the last of the warmth from my blood- her grasp tightens around my arm. She doesn’t say a word. I should’ve run then, taking her with me. No- I should’ve run when we found the deer. No- I should never have gotten out of the car in the first place. I should’ve stayed inside my steel-and-glass death trap- if not for myself, then for Poppy. But it’s too bloody late for any of that now, because now, I’m frozen.

I try to move, but I feel like I’m trapped inside a suit of armour- like all my joints have fused straight. I open my mouth, try to speak, but instead of words, a pained moan drags itself out of my throat, then trails off altogether. I need more time. I need more time to process what the fuck I’m seeing, plant it firmly in the right plane of reality. But the thing from the woods doesn’t give me any. With one last snort that crystallises in the black winter air, it swings down onto four legs with a light THUMP. And then it bolts for us.

I choke on my words again, but finally manage to force out that scream as I regain control of my muscles. I push Poppy behind me as she starts screaming too, but I don’t know what I’m thinking of doing- using myself as a shield? Ha. When it reaches us, it knocks me off my feet and pounds me into the tarmac like I’m made of cardboard, and its claws cut through my skin and turn my face and chest to soup like I’m made of paper. Oh, God, the pain- it throws my head back and lashes my brain and gurgles my words and chokes me. Everything blurs black and gold and red. The scream that comes out of me’s bad enough. The scream that comes out of Poppy, who’s on the ground next to me, is a hundred, thousand, million times worse. I try to yell at her to run, but all that comes out of my mouth’s blood. Hot and metallic and redder than hell, it’s everywhere, and I couldn’t care less. Right then, all my head’s screaming is Poppy Poppy Poppy Poppy Poppy. I can’t move. I’m dead. I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but I’m dead. Its claws come down again, tearing through my right arm- the one with the tattoo- and I swear to God, the damned thing comes clean off in its hand. I’d scream again, but I don’t feel a thing.

I think Poppy must’ve gotten up to run. Because the next thing I know, the weight’s gone from my body and the claws are out of the mangled mess of my face and stomach. The monster’s off me. Choking, I crane my head back, my chewed-up face straining as I squint, and the upside-down road turns a million shades of neon as agony crashes over me in a tsunami. I just have time to see that huge dark shape throwing itself towards the running girl in the distance and knocking her off her feet.

Game over.

When I was younger, I used to dream of being a hero, fighting back villains and monsters as the people I loved watched on in awe at my bravery. As it turns out, whilst a lot of people may get the chance to save a life, very few tend to take it. Another red-splattered cough’s the last thing I manage before the pain blackens my vision and crumbles it to dust.

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