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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25. The Birthday

THERE WAS A moment, somewhere between unlocking Poppy from her cage and lying her down in the back of the ambulance, when I thought I felt her grip my wrist a little tighter. And I looked down and saw her smiling, sleepily, her hollow face a mask of relief. I remember thinking, as I watched her mother weeping and kissing and hugging her, Nobody ever comes back from the dead completely. Some things have a slow build-up, and some things just explode into being. I knew getting Poppy back was going to take time. Getting used to everything I’d done, trying to get the police to understand the truth… it was all going to take time. But that was okay, because any amount of time’s better than never, right?

The next time I fell apart that morning was the moment I saw the look on Gretchen’s mother’s face. I told the police everything, including the location of all the bodies I’d buried, and when that poor woman saw the covered stretcher being wheeled away from the dug-up crater in the clearing, she took a break from her devastated wailing to give me a glare that could’ve melted steel. None of the other families seemed to see me at all- not the dark-skinned curly-haired upper-class couple who came in their polished white Mercedes, the young couple with the lanky blond hair who came in their beat-up green box car, nor the lone plump Arabic woman with the baby on her hip. All of them were there because I’d killed their children, but they barely gave me a backwards glance.

Two months passed, and I dealt with the police’s questions and the media’s questions and their camera flashes; I dealt with the sad looks at school, and the fearful ones, too. Somehow, now that everything was over, it suddenly meant nothing to me; there was nothing anyone could say that could hurt me. I think it was because I knew I had nothing left to hide.  The ending I’m going to get is the one I deserve. Now, all I’ve got to do is wait for it.

Remember what I said about a slow build-up? Well, three months after Poppy was taken to hospital, something happened. And it didn’t happen to the doctors, or her Mum, or her stepdad, or her older sister, all of whom had barely left her side as she failed and failed and failed to make any progress. It happened to me, as I sat there alone, holding her hand as I talked on and on into what I thought was dead air. I think I was telling her the story about Louis hooking his first ever detention- he’d managed to flood his classroom with bright green foam by adding two tablespoons of metal to a chemical reaction instead of two pinches. When she heard that, Poppy laughed, just at the back of her throat, and squeezed my hand. I looked up at her, and for the first time, I saw her truly looking back at me like she could see me. That was enough to set my heart racing. But then, she said my name. “Diana.” Matter-of-fact, like she’d just heard it for the first time and was testing it out. “Diana.” My stupid name, the one sullied by the media till it was synonymous with filth, spoken by that beautiful voice I thought I’d never hear again. I should’ve been stunned, but instead, I grinned at her like an idiot. And she grinned back.

Boom.

It’s funny; somehow, her scars are invisible to me whenever I look at her. The doctors tell me she’s missing most of her nose and half of her top lip, and they tell me she’s got a prosthetic leg underneath her trousers, and sometimes I even see it when she wears skirts and dresses, because she’s not ashamed, just like the girl I always knew, but when I look at her, all I see is Poppy. Poppy, back from the dead? No. Poppy, there, like she never even left. Even though our lives have technically been changed forever, it almost feels like all that fucking shit never happened. I miss Gretchen every day, and Louis misses Alfie, even though he pretends he doesn’t. Poppy and I have to drive thirty miles to the city prison every full moon- the police arranged it. We get locked into the cells in the basement so we can turn into werewolves without fear of hurting anyone, surrounded by machine guns. We fall apart once a month, but we always put ourselves back together again. My panic attacks are worse, and so are my phobias. Poppy’s developed phobias too- she bursts into tears at the strangest of things. Flickering lightbulbs. The smell of disinfectant. The sounds of slamming doors, and keys turning in locks, and whistling. Straight-backed chairs are the worst triggers of all; ever since she came back to school, she can only sit on the floor, her work on her lap, because she’s frightened she’ll close her eyes sitting on a chair and wake up tied to it with dirty yellow rope, drenched in the thin grey light of a dying bulb. She’s only ever told me that; everyone else tells her it’s okay to be traumatised, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be. We do our best in public, and in private, we’re free to lie on my bed like we used to, laughing hysterically about how pathetic we are.

It’s now been a year and a half since she was taken from me, and nine months since I got her back. Our families look at us like we’re slowly going mad, and maybe we are- maybe we’re already off the rails. They can’t understand how we’re still inseparable like we were never apart, or how we can still find anything funny when we went through so much fucking pain and shit and misery. How we can even talk about it without our voices turning grim and our eyes clouding over with that haunted look you always see in movies. How we can still be so normal. I’ll tell you how. It’s because nobody ever got a good life out of wallowing in misery.

Louis is slowly getting better- I didn’t even find out till a couple of months ago that he saved my life, blocking the police’s guns, on the night of the fire. I didn’t know what to say- I just started crying, and his offhanded “It’s nothing” just made me cry harder. He’s growing up so fast- he’s so brave. I don’t know how I ever thought I’d be able to do this alone. Me and Louis and Poppy. He’s a thirteen-year-old with big blue eyes who looks eight, but he acts eighteen, and I know I’d trust him with my life. She’s a little blonde freckled wisp with a pink plastic leg, and she’s stronger than me. She’s stronger than them. She’s stronger than any of us. But most importantly, she’s still her.

Tomorrow’s her nineteenth birthday. I’m nervous to ask her if she wants to do something, because on my birthday, we didn’t even see each other. Probably wise, since I chose the anniversary of the day a werewolf tossed my life into Hell to watch a werewolf-themed horror movie, in the dark, on my own, with no snacks. It was pretty sad, but weirdly therapeutic. But Poppy spent her last birthday in a place ten times worse than Hell, and sitting around for another night trying to avoid the subject is going to achieve the exact opposite. At midnight, I stop wringing my hands on the desk next to my mobile, jam my finger onto her name, and hold the phone to my ear. It’s picked up after three rings.

“Hell…o?” A voice at the other end says. It’s not Poppy; it’s her mum.

“Hey, Billie.” I say, leaning back on my bed. “Is… Poppy in bed?”

“Uh, no. Not technically.” There’s a crackle of interference at the other end, and the muffled sound of Billie yelling to her daughter. “No. I told her you wanted…” Another crackle. I lick my lips.

“Hey!” Poppy’s voice squeaks at the other end.

“Hi!” I grin to myself. “What’s up?”

“You know what’s up, Di; my birthday’s what’s up. Okay. Okay.” Poppy pauses for a second. “Proceed.”

I look at the clock, and grin. “Not yet.”

“What?”

“Not yet. It’s your birthday tomorrow. According to my clock, you’ve still got one minute… no, fifty seconds… before you’re special.”

“Aw.” Poppy whines. “Cut the fifty seconds. I wanna be special now.”

“Well, you have to wait. Forty. Thirty.”

“Diana!”

“Twenty.”

She laughs, and playfully says my name again. “Diana!”

“Okay, okay.” I clear my throat, then take a deliberately over-the-top deep breath.

Go!”

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday TO you!” I half-sing, half-yell. “Happy BIRTHDAY dear Poppy, HAPPY birthday to you! There.”

“That was too fast.”

“What?” I say.

“Too fast. And out of tune. Zero out of ten for effort.”

The grin starts to hurt my face. “Fine. Then I guess you don’t want to hang out with me for any reason tomorrow- oh, sorry. Today.”

There’s a long pause.

Then, Poppy says, “You wanna do something?”

“Yeah.” I say. “For you. If you want to. I mean… you don’t have any plans, do you?”

“No.” She says. “Mum wasn’t… going to take me out. But I’d like to!”

I smile harder. I’d like to believe Poppy’s mum left her schedule free, but the truth is she’s another one of those people who can’t handle the stares they get in public. It’s fine; lots of people can’t. I can, though, and even if I couldn’t, I’d do it for Poppy.

“Awesome.” I say. “Got anything in mind?”

She thinks for a second. “Uh… Well, I’d like to go back to the tattoo place. But we all know what happened the last time we tried that.”

There’s a moment of silence.

“I mean the bug-eyed leaves.” Poppy says.

“Yeah.” I say hurriedly. “Yeah, I know.”

“I wasn’t on about the werewolf attack. That was nothing to do with the tattoos at all.”

I blink. “Well, you’re not wrong.”

“Cool.  That’s what we’ll do, then.” Poppy says. “On the condition I get to pick this time.”

“You did pick last time. You picked the leaves.”

“And then you added eyes.”

“Well, who’s to say I won’t add eyes this time?”

“Huh. Good point.” Poppy pauses. “Well, I guess we’ll come out looking even weirder, then. That okay?”

I smile. “Hell yeah.”

 

 

Poppy’s mum holds the door for her, looking nervously down the path at me before closing it. Poppy hurls the passenger side door open and dumps herself into her seat with seemingly no care for the startling clatter she makes against the ground. I glance down at her leg, entirely visible under her denim shorts.

“It’s blue.” I say, surprised.

She looks down, then up at me. “Yeah.”

“You broke the pink one.”

Raising one eyebrow, Poppy repeats, “Yeah.”

“Which itself was a replacement for the white one.”

“Yeah.”

“Which you also broke.”

“Yeah. And I’m thinking when I break this one, I want a yellow one.”

I smile at her. “God, please don’t ever change.”

She snorts with laughter as I pull away from the parking space and start to drive.

“We, uh…” She says. “Y’know, we don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

I glance at her. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Y’know. We can do something else, if you want to.”

“No, it’s fine. Seriously, it’s fine. Honestly. It’s gonna be fun.”

“You sure?”

“Dead sure.”

“Sweet.” Poppy grins as she starts to rummage through her purse.

For the rest of the ten-minute drive, we chat about nothing in particular, and it’s heavenly. Even though some days it’s like she never left, others, I can barely believe she’s here with me. I’m still half-afraid I’ll wake up and find her gone, because honestly, this ending seems a little too happy.

“What are we thinking, then?” I ask as I park outside the tattoo studio.

Poppy doesn’t look away from the window. “I was thinking, like… full face. Or maybe, if we wanted to be more minimalist, we could go for, like… just the forehead. Word tattoos are really cool now, aren’t they? People get tattoos of words that’re meaningful to them, like live and love and adventure.”

“So really, you ought to get the word spaghetti. Or memes.”

“Don’t be offensive.” Poppy slaps my shoulder. “We all know what your word’ll be.”

I grin at her. “Bravery.”

“No.”

“Heroism.”

No.”

“Awesomeness. Vitality. Skill. Elegance. Beauty.”

Poppy snorts. “Anime.”

I grin. “Right. But… you’re missing a gold mine. You know most people who get words get, like… their boyfriends’ names.”

“Yeah.” Poppy says thoughtfully. “Maybe we should just brand each other permanently with our names. That’s real classy. I’m feeling Poppy was here, right across…” She leans over and brushes her finger diagonally across my face. “There.”

“Stunning.” I say.

I’m trying to shut up my heartbeat as I look nervously out of the window. It’s still light outside. The street’s filled with people, and all of them know our faces.

“Hey, Di. You okay?”

“Yeah.” I say. In truth, I’m scared to get out of the car, because the moment we’re out there, we’ll become the girl who came back from the dead and the girl who crawled into Hell to get her out. For as long as we stay in here, we’re just Poppy and Diana, two nineteen-year-old idiots off to fritter our paychecks.

“Yo.” Poppy says, brushing her fingers past my face again. “Earth to Diana.”

I look at Poppy as she undoes her seatbelt. Instead of turning to grab the doorhandle, she leans towards me and takes hold of the front of my shirt. I’m almost too shocked to kiss her back when she presses her lips to mine, but I eventually remember to; I close my eyes, wrap my arms around her, and forget the world outside as warmth bubbles through me. When we break apart, I stare at her in surprise. All she does is smirk.

 “Stop daydreaming.” She says softly. “Eyes on the birthday girl, please.”

I smile, one hand on the doorhandle. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Good.” Poppy pops her door open and swings her blue plastic leg onto the cobblestones with another startling CRACK that jerks a good few heads in our direction. She bounces out of the car without a care in the world. “C’mon. Let’s go make ourselves look weird.”

 

T H E   E N D

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