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

2. The Coping Ritual

MY FIST HITS the punching bag again and the shock of the impact radiates through my muscles. I’ve been boxing ever since I was six, but I used to do it because it was fun. Now, it’s what everyone around me calls a coping ritual. I use it to let off steam- to tire myself out till I can bear to sit quietly. Right now, I’m imagining the bag’s a ten-foot snaggletoothed ice-eyed hairy thing with claws like serrated knives. I’m imagining I’m back there again, four months ago, with Poppy behind me and my fists in front of me. This time, I’m not frozen, and this time, I don’t let it cleave me into ribbons. I fight the monster and I win.

And, in my imagination, Poppy doesn’t die.

Everyone who knows what happened to us that night thinks I woke up for the first time three days afterwards. That was when my parents came into the hospital room, told me with tears in their eyes and pressed frowns on their faces that Poppy “Didn’t Make It”. Just because I didn’t want to know what happened to her doesn’t mean I didn’t know- I knew exactly. I woke up for the first time a few minutes after the attack, before we’d been found by that poor old motorcyclist at four in the morning. The night sky was purple and yellow, but I was only looking at it through one eye- the other was crusted shut. Blood was sticking every part of my body to the road. I could barely move, and everything was still black and red. I remember now that every inch of that nightmare was filled with the low, choking hum of the car engine. When I unstuck my mouth and moaned “Poppy?” my voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else. It took me a few more minutes to register that my foot was in the wrong place- it was all the way up by my head, pointing upwards, towards the car. It was too far away, too. I craned my head and saw the red chewed-off stub at the end of it. Oh, was all I thought. I’ve lost a leg.

That was when I’d realised both of my feet were still attached.

That memory might not be real. I never asked how exactly Poppy died, because I knew all I needed to, but I did hear from somewhere they hardly had anything to put in the coffin. It made me crazy, hearing that. With anger. With misery. All of that’s gone now.

I grit my teeth and hit the bag again, harder. This time, my fist seizes up and I freak out, shaking it till it loosens. My pain complex hasn’t gone away- in fact, it’s gotten worse. Worse since I was torn in half. I hit the bag again, and this time, I imagine it’s a man in a long white coat, with ginger straggly hair and a falsely reassuring look on his face. He’s got a needle in his hand. “This’ll only hurt a bit, Diana.”

He called it a painkiller, but it didn’t work. Giving me an injection was the first thing they did after I’d woken up, and it made what was left of my skin crawl. I asked him for a bucket through my teeth and he thought I was joking, so, nervously, he laughed. Joke was on him once I’d thrown up all over the floor of his nice clean sodding office. The needle felt like it never came out of my arm and the panic made me breathe harder and harder till I was soaked with sweat. I tried to think. The nurse went to call my parents, to tell them I was awake. My parents? Why did they need to be here? No- no, not Mum. She’d be so crushed. So worried. Poppy, my mind said.

“Where…” I trailed off to swallow more bile. “Where’s Poppy?”

“Just relax.” Was all the doctor said. I wanted to spit in his face.

He put the needle down on his table, and I bombarded him with questions. He didn’t answer any of them- looked wildly uncomfortable, actually. He told me I’d been attacked by a dog. A fucking DOG! Screw that guy. I punch him again, harder, knock the nervous grin off his face, then the needle and thread out of his hand. It’d been less than an hour since they’d given me the injection, Mum was holding my hand and sobbing, and that arse wanted to stick me with more needles. He told me he needed to sew me up. I asked him why. He sighed, his eyes flicked downwards, and honest to God, that was the first time I got a look at my own body. I was covered by nothing but a paper gown- a paper gown blotted with enormous patches of red. That was when he decided to tell me I was lucky to be alive. I didn’t feel too lucky.

They had to change my stitches every few days. I knew full well it was necessary. But right then, held down by three nurses, my parents and my oldest brother, ravaged by wave after wave of sick agony as the needle pierced my raw skin over and over again, I’d rather have fucking died. The painkiller numbed me well enough, but in the end, it didn’t matter. My mind made the pain up, and it was the worst thing I’d ever felt.

After I came home from the hospital, Mum barely let me out of her sight. Kept away from school, I fell into an utterly bewildering cycle of doing nothing at all- I spent all day on the internet. I tried to learn how to draw and failed. I alternated between eating till I could barely breathe and refusing to choke down a single morsel. The first time I left the house was for Poppy’s funeral- I’d made my decision, from the first moment it was mentioned, that nothing was going to keep me from going. I even made a speech after her parents let me. I tried to pour my heart out, but all I got in return was empty sympathy. ‘That’s the girl who survived, look,’ the people in the pews were telling each other with their eyes. ‘That’s the girl who got to live even though our Poppy had to die. But we’re all meant to feel sorry for her. She’s disfigured. Look at her face.’

Panting, I come back to myself and look over at the girl on the treadmill near the door. She shoots a nervous glance at me and I hold her eyes, waiting, till she switches her machine off and leaves the room. Nobody likes to look at me. It’s partly because they feel sorry for me, partly because I look like Frankenstein’s monster. After I came back to school, I was half-expecting to be bullied. I’d prefer bullying to what actually ended up happening- nothing but whispers and nervous stares. Everyone’s so terrified of saying something wrong to me that they won’t say anything at all. They seem to think I’ve completely changed- I’ve suddenly morphed from the cheerfully crass weirdo I used to be into some sort of fragile doll who’ll crumple with tears if they say something wrong. Whenever I miss a homework deadline, the teacher blinks at me, wide-eyed, and mutters that it’s fine and they understand. I explain that they’re wrong, that I just overslept or forgot, and I apologise, but they won’t have it.

I want people to treat me like I’m normal, even though I look a mess. I don’t want them to pretend what happened to me didn’t happen- I want them to talk about it. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone’s been about to say Poppy’s name, then cut themselves off and bowed their head like it’s sacred. No. She’s dead, but that doesn’t mean she’s been wiped from existence. She was an incredible person, and she deserved a million times more than this- to be cut out of everyone’s lives out of fear for what I’d think. She’s a human being, not a red button on my forehead. I keep trying to tell people that, but every time I mention her, they just nod sadly. Sometimes pat my hand. I’ve all but given up. I’m scared they’ll think I’m digging for sympathy. As much as people say crap to me like “She’d want you to live your life” or “She’d want you to move on” or “She wouldn’t want you to suffer like this”, the truth’s that she’d be pretty damned disappointed in everyone for pretending she never existed at all.

I blink again. I’ve lost my place in the ritual. Where was I? Oh yeah.

My anger’s leaking away, but my therapist told me to keep up the routine regardless. Next on the list of people I want to kill but can’t, because that’d be socially unacceptable: The two police officers who came into my hospital room on the second week. The doctor might’ve been a falsely optimistic prick, but at least he looked me in the eye, helped me come to terms with my injuries, told me the truth. I could tell my face monumentally disturbed these two idiots, and with good reason. “You don’t have to look at me,” I said to them. “I know I look disgusting. Don’t let me put you off.” I wasn’t sure whether I was being sarcastic or not, but one thing I was sure of was that I looked like a half-chewed steak. Nervously, the skinny guy jerked his head, then composed himself when his partner nudged him. I don’t remember much of our talk- I think my survival pissed them off, actually. I remember thinking, as I slowly dissolved into tears trying to remember the story, that if they’d had two bodies to bury instead of one, they wouldn’t’ve had to launch an investigation. Could’ve chocked it up to a rogue Alsatian and called it quits. I punch him first, right in his face, right after he’s mustered the mandatory ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Then, I rewind the scene, let him explain they’re launching SWAT teams and animal control, and punch him again. I turn to his partner next- the woman who actually bothered to ask me questions. She asked me what I’d seen. I told her. She gave me a look which was as good as the classic ‘Oh, you were hallucinating’ and packed up to leave.  I only punch her once- I don’t want to, because it wasn’t her fault, but it’s part of the ritual. In fact, I’m starting to doubt the story myself, subconsciously. Something about the woman’s badge and no-nonsense tone made me panic, suddenly terrified of accidentally lying. I told her I wasn’t sure. I tell her I’m sorry now. I let her leave.

Then, I turn to the person I blame.

You know whose fault this was? Mine. It’s my fault Poppy’s dead. I saw the signs, and I ignored them. I kept her out there when we could’ve left. I’m alone in the room now. I close my eyes, breathe out, and when I open my eyes again, the punching-bag’s a girl. Her name’s Diana. She’s got a decent face, a decent body, a carefree life. She’s just turned eighteen. She’s Hispanic, wearing a green hoodie and ripped jeans, with dark curly hair that barely touches her ears. She’s standing in the spill of a pair of red hazard lights, facing a beautiful girl with blonde bunches, and she’s about to kiss her.

I clench my fists and, before she can do it, I hit her. Run! my mind says. Run. Run. RUN! NOW! Again and again and again, barely letting out a whimper, I beat her till she turns and runs back to the car, taking Poppy with her. They get in and they drive off, long before that beast comes out of the woods. They drive home. Maybe they kiss there, or maybe not- maybe they just stay friends, and that’s FINE, because Poppy’s ALIVE! WHY did she have to die? WHY?

Why couldn’t it be me?

Sighing, I unwind the bandages from my hands, toss them into the bin, wipe my forehead, and head back into the changing-rooms. I feel powerful now. I always do after I’ve boxed- I feel like I can take on the world. I’m not weak anymore, if it matters. I walk in, draining the last of the water from my bottle. My muscles are screaming, my throat burns and my mouth tastes of blood, but I like it that way. I like being tired. That way, all the anger’s completely left my system by the time I have to talk to anyone.

“Hi Diana!”

I look up. “Oh.” I say, seeing Gretchen standing in the opposite corner of the room. “Hi.”

I should’ve known who it was- Gretchen’s the only person who ever bothers to talk to me. I don’t think too much of the popular girls in our year, and Gretchen’s definitely one of them- perfect figure, close on a thousand ear-piercings, always wearing skinny jeans and tight dutch braids that cling to her head- but she’s okay. A few years ago, she was small and nerdy and ginger, but she soon started hanging out with a few girls who indoctrinated her into the popular squad. The first port of call was to dye her orange hair brown- a good inch of her roots are always visible, but she manages to pull it off with a goofy sort of coolness. She started chatting to me in Biology a while ago, and I’m still not sure why, but I’m grateful for it. Charity’s all I can rely on now.

“How you doing?” Gretchen asks me with a smile.

“Fine, thanks.” I kick myself a couple of seconds later for not adding a “You?” but she probably doesn’t mind.

“Just done a workout?”

“Yeah.”

I sit down on the bench next to my clothes. I never change in front of other people. Not because I’ve got a privacy complex, but instead because my body’s still- and always will be- an utter mess under my clothes. I awkwardly look in the other direction as Gretchen carelessly pulls her shirt off.

“Cool.” She says. “I’m just going in now. Going to try a bit of treadmill. You know, for the performance module thingy. I swear, nobody knows what they’re doing for that, so I thought I’d just show off the one thing I can do alright.” She grins, pulling her PE shirt down over her stomach, and whips off her tights. “Running.”

I laugh and look up, noticing the bandage on her elbow. “Hey. You hurt yourself?”

“Oh. Kinda. So the doctor says, anyway.” Gretchen laughs nervously. “Just a brace. Screwed up my elbow on a rowing machine, of all bloody things. Anyway, I’ll see you later!”

“Sure. See you.” I say, watching as she hurries out of the room and waiting till the door swings shut behind her. Once I’m sure she’s gone, I fumble with my school shirt till the buttons are the right way around, then yank my t-shirt off over my head.

I’d lie if I claimed I don’t find my scars weirdly fascinating sometimes. They’re like carved lines in half-dried clay- they pucker, straggle and split in random directions, a messed-up map.  They make it clear I’ve been pulled apart and stuck back together. They crawl all over my chest, my stomach, my face, and my left arm, splaying outwards out into valleys and knots of hard skin. My leaf tattoo- which I can barely stand to look at anymore- is broken in half. The scars strain my joints like they’re rusty and dig pain into me whenever I try to move. I hate them. I hate them, but I think they make me stronger.

I finish getting dressed, then look up into the mirror. I need to get my hair cut- the shaved back and sides have grown out into a weird, lopsided bob. The left side brushes my chin and the right side grazes my shoulder. I turn to the right and look down. From this angle, the long hair looks okay, and the only eye I can see is the dark brown one. The yellow lights nicely flatter my golden skin. Since Poppy died, I’ve been spending nearly every spare moment of every day boxing, and my new layers of muscle prove it’s paying off, even though I’m short enough to look brutish in my new body. Not like an action hero. Like a freak.

I sigh and turn to face the other way. There’s a party on the left side of my face. My left eye’s a sickly shade of greenish-brown, with a milky pupil. The scar on my face doesn’t look cool, or hardcore- it deforms me.  It mangles my forehead and chin, the shiny tight flesh crisscrossed with red and white lines. It curls into a knot right under my eye and wriggles over my cheek, twitching the corner of my mouth upwards and splaying over my neck. Apparently, I narrowly missed having my throat ripped out. This scar’s worse than the ones on the rest of my body, not because it’s deeper, or larger, or redder, but because I can’t hide it. Every poor sod in Duskwood has to look at my face. I’m a freak. And, by nature, people are scared of freaks.

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