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

4. The Earphones in the Ditch

I PUT ON a hoodie before leaving the house on Saturday morning, stupidly thinking it’ll numb me from the cold. It’s May, but the wind still bites down on my face and chest and numbs my fingers. I told Mum I was going for a walk- up by the river, along the trodden footpath- just as I tell her every weekend. I always assure her I’m going nowhere near the forest. Then, I set off for the forest.

Four months of wandering around the forest has given me absolutely nothing, but I can’t bear to give up now. Logically, I still have no idea what I’m expecting to find. Whatever everyone else who looked didn’t, I tell myself. A monster. I want to find the thing that killed Poppy, and I suppose there’s no choice but to find it myself. I can’t trust anyone with this- my family don’t deserve the burden, the police apparently can’t fucking handle it, and nobody else believes me. I’m stronger now than I was- I’m stronger than anyone thinks I am. I can do this myself. I’m going to find that creature again. And when I do, I’m going to-

Wait.

What the hell do I think I’m going to do? Wrestle it? Strangle it with my bare hands? Crush it with my telekinetic superpowers? Who am I kidding? I’m no action hero. I’m just a pissed-off eighteen-year-old girl with half a death wish. I’m wearing a Batman hoodie and my Dad’s old jeans. I’m in no condition to wrestle a creature my own damn size. I guess I’m not expecting to find anything out here, really. I just come to prove something to myself.

I’m surrounded by tree-trunks and green canopies and rays of light that sink down into the ground. This forest isn’t particularly dense, or particularly spooky. I feel like an idiot. People walk this path every damn day- what the hell have I been expecting to happen? A perfect trail of clues to lead me where I need to go? Am I Sherlock Goddamn Holmes? No. I’m Diana Goddamn Velasquez, and I’m fooling nobody. I keep walking for another half-mile or so, feeling more and more like a total idiot with every step I take. Then, I see something up ahead- a dark stain in the middle of the road. My heart punches me in the throat and I turn back, deciding to try again another day. An hour ago, it started to rain. I’m cold and wet and I want to go home, but at least it’s not dark.

 

 

It’s dark. The wet road’s vaguely glinting with pale-grey moonlight and the cold’s dragging its nails across my skin. It’s been three damned weeks since the last time I tried coming out into the forest, doing whatever the hell it is I think I do, and nearly a month since I last heard any strange sounds. It’s hard to stay motivated when all you get for your trouble every day’s numb fingers and mud in your boots.

I’d never found anything until yesterday, when I started walking as soon as the sun came up and eventually found the abandoned car-park at the edge of the woods. I wandered a little way off the path, and it was there I found the campsite Dad was talking about. The leaves were disturbed around the deep muddy scuff of a makeshift fire pit, and a few tree stumps around the clearing were littered with shards of glass and food wrappers. Some gang they were- spending their nights sat in the pouring rain, eating Wotsits and Fruit Winders. I suppose I found those plastic baggies too. And cigarettes. It’s amazing how far some teenagers’ll go to denounce their parents. I guess they’ll revaluate how much they’re enjoying the thug life once a monster’s pegged their arses for dinner.

Tonight’s the first time I’ve come out after dark- I had to climb out of my bedroom window, walk across the roof of the extension, and pull myself down on the trellises. I think I destroyed Mum’s climbing dahlias. I’ve been out here, alone, for half an hour now, but I’m not turning back till I’ve found something. I’m not scared of the dark. I’m scared of all the shit lurking in it.

It’s completely silent, and I’m on edge at the thought of hearing something, even though it’d probably be the wind. There’s a knife in the pocket of my combats- I stuffed it in there on a whim, but I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do with it. Mum’s parents lived in a weird gothic house with half a museum’s worth of ornaments and Mum kept one of their swords when they died- it’s hanging above the mantelpiece in the dining-room. It’s got a heavy black wooden handle, engraved with silver, and one edge of the three-foot blade is forked and rippled like flames. I should’ve brought that sword with me. But where the hell would I’ve put it? I should’ve at least bandaged my hands. I might need to punch something to death. I suppose if the worst comes to the worst, I could always use my torch as a club. I grip it tighter at the thought, sliding the other hand into my pocket to hold the knife. I keep walking.

The darkness is total all around me, deep and yawning like a bottomless pit I’ve already fallen into. My torch splashes gold over thin stripes of tree-trunk and the road, but only a little at a time; I can only see ten feet or so in front of me. The moon is choked up by clouds. Twice, I jump and nearly lose my lunch as sounds jump up from beyond my torchbeam, but both times, I manage to convince myself it’s birds. I’m still on the road, but it’s narrowing, and the streetlights’ numbers are waning. I pick up my pace in time with a renewed gust of wind. It occurs to me I might need my phone, to take photos of anything I see, so I let go of my knife. There’s another noise to my right, on the ground- a breaking branch. I reel around, gasp with the last of my breath, and see eyeshine near the ground. Green eyes. Then, a tiny bushy tail. It’s a fox. It’s a fucking fox. My heart still doesn’t calm down for another few minutes. I turn back to the road and take one more step, shining my torch up ahead.

I stop.

I’ve come to that place again- the place with the dark, rusty brown stain at the side of the road; the one they couldn’t clean off no matter how hard they scrubbed. The one they had to paint over when they redid the white lines.

My blood.

I’ve seen it in the distance, in the daylight, every time I’ve come out here, and it’s always made me change course or turn back. When I saw it yesterday, I forced myself to walk over it with my eyes tight shut and my hand clenched over that knife like my life depended on it. I made it past without looking. Now, it’s midnight. It’s nearly five months since it happened. It’s dark, and I can suddenly envision this little piece of road lit up by red hazard lights as my head strikes the tarmac. I blink. The claws up my ribcage and the sick, singing agony. My hair sticking to my forehead. Blood at the back of my throat. Blood in my mouth; blood on the tarmac. Now, I see the puddle, six feet wide, three feet long, and, as the therapist might’ve said, it hits me. All that- all of that- that’s my blood. It looks like a puddle of mud, but it’s my blood. I nearly died here. What would my poor Mum have done?

I shine my torch away from the puddle and into the ditch; amongst the mouldy leaves, the light picks out a tangle of thin white lines. A set of earphones. They’re probably some jogger’s, true enough, but Poppy used to have a set of earphones just like them. They were always around her neck, tangled in her scarves, looped too many times around her neck, turned up far too loud so everyone could hear the music. She used to mouth along to every word of every song, completely oblivious to the sound of her lips smacking and the faint whispers of words coming out of her throat. She had a beautiful voice. At least, I thought so. I swallow, looking down at the white tangle. I gasp and start shaking as I realise how selfish I am. Thinking of myself when I should’ve been thinking of her. Suddenly, I see her standing in the red light with her shadow black, her hair blowing. I see her smile, and then, I hear her scream. I tell her to run through the blood on my teeth. And I watch as my instruction saved my own life, and cost hers. There’s no second blood puddle. She fell into the ditch. She was washed away. Thanks to me.

I open my eyes, and I can’t see through the tears. I nearly fall to my knees, but I save myself in a ridiculous sideways stumble, nearly falling into the ditch. Then, I double over and start to choke on ugly sobs. When I think about what happened here five months ago, I can’t think about me, and my blood all over the road. I think of her, and her beautiful eyes in the red light. Her hair. Her smile. Her laugh. Her kiss. Her hand on mine. Her scream. Her earphones in the ditch. Waking up, being told she was dead and I was lucky to be alive. Lucky my arse. She was relying on me to save her, and I failed her. I failed her. She’s dead because of me. I want her back. Let me die in her place. Let me. Let me.

The sound of laughter snaps me back into myself, and I finally remember where I am. A tear drips off my nose, but I’m struggling to keep squeezing them out. I’m trying to keep thinking of Poppy, even though the idea of breaking down into sobs and being found the next morning won’t exactly help me lose my family’s sympathy. The idea of finding the furry bastard that did this and punching him so hard he forgets which species he is is significantly more attractive. I sniff hard and pull myself together, looking up and realising I can see the orange glimmer of firelight through the trees, about half a mile away. Someone’s over at that campsite. My instincts kick in- I’m planning to march over there and warn them of the danger. There’s a monster somewhere in these woods, I Goddamn know it, and I’m going to at least try to keep people away from it.

I leave the path.

As I get closer, the light of the fire gets brighter, and my nerve starts to waver. These guys aren’t dumb unsupervised kids, like Dad thought- they’re smokers, hard drug users. They might not be kids at all. Maybe they’re forty. Maybe they’ve got knives, or guns. Maybe they’re dealers, or the Mafia, or devil worshippers. Maybe they’ll kill me. Torture me. Sacrifice me. Don’t panic; you’ll be fine. You’ve got a knife.

A tiny cheese knife from your Mum’s drawer.

You’ll be fine.

I stop for a second, and a twig cracks under my foot. The buzz in the clearing dies down for a second. The “pretend this never happened” option has officially been eliminated. Time to choose between the remaining options: ‘Get on with it’ or ‘Run like hell’.

I take a deep breath and keep walking. They at least sound like teenagers. I relax when I hear a female voice in amongst the others. I stride right up to the edge of the clearing, but hang back from the light, realising suddenly seeing a strange girl materialise in the middle of the woods at night-especially one with a face like mine- would be pretty damned horrifying for them. And these people aren’t doing anything wrong. How should I announce myself? Something subtle, and not weird, and-

“Hey.” I say before I can stop myself.

Damnit.

Someone turns their head towards me. Suddenly, the small circle of people around the blazing fire erupts into a chorus of “Hey!” and “Woah!” as they spot me. One guy stands up. He’s a skinny boy with a round jaw, a big nose and brown hair that hangs over one eye, wearing dirty tight jeans and a purple hoodie. He looks a couple of years older than me.

“Hey!” he says. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Look, I, uh… I’m… sorry to bother you.” I say, trying to resist taking a step backwards and letting the darkness swallow me up. “But I- I just-”

“How’d you find us?”

I frown, looking up in thought for a second. Then, I look at him again. “Uh, mate, you’re right next to a car park. I’m pretty sure everyone can see you.”

“Oh yeah? Well…” He shoots a glance sideways, then realises I’m right. “Well, you didn’t come from the car park, did you?”

I swallow. “You’re also loud enough I can hear you from the road.”

“It’s okay.” Someone says. She’s sitting behind the fire, so I can’t see her until she puts her hand on the boy’s arm and stands up. “Chill, Milo. Look, crater-face, what the hell’re you doing here?”

I brush off the insult. Then, I realise I recognise both of them- at least, I recognise her vaguely. I see her walking to school in the other direction from me- she goes to the comprehensive instead of the grammar. I think she’s in my year. She’s tall and skinny, with brown skin and short frizzy black hair. She’s also wearing navy blue lipstick. The boy, on the other hand- I needed a second to see past his emo fringe and his hood, but I know his face, and now, I remember his name. He went to the same primary school as me. His name’s Milo Bird, and he used to spend half an hour after school every day sitting alone on the fence outside because his father couldn’t be bothered to pick him up. My parents said his family were drug pushers. I don’t think they wanted me talking to him, but I still did. There were days when he was a really nice kid.

“Hey, Milo,” I say. “Less of the rudeness. I can’t help looking like this. Anyway, like I said, I don’t want to bother you. I wanted to know what was going on and-”

“Well, this is what’s going on,” the girl says. “And you’re not invited. So get the hell out.”

“I’m sorry.” I feel stupid. They’re right- they’ve got every right to be here, and I’ve got none. I ought to leave. “No, really- I’m sorry. I, uh…” If they die out here, I won’t forgive myself, so I decide to try one last time. “It’s not safe out here.”

“Why?” Milo pipes up. “You gonna cry about German Shepherds?”

I frown. “German Shepherds?”

“Oh, I remember you and everything!” Milo says. “If you think we’re going to listen to you, you’d better take a hike. She’s the lesbian chick who got mauled on the road.” This last sentence he addresses to the rest of the group, who widen their eyes. Some look away.

“You call that bullying? Stating two blatant facts?” I say.

The laughter dies down.

“Nah.” Milo replies. “Bullying’d be if we brought up your girlfriend Poppy.”

Don’t,” I hiss, realising it’s coming a split-second before it does. “I swear to God. I’m sorry for bothering you and I don’t give a damn if you fancy taking the mick out of my face, but if you ever say anything against Poppy I’ll make you regret it.”

“Oh, really?” Milo raises an eyebrow, and frustration boils in my veins as the rest of the group laughs again. Milo walks towards me, and Blue Lipstick follows suit; they trap me on either side, and my heart punches me in the throat again. God. Maybe I should’ve let them get gored.

“Looking forward to it.” Milo says, his breath- which reeks of smoke- way too close to my face. “Nancy and I always wanted to wrestle Frankenstein.”

I attempt to sidestep the circle, but another guy stands up and walks over to box me in. He’s middle-aged, probably younger than he looks- he’s pale and skinny, with blond hair and watery eyes that’re red around the edges. I back away. “Actually, no. Look.” I say. “This is going to sound crazy, but you can’t sit out here like this. I, uh… there’s danger around. What did cave in my face. It’s still here- I know it’s mental, but you’re in danger if you sit here at night. I know it’s out here. I hear it all the time. Don’t you?”

The girl- Nancy- snorts with laughter. Milo shoots her a look.

“Oh, yeah. We hear it,” Milo says sarcastically. “We hear it!”

Everyone laughs. I turn to my right as I hear someone laughing especially hard. One of the boys sat on the log, who’s got a weird mushroom-like crop of dishwater-blond hair, is snorting and pointing at me, his nostrils flaring. His friend- a dark-haired, big-nosed boy wearing a Darth Vader shirt, is too busy texting to notice anything that’s going on, but he keeps throwing sideways looks with the smallest amount of annoyance.

“You wanna leave yet, Diana?” Nancy says.

“Yeah,” the blond boy pipes up, much to Nancy’s annoyance. “Coz we’d be happy to send you home if not, right, guys?”

Everyone ignores him, except Nancy, who mutters, “Too much, Harry. Christ’s sake.”

“Sorry.” The blond boy mutters.

I shoot a glance around the rest of the circle. The dark-haired boy next to Harry’s hugging his arm to his chest. I suppose the older bloke could be someone’s father, but it’s not exactly likely.  There’s one last person there- a girl with two tight reddish-brown braids, wearing a baggy jumper, with her head bowed like she doesn’t want me to see her face. I sense a third pang of recognition.

“Gretchen?” I say, as Milo tries to block my view. I screw up my courage and shove him away. “Get off, mate.”

Gretchen slowly raises her head to look at me.

“Hi, Di,” she mutters.

“What are you doing here?”

She looks at me like I’ve gone mad. “Just… hanging out.”

“Okay. Okay, sure. Sorry.”

These people aren’t doing anything wrong- just being rowdy and smoking. They’re drinking and taking drugs, but anyone who pretends that’s not normal for an eighteen-year-old’s kidding themselves. So why do I feel betrayed by the fact Gretchen’s here? I have no idea.

“Hey!” Nancy says, and I snap my head back up to look at her. “D’we have to tell you again? Get the hell out before we fuck you up.”

“You’re triangling me in, arseclown!” I say. “You want me to leave, get the hell out my way!

“Sure.” Nancy steps out of my way, but steps back when I make a move to leave. She pushes her face up close to mine.

“And if you ever come back here, we’ll make your face nice and symmetrical.” She says. “You get me?

She’s wearing way too much perfume, but I try not to cough. “Yeah,” I say softly. “I get you.”

Nancy suddenly lunges at me, and, on instinct, I scrabble in my pocket. I pull out my little knife, but can’t muster the courage to bring it up between us. Nancy stops, looks down, looks back up at me, and then bursts out laughing.

“What- what- what are you going to do?” She says. “With- with that?”

“I’ll make- make your face a little- l-less symmetrical if you like,” I say, my voice shaking.

Nancy pauses. Then, with her smug face suddenly deadpan, she reaches into the pocket of her jeans and pulls out her knife. It’s a hunting knife, serrated along one edge, with a wickedly sharp point. I bite my lip.

“Oh.” I say, my pulse jumping into my throat. “That’s a knife.”

I try to stare her down. She’s taller than me. Nancy grins, then puts the knife back into her pocket without a word.

“She’s okay, Nancy,” Gretchen mutters from behind us. Nancy and Milo both stare at her. I look at her too, but she quickly averts her eyes from mine.

“What?” Nancy says.

“Leave her alone. She’s not bad.”

“Gretchen?” Milo says. “Shut the fuck up.”

Gretchen shuts the fuck up. I look at her. It might be an overreaction, but surprisingly enough, I’m starting to feel a little unwelcome. Gretchen’s with them. She wants to be here. I’m getting in the way.

“Get out, Diana!” Milo yells, echoed by Nancy.

“You should leave, Di.” Gretchen says.

“Alright. I’m going. I’m going, alright? I’m gone.” I say. “But don’t come crying to me if you’re ground up for monster-chow. See you at school, Gretchen.”

Gretchen doesn’t look up. Milo says something under his breath and the whole gang laughs, including her.

“Oh, and if you ever come near us again, we’ll fuck you up!” Milo shouts after me.

“Your girlfriend already said that FOR you, Milo!” I yell over my shoulder before I can stop myself. I blink as I realise what I’ve said. Then, as soon as I think I’m out of the light, I turn and I run as fast as I can back to the path. If they won’t listen to me, fine. If they all end up dead, it’s not my fault. Not my fault.

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