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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3. The Last One Downstairs

IT’S ONE IN the morning, and there’s a song in my head that won’t shut up. I don’t remember where I heard it. Maybe an advert. No matter how many times I blink, my eyes won’t stay shut; they’re burning and stinging, exploding with colour against the black backdrop of my ceiling. Everything hurts. I roll onto my side, yanking one of my pillows to my chest. I wish I hadn’t spent the last six hours watching cartoons, but then again, that’s exactly what I wish every night, isn’t it? Doesn’t mean I won’t do it again tomorrow. And the day after that.  I’ve got enough homework piled up to keep me busy till four, but it’s hard to get up the motivation when your so-called ‘circumstances’ make the teacher afraid to take a damned mark off no matter what you hand in. I don’t still have circumstances. I don’t. I don’t. I’m okay now. I still miss Poppy desperately, sure- it’s the worst pain of all, a dull ache in the pit of my stomach, a sort of whining electricity that won’t go away- but I can deal with it. There’s nothing wrong with me. There isn’t. There isn’t.

I hear it.

The first night back from the hospital, I let Mum force me to sleep in her room- she slept on a campbed next to me every night since my birthday, and I think she was frightened to let me out of her sight. That night, I woke up to a strange, sharp, grating sound, over the low whir of running machinery. I quickly figured out it was the radiator, but it reminded me of the sounds of the hospital. Instead of night terrors or panic attacks, my grief manifested in the form of a tiny voice in the back of my head, repeating Poppy’s dead Poppy’s dead Poppy’s dead Poppy’s dead in a lifeless monotone every minute of every day. That, and the pain in my chest, and the fear every time I heard something from my bedroom window that sounded wrong. I might’ve listened to half a dozen people talking about dog attacks and animal control and police searches, but my belief in what I’d seen never wavered. I saw it every time I closed my eyes- a hulking bearlike thing, ten feet tall, with a molten emerald eyeshine and teeth and claws like chunks of broken glass. Everyone knows I saw it. Some of them believe me, and others don’t. I want it dead. I’m scared of silence now- it lets my imagination go too crazy, fills my head with hellish noises from that night I didn’t realise I remembered. Breaking branches. Low growling. My screams. Poppy’s screams. The soft humming of Mum’s radiator comforts me. At least, on the nights where I don’t hear anything else. Tonight isn’t one of those nights.

I hear it again.

It sounds closer this time. It tacks itself onto the end of a half-asleep hallucination, and I only notice it at all because it jerks me back awake. I sit up in bed. I probably imagined it- that’s what I know I’m meant to be convincing myself, anyway. It’s a sort of howling, screaming sound- it could be a dog, but it’s not quite right. It sounds wet, and every third howl or so, it gurgles at a low volume like water draining from a sink. Sometimes, I’ll hear a sort of jarring in it too, as if someone’s choking. It’s loud, but our house is at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere and the centre of Duskwood is seven miles away. Nobody else can hear it. The first time I heard it, it froze my blood solid. Now, I just lie and listen to it, trying to figure out whether or not it makes me angry.

 

 

“Mum,” I say, biting my lip. “I heard it in the forest again last night.”

Dad clears his throat and Mum drops her spoon in her tea. She barely glances over her shoulder, but I catch a glimpse of the renewed worry in her eyes. She ignores me for a few minutes as she finishes up at the counter, carefully carries her mug over to the table, and sits down opposite me. Then, she takes a long sip before bothering to reply.

“Are you still not sleeping properly, darling?”

I nod. “No. I- I mean, yeah, I am. I’m okay. Don’t-”

“Do you want to try my sleeping pills again?”

I shake my head. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Are you… sure?”

Mum looks up at me. Her dodging of the issue could annoy me, but it doesn’t. She believes me, but what the hell am I expecting her to do about it? When I was a kid, I used to think adults had all the answers to everything, but then, I realised they were just people. People fall apart every now and again. After my ‘accident’, Dad was utterly destroyed- he barely came out of his study, and when he did, I’d notice he’d been crying. It was terrifying, even as an eighteen-year-old, to see my Dad like that. Mum stayed a little stronger, but she barely ever let me out of her sight- she stopped going to work so she could stay with me all day. I didn’t need her, but she needed me.

“Diana?” Dad asks.

I look over at him and smile. “Yeah?”

“There’s a gang in the woods, you know.”

Dad drives down that forest road every night on his way home from work. He sits in a little hut at the edge of Duskwood, working points for the railway. I worry about him out there by himself, but I’m scared to talk to him about it because I don’t want to scare him any more.

I wait for him to continue, but he doesn’t, so I press him. “A gang? What kind of gang?”

 “Teenagers. All your age- younger, probably. They hang out near the old car park, past the trees. Heard them a couple of nights ago. They yell a lot. Maybe it’s them you’re hearing.”

Mum looks up, relief sparking in her eyes at the idea. “Oh, really, darling?” She turns to me. “Maybe that’s it.”

I don’t argue. “Oh. Yeah. Yeah, it probably is. I mean… maybe. They’re quite a long way from the house, right? But I can see it being kids screaming. I guess. Thanks, Dad. You’re right.”

There’s silence in the kitchen for a few minutes.

“They’re damned stupid kids if you ask me,” Dad says. I see Mum sink.

“Why? What’s stupid about them?”

“They do, y’know… kid stuff. Probably. All I do is drive past. Probably drink and smoke and start fires- bloody idiots. But they could be running a damned reading group for all I care. It’s still idiotic, running around in the woods after-”

“Dad.” I say gently. He looks at me, and his face softens.

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll be fine. The police recalled the ban.”

“I know.”

After I gave my statement, the police set up cordons and banned any member of the public from going into the forest beyond the road, but they found nothing. I reckon the monster that killed Poppy is nocturnal- maybe it sleeps underground. I’ve called the police twice since then, after hearing the damned noises at night, but none of their searches turned up anything and I eventually gave up. My parents banned the whole family from ever going near the woods again, but now Dad’s mentioned a gang, I’m worried for them too. I reckon it’s only a matter of time before those idiots learn the hard way not to mess in a monster’s territory.

Mum gets up and leaves the room. I hear her yelling up the stairs, “GUYS! Come get your breakfast!”

My three younger siblings take forever to get ready- I’m always down first, since I sleep so badly. There’s clattering on the staircase, then in the hallway.

“Morning, everyone,” Dad says without looking up. He’s quieter than usual this morning.

“Hi, Dad!” My five-year-old sister Esme says, running over for a hug.

“Sup.” My fifteen-year-old sister Minnie murmurs, dumping herself in the seat next to mine and reaching over to steal a piece of my toast. I slap her away, but she ignores me.

“Where’s Louis?” Mum asks.

Minnie replies: “Still in bed.”

“Oh. Are you sure?” Mum walks out into the hallway and yells up the stairs again. “LOUIS!”

There’s no reply.

“For God’s sakes.” Mum says. I look at Minnie.

“Is he really in his room?”

She shrugs, her mouth full of my toast. “Last I checked.”

“When was that?”

She shrugs again. “Eh.”

“Mum.” I say, standing up from the table and dumping my empty plate in the sink as I pass. “I’ll get him. One minute.”

As I’m about to start up the stairs, I hear footsteps on the landing. My twelve-year old brother Louis runs into view, his tie hanging loose round his shoulders, half the buttons on his shirt undone. I shoot him a withering look as he jumps the last few steps and lands neatly next to me on the floor.

“What?” He says. “What?”

“You’re always the last one downstairs.” I swallow. “There’ll be no pancakes left for you next time.”

“No way! Mum still makes them if I’m late.” Louis pushes past me and runs into the kitchen to give Mum a hug. He’s twelve, but I swear he behaves more like he’s five. Maybe it’s to sweeten her up before she spots the twig in his hair.

“Well, she’ll stop soon. Won’t you, Mum?” I call into the kitchen, following Louis in. I ruffle his hair as he desperately starts to smooth it down, and he looks at me, but doesn’t dare say anything.

Mum waits till Louis is at the table, then walks over with his plate of food. He reaches out for it, but she holds it out of his reach as she fumbles through his hair and plucks out the twig. He stops scrabbling for his plate and visibly sinks.

He looks up at Mum, then yawns.

“Tired, are we?” Mum says softly, turning the little piece of twig over in her fingers.

My stupid brother nods, then widens his eyes at me as he realises what he’s done. I give him a look, and he pleads with me to help him. I’m not going to.

“Louis, why’s there a twig in your hair?” I ask him.

“It’s not…” Louis trails off. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Were you out last night?”

He sighs. My heart sinks.

“How’s it not a big deal?” Mum never gets angry. She likes the I’m-not-mad-just-disappointed angle better. It’s painful to watch. “Explain that to me, sweetie. How’s it not a big deal?”

“What do we keep telling you, Louis?” Dad adds. “About the forest?”

“I didn’t go anywhere near the woods!” He insists. “I… I just, uh… went to Alfie’s house. He lives on the opposite side of the-”

“It’s not about the woods, Louis; it’s about going out in the middle of the night without supervision! What were you thinking?

Louis looks down at his plate. “Nothing.”

“That’s right, young man. Nothing,” Dad says. “If we catch you leaving this house again without our permission, there’ll be no video games and no Alfie for a month. Is that understood?”

“Yeah.”

“What was that?”

“Yes, Dad.” I know he doesn’t mean it.

Dad’s mouth tweaks upwards in a smug grin, as if he thinks he’s won. Then, he goes back to his coffee. Mum sighs and gets up to clear the plates. I watch them, trying to ignore the pang of anger in my gut. They’re the sweetest parents any kid could ask for- I loved it when I was Louis’ age, but now, I’ve come to realise they’re not firm enough. They might not believe there’s a monster running amok like I do, but they’ll never get around to making sure he doesn’t leave again. He’s twelve. He’s not going to stop after a bit of scolding. How could he be so stupid? I wonder if this is the first time, or if he’s ever been out before.

“Louis,” I say as he gets up to leave the table. He turns around.

“What?”

“Don’t what me.” I say. “You know what.”

“Di, it’s not a big deal! Everyone at school goes out after dark, and-”

“Yeah, well, they’re not the only ones. What if you get hurt? Don’t do it again.”

He folds his arms, so I sigh and add, “Your tie’s all screwed up.”

“Well, your face’s all screwed up,” he mutters, kicking the ground. Mum jerks her head up, but I make a show of laughing to stop her scolding Louis again.

“I know.” I say. “But Mrs Taylor’s given me written permission to have this face at school. Your tie, on the other hand-”

“It’s meant to be like that.”

“Why?”

Louis sighs, yanking his tie. “Alfie says that’s how you’re meant to wear them.”

“Well, Alfie’s a tool. Come here.”

Louis doesn’t object, neither to my ordering him around nor my calling his friend a tool. He shuffles over to me and I start to straighten his tie, watching as he huffs and puffs and fidgets. He used to get bullied all the time at primary school, but he didn’t care, because he wasn’t ashamed. Now, ever since he met Alfie, he’s started doing everything he possibly can to pretend he hates everything he used to love. His dark hair used to be long and curly, like mine, but he badgered Mum to let him have it buzzed short at the sides, like Alfie’s. He stopped asking for books and weird nerdy kits for Christmas and birthdays and started asking for shooting games and expensive phones instead. He even ‘accidentally’ broke his glasses, knowing Mum couldn’t afford to buy him new ones, so he wouldn’t have to wear them to school anymore. Worst of all, he used to be closer to me than any of my other siblings- he used to come to me with his tears and worries and I used to protect him from the bullies, but now, he avoids me like I’m the plague. Maybe he really is scared of my screwed-up face. Maybe he’s just growing up. Or maybe he knows full well I can see through his lies.

“Where did you really go?” I murmur.

“To Alfie’s.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I see him falter.

I give him a look. Louis looks down at the ground, then murmurs, “The playground.”

“The one near Dad’s work?”

He nods, and my heart sinks. That playground’s only a couple of miles from the forest.

“By yourself?”

“No,” he says, like I’m stupid. There’s a pause. “Alfie goes with me.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.”

“Like that makes any Goddamn difference.”

Louis says nothing.

“Look, you better not go out there again.” I say. “If Mum won’t tell you, you know I will. She’ll worry herself to death, and I’m not letting you do that. She’s got enough on her mind.”

“What, because of the monster?” Louis retorts. I pause, then sigh and say nothing.

“I’ll be fine.” Louis says. “I’m not a baby anymore.”

“I’m sure that’s true, deep down. It’s not the point, is it?”

He looks down and sighs. “No.”

“I need you to promise not to go out again,” I say. I reach out, but he shoves my hand away. “Look, if you won’t do it for Mum, do it for me. Please?”

“Stop it. I’m not a baby. Get Mum off my back, Di, like you used to.” Louis says. “I don’t get why you suddenly take her side all the time.”

Because I’m worried about you, you Goddamned idiot! I scream in my head. Don’t you understand the concept of danger? ARE you a baby?

I sigh and say nothing. Louis tugs his tie out of my grip and turns his back on me. There’s no chance he’ll listen; the more I try to talk him out of it, the more determined he’ll be to disobey me. I’m sick of worrying myself to death every time anyone leaves the house; I’m sick of lying in bed at night, listening to the noises in the woods, wishing they’d piss off and leave us alone. I’m four months too late to pretend nothing’s wrong- I’ve already lost one person I love to this forest monster bullshit, and if I don’t do something myself, I bet I’ll lose more.

“Off to school, Di.” Mum says from the sink. “Have a nice day, sweetie.”

They’re trying so hard to keep themselves together. Every day, I have to fight back tears as I imagine what would have happened to them if I’d died out in that forest too, or instead. Poppy’s family’s in tatters now- they’re pretending to be fine, but they’re not. Her mum looks ill whenever I see her, and her sister barely speaks to anyone. If that so-called “Miracle” hadn’t happened, that’d be my family too. I can’t bear the thought. I know this isn’t over.

After what must have been a monumental pause, I say, “Thanks. You too.”.

“I’ll try!”

“Bye, honey.” Dad mutters.

“I’ve had enough of this,” I murmur as I turn to leave the kitchen.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

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