Chapter One

 

 

The light from the setting sun was already dim, but the moment his lips touched mine it seemed to fade away completely, darkness consuming me as the sensations evoked by his kiss overwhelmed my mind.  It was a fleeting touch at first, his lips barely brushing against mine, but then he was back for more, his mouth clamping over my own, his tongue delving between my teeth.  As his hands slowly slid down my spine I felt a surge of electricity rush through me, a spark I’d felt the first time we’d kissed, a spark that hadn’t diminished in the eight months that had passed since.

 

I groaned as his hands slipped beneath the back of my shirt, my body shuddering as the fingers of his left hand slipped beneath the waistband of my trousers, delving down until they brushed against my crevice.  His right hand travelled up my back, exposing my flesh to the cool October air, but I didn’t care.  His touch was enough to keep the cold at bay, summoning a fire within me that filled my body, a fire that burned furiously in my loins as he pulled me against him.

 

I stood powerless in his grasp, my body, my heart, my mind, all surrendering simultaneously as his tongue caressed mine, as his sweet taste flooded my mouth.  In that moment I was lost, the world around me seeping away into oblivion.  No longer could I hear the birds singing their evening melody, the waves crashing against the rocks, the frigid wind whistling as it jarred the naked treetops.  No longer could I smell the sweet scent of cinnamon that had flooded my nostrils the moment I’d arrived at his house.  All I knew was him, his touch, his taste, his scent and the sounds that emanated from him as he kissed me, the gentle guttural groaning he made as his tongue explored my mouth, as his hands caressed my body, as desire overcame us both.

 

His right hand moved slowly up my back, his touch evoking a myriad of euphoric sensations, but when his fingers brushed against the back of my neck I felt as though the ground had crumbled beneath me, as though I was floating on a sea of bliss.  I felt my legs weaken, my body falling hard against his, our bodies meshing together.  He grunted, but he supported my weight, holding me up as though it was no effort at all.  For my part, I tried to stand upright again, tried to summon strength to my legs, but as I’d fallen against him I’d felt his hardness against my hip and I could do nothing that would rob me of that feeling.

 

It pressed against me hard, grinding against my leg, that sensation alone enough to bring me to the brink of ecstasy.  My own erection swelled uncomfortably within my shorts, but just when I thought I might explode he stopped, his mouth leaving mine, his hands abandoning my flesh, his warmth, his touch, his body all departing me.  I sighed, opening my eyes as he stepped back, the disappointment I’d felt at the abrupt end to our kiss evaporating as I saw the smile on his face and the love in his eyes.

 

“Does that answer your question?” Kyle asked me, winking seductively.

 

“Huh?” I responded dumbly.

 

“We were talking about the party tomorrow night,” he laughed.  “I said I couldn’t go and you asked if I was ashamed to be seen with you.”

 

“Oh yeah,” I nodded, the reminder dulling the blissful memory of his kiss.  “I guess it does, but still…are you sure you can’t make it?  I mean, even if you came for just an hour…”

 

“Ethan,” he sighed, shaking his head firmly.  “Babe, you know I’d be there if I could, but I’ve already told you my Dad’s taken a few days off work and that means…”

 

“…family time,” I finished for him, spitting the words out like they were laced with poison.  “I know it’s important to your Dad, but he’s a reasonable guy.  Maybe if you explained…”

 

“I can’t,” he said, taking my wrists and holding them firmly.  “And to be completely honest, even if I thought for one minute he would agree, I still wouldn’t ask him.  You know what his work schedule’s like.  He works so far away he has to stay in the city all week and on those weekends he does get home he’s too busy catching up on his sleep or doing work around the house to spend any real quality time with us.  Every month he takes a few days off work to spend with us and I really enjoy it.  I don’t want to give it up for the sake of a stupid party.”

 

As he’d spoken I’d been looking out over his front garden, at the tidy flowerbeds and the neatly trimmed shrubbery.  I’d been staring at his front door just a few feet away from us, wondering if the sweet odour of cinnamon was a sign that my boyfriend’s mother was baking more of her famous cinnamon and lemon cookies.  I’d glanced at his father’s BMW in the driveway, wondering if I would ever own a car as nice as his.  I’d watched the cloud of silvery vapour that slipped from my lips every time I exhaled, wondering if this October was colder than others I remembered.

 

It wasn’t that I was ignoring him, just that I’d heard the speech many times before, a speech he’d given me whenever I’d complained about the three or four evenings a month we were unable to spend together.  I understood that his father worked hard running his business in the city and Kyle barely got to spend any time with him, but the idea of being without him, even for the shortest of times, hurt.  It was only when he made reference to the party that my attention snapped fully back to him, my eyes widening like those of a preacher who’d just heard a member of his congregation uttering blasphemy.

 

Stupid party?” I yelped, almost choking on the words.  “I’ll have you know that Andrew Hayden’s Halloween Party is the social event of the year for kids at our school.”

 

“Unfortunately,” he sighed.  “Perhaps if there was more to do then the gossips would have something better to do than…” He let his voice trail off, shaking his head sadly and sighing again.

 

“Have they been giving you trouble?” I asked him, my outrage forgotten, replaced by concern.

 

“Not really,” he answered with a brave but unconvincing smile.  “Teddy Rainer and his knuckle-dragging cohorts have been their usual pleasant selves, but I can deal with them.  What gets to me are the whispered conversations that stop whenever I get close and the glares I get whenever people think I’m not looking.”

 

“People will lose interest eventually,” I told him, taking his hand and stroking it reassuringly.  “Just give it some time.”

 

“Shit,” he grimaced.  “Listen to me.  I’m going on about a few dirty looks when it’s much worse for you.  Sorry.”

 

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” I smiled at him.  “And I wouldn’t say it’s worse for me.”

 

“I know you wouldn’t,” he replied, leaning into me, “but I would.  My parents have accepted I’m gay whereas your parents…well, they’ve hardly been supportive.  And the people I called friends before we came out are still friends now, but Craig and Adam, your two closest friends, they’ve treated you like…”

 

“They’re just hurting,” I told him.

 

“Don’t start apologising for them again.”

 

“I’m not,” I replied.  “It’s just…well, you’ve got to see it from their point of view.”

 

“I’m not sure I can get my head that far up my arse,” he sneered.

 

“We’ve been best friends for as long as I can remember,” I continued, ignoring his comment.  “When Craig’s dad started drinking and hitting him and his Mum, he told me and Adam about it long before he would admit it to anyone else.  When Adam was being bullied by Rainer and his gang, he came to us.  Those guys have told me things about themselves I doubt they will ever share with anyone else, but I couldn’t tell them I’m gay.”

 

“They’ve got to understand how hard it was for you,” Kyle responded.  “It wasn’t as if it was easy for you to deal with.”

 

“I know,” I nodded, “and you’re right, but at the moment they’re not ready to think about that.  All they see is that I’ve hidden a part of myself from them, that I didn’t trust them enough to tell them.  That’s why this party is so important.  I know they’ll be there and it’ll be my chance to show them I’m still the same person they’ve always known and maybe, just maybe, they’ll listen to me long enough to let me explain.”

 

“And what would you tell them?” he asked me.

 

“I don’t know,” I sighed.  “I suppose I’d say that, as stupid as it was, I was afraid they’d hate me as much as I hated myself when I first realised I was gay.  Fear can make people do stupid things.  In my case, it made me question my trust in my two best friends.  Maybe they never gave me any reason to believe they would accept me or maybe I was too filled with self-loathing to believe anyone could accept me for what I was, but by the time I came to terms with my sexuality it just seemed easier to keep quiet about it. 

 

“Sure, I hid a part of myself from them, but I didn’t do it because I didn’t trust them, I did it out of fear.  I was afraid they would look at me differently or treat me differently.  I didn’t honestly believe they would’ve rejected me, but there was still a part of me that feared they would and that part was enough to make me think…you know…why risk it?  Am I making any sense?”

 

“Mostly,” he said with a reassuring smile.  “I think all you can do is be honest with them and hope they’re the people you believe them to be.”

 

“I guess,” I nodded.  “Do you ever regret coming out?”

 

“I’d be lying if I said no,” he confessed.  “The gossiping has been getting to me and it’s hurt me seeing how your parents and friends have treated you, but it’s only been eight weeks.  As you said, people will lose interest eventually.  Either they’ll accept us or not, but after a while they’ll find some other ‘scandal’ to talk about.”

 

“Not everyone, though,” I sighed.  “I don’t see my parents changing their minds.  I hope Craig and Adam do, but it will still always be there.  As for Teddy Rainer and his lot…they can huff and puff all they like, but like all bullies, they’re all mouth and no trousers.”

 

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Kyle cautioned.  “I heard some people talking about how Rainer was bragging that he was going to ‘sort us out’.”

 

“As I said,” I grinned, “all mouth and no trousers.”

 

“All the same,” he said with a hint of urgency in his voice, “watch out for him at the party tomorrow night.”

 

I was about to tell him to stop worrying, that I could take care of myself, when the front door of his house swung open.  Kyle’s father stepped onto the threshold, turning immediately towards his son with stern eyes.

 

“Kyle, dinner’s ready,” he announced.

 

I frowned at him.  I could understand why he wanted Kyle inside and at the dinner table in time for his evening meal, but something in his eyes perturbed me.  Gerry Young was an amiable man, an easy-going man whose company I’d always been comfortable in.  Even when Kyle and I had come out to him, told him we were a couple, he hadn’t raised his voice once, just discussed the matter calmly with us, assuring himself that we were certain of the feelings we had for one another.  Perhaps that was why I was so unsettled by the agitation I saw in his eyes as he looked at my boyfriend.

 

If Kyle saw it, however, he gave no indication as he turned back towards me and planted a quick kiss on my lips.

 

“See you at school tomorrow, babe,” he sang at me, casting a quick eye over the last remnants of the sunset before hurrying away from me, slipping past his father and disappearing into the house.

 

I stared after him, immediately feeling the emptiness that seemed to consume me whenever we were apart, wishing for one last glimpse of his sweet smile and tender eyes.  Though I knew we would only be apart for a matter of hours, those hours felt like an eternity, an eternity in which I would feel as though a part of myself was missing, lost until he we were united and I could feel whole again.

 

“It’s getting dark,” Gerry said, breaking me from my mourning and reminding me of his presence.  “Would you like me to call you a taxi?”

 

“No thanks,” I replied, forcing a grateful smile.  “I’ll walk home.  The exercise will do me good.”

 

“Fair enough,” he nodded.  “Goodnight Ethan.”

 

“Goodnight,” I replied.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

I’d been walking for only a couple of minutes when I began to regret declining Gerry’s offer to call me a taxi.  Even before I’d reached the end of the driveway the sun bade its final farewell to the day and just moments later the last vestiges of light began to fade into blackness.  The night was closing in on me fast and I knew the sky would be dark before I’d completed even a quarter of my journey.  Part of me wanted to turn back, to return to my boyfriend’s house and tell his father I’d reconsidered, but I knew I wouldn’t do that.

 

Quite simply, I was afraid of looking like a scared little child in the eyes of Kyle’s parents.  I knew it was foolish to think they would regard me that way, but even so, I wasn’t going to turn back.  Besides, the moon was full and the sky was cloudless, so I knew there would be enough light to guide me on my way home.  It was the cold that bothered me, the savage wind that swept in from across the sea, the biting chill that caused me to pull my coat tight around my body.

 

I hesitated as I reached the path that led from the main road, a path I knew cut through the expanse of woodland that separated the coastal road I was on from the rest of the town.  I glanced at it, debating whether to leave the road and walk amongst the shadowy trees or continue around them.  I knew that the distance through the woods was less than a mile, that I would be through in perhaps ten minutes, that the coastal road was a journey of over three miles, but still I couldn’t bring myself to stray from the brighter, less imposing path.  I continued onwards, mocking myself for not taking the easier option, for allowing fear to keep me from taking the faster route.

 

By the age of five or six, there wasn’t a child raised in the town who didn’t know the legend of the Beast of Gallows Point.  If their parents had spared them from the terrifying tale, they would certainly hear it at school.  The story varied depending on who was telling it, but in every version there were certain elements that never changed.  In every story there was a beast that stalked the woods by night and a warning that any who entered the woods after dark did so at their own peril.

 

Of all the versions I’d heard, the one I liked best was told to me by my Great-Aunt Ruth.  According to her, the beast was no tangible creature, no actual living being, but the ghost of a man responsible for a series of grisly murders in and around the town in the late seventeenth century.  His name, she’d told me, was Edmund Haggett, a wealthy landowner who killed eleven local women before a group of local men put a stop to his nefarious ways.  One night the men, mostly husbands and fathers of the murdered women, caught Haggett as he was about to claim his twelfth victim.

 

They took him deep into the woods, to a clearing not far from the bluff, tied him to a post and burned him alive.  It was said that with his last breath Haggett cursed the town, swearing that never again would the townsfolk sleep soundly in their beds, that death would not stop his murderous rampage, that he would butcher any who entered the woods after dusk.

 

Of course, in other versions of the tale the beast was a hellhound, a black dog that haunted the woodland.  In others it was a freak that escaped when a carnival visited the town in the eighteenth century.  Some even claimed it was a demon summoned by Simon Addison, the great-grandson of the man who founded the town, a practitioner of Satanism who was hung in the market square by the townsfolk in 1684.  Whatever the real source of the legend, two things were absolutely certain – no one in their right mind believed the myth and no one who’d heard it ventured into the woods after nightfall.

 

The beast was just one of many dark legends the town had to offer, one aspect of a supposedly gruesome history told and retold by the generations who lived and died in the otherwise unremarkable coastal hamlet, but it was undoubtedly the most popular myth.  There wasn’t a corner of the town untouched by sinister and magical lore, from the ghost that purportedly walked the school halls to the water wraiths that lurked beneath the surface of the river.  I believed none of it, of course, but even so there was no way I was going to venture into the woods.

 

I told myself it would be too dark beneath the shadowy canopy.  I would trip and fall, break an ankle in the gloom.  I told myself that while I had no fear of any beast hunting me down, there were other, very real threats that were best avoided.  There were wild animals living in the woods and by night it was their domain, their territory.  Though sticking to the main road significantly lengthened my journey, I knew I could rationalise my decision without contemplating the stories that had terrified me as a child.

 

Shaking my head, I turned my eyes towards the heavens, gazing at the ocean of stars above me and the pockmarked silvery disc that lay amongst them.  As I gazed up at them I found myself wishing that Kyle was with me, his hand in mine as I walked, his touch filling me with warmth.  I could picture the scene in my mind.  We would be strolling along together, staying close, huddling for warmth, stealing the occasional kiss, saying nothing, yet in our silence saying everything that needed to be said.

 

There would be no need to hurry.  In spite of the cold and the dark, neither of us would be in any rush, just content to share the experience, the time together.  It was always like that with him.  It didn’t seem to matter what we did, where we were or what we talked about, we were just happy being in each other’s company.  When I was with him it just felt so right, so perfect, as though nothing in the world mattered, as though nothing could touch us.  Perhaps that was why I thought coming out would be so easy.

 

I winced as I recalled how Craig and Adam had reacted when I shared my secret with them.  We’d come out to Kyle’s parents first, both of us almost certain that they would accept us and though our conversation with them had gone on longer than either of us had expected, neither of us were disappointed.  My parents were next and again their reaction was just as I’d predicted.  My father had looked at me as though I was something foul he had just trodden in while my mother promptly burst into tears, announcing that she would never be able to show her face in public again.

 

My parents had calmed down eventually.  Neither of them had accepted my sexuality and I knew that neither would, but we had come to an understanding of sorts.  I would never speak Kyle’s name in their presence, never bring him to the house, never show any sign of affection towards him in front of them and in return they would feed and house me until I was eighteen, perform their parental duties.  I hated the fact that they couldn’t love me the way Kyle’s parents loved him, but I accepted it.

 

Craig and Adam were the next people I told.  I took them aside after school one day, took them both to the park so that we could speak alone, without interruption.  At first they were shocked, stunned, but I saw no trace of anger until I told them that I was with Kyle.  I knew in my heart they could accept my sexuality and I knew they had no problem with Kyle, but the fact that I’d kept my secret from them for so long, that I’d known long enough to start a relationship with another boy, that hurt them.

 

I could understand it.  Though I didn’t truly consider it a betrayal of our friendship to keep my secret, I could see why they felt differently.  I could forgive their anger, forgive the harsh words they’d spoken that day and ever since, forgive the pain their reaction had caused me, but I wasn’t sure if they could forgive me, if they could see past their anger and understand how difficult it was for me to tell them.

 

The sound of a car engine shook me from my thoughts.  I turned, glancing over my shoulder as the car sped towards me, its headlights on full-beam, dazzling me, blinding me.  I stepped off the road, groaning as my feet sank into the soft, moist mud that caked the verge.  I turned back to the car, scowling at it as it approached, pulling my coat tighter around my body, shuddering at sudden rush of icy air that swept over me as it flew by.  I sighed, staring after it, expecting to see it disappear around the corner, but instead the night was filled with sound of tyres screeching against the surface of the road.

 

The car skidded to a halt a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, its brake lights gleaming in the darkness, flooding the night with a blood-red glow.  I sighed again, even shaking my head a little, certain that the driver had taken the wrong exit off the motorway and had stopped to ask directions.  It was a fairly common occurrence, something I’d experienced more than once during the summer as I’d walked back from Kyle’s house.  I stepped back onto the road, intending to jog over to the car, to do my ‘good Samaritan’ routine and cheerfully direct the bewildered motorist back to the main road, but as I began moving towards the vehicle I heard its engine roar.

 

Once.

 

Twice.

 

I stopped, staring at it, watching as it sat there, its engine revving.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  At first I stuck with my original theory, that it was a lost motorist who had stopped for directions.  The revving, well, maybe that was just his way of telling me that he was in a hurry, his way of expressing his impatience as he waited for me.  I shrugged, walking slowly onwards, moving cautiously towards him, but with every step I heard a voice in the back of my mind screaming at me to turn and run back to Kyle’s house.

 

I paused.  I don’t know what stopped me, but somehow I knew that something wasn’t right.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was definitely something wrong.  As I stared at the car I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise.  I didn’t know why, didn’t understand it, but I felt an overwhelming sense of danger, an almost overpowering urge to run, to flee, to get away from the car as fast as I could.  I took a step back, my heart pounding in my chest, my stomach tightening, my skin tingling.

 

The car lurched backwards, its tyres screaming as they span on the frosty tarmac, the vehicle shooting towards me in reverse.  For a moment I just stood there staring at it, too stunned to react, but as it drew closer I knew I had to get out of the way.  Still it took me another couple of seconds to react, throwing myself to the side, back towards the verge, my body clearing the road just as the car screeched to a halt a few feet away.

 

I landed hard, the impact jarring my shoulder, knocking the wind out of me.  I was dazed, unable to move, my lungs fighting to draw in oxygen as I heard the sound of car doors opening.  I lifted my head expecting to see a stranger stepping out of the vehicle, perhaps a man and his wife rushing from the car to help me, to apologise, but instead I found myself staring up at Teddy Rainer, a broad grin plastered across his face.

 

“Have a little trip, did we?” he sneered, closing the front passenger door of the vehicle and leaning back against it.

 

I couldn’t respond even if I’d wanted to.  I could barely breath.  Instead I just glared up at him, watched as two more boys moved to his side.  The driver of the car was the last to get out, shutting off the engine and climbing unhurriedly from the vehicle, moving slowly around it, ambling towards me.  I recognised Teddy’s older brother Ellis almost immediately, even though I’d seen him only a couple of times in my life.  He smirked as he rounded the vehicle, a menacing glint in his eyes as he looked down at me.

 

I shuddered, swallowing hard.  I doubted if there was anyone at school who hadn’t heard of Ellis Rainer.  As a bully he made Teddy seem like a lightweight, an amateur, a wannabe thug.  I’d heard so many stories about his exploits during his time at the school, many exaggerated, too unbelievable to accept as truth, but I didn’t doubt that he was a vicious brute.  I knew for certain that he’d been expelled after stabbing another student, that he’d spent some time in a Youth Detention Centre and that he’d frequently been in trouble with the police ever since.

 

The rumours about him were plentiful.  He was said to be a drug-dealer, capable of supplying almost any kind of illegal narcotic.  Some claimed he was behind an arson attack on the school the year before I started there, though if he had been responsible the police had never been able to prove anything.  I’d even heard whispers that he’d killed a man, dismembered his body and tossed the remains into the ocean, though in all likelihood that was another fallacy created to make him seem even more menacing than he already was.

 

“So, this is the fag, is it?” Ellis growled, snarling at me ferociously.

 

“One of them,” his brother confirmed, stepping to his side.  “The other one lives up the road.”

 

“So you’ve been takin’ it up the arse tonight, have you?” Ellis scoffed.  “I thought you were walkin’ funny.”

 

“I don’t want any trouble,” I wheezed, pushing myself up, attempting to stand.

 

I’d managed to get myself into a semi-seated position when Teddy lurched forward, rushing at me so quickly I didn’t have time to react, driving his foot into my stomach.  I managed to let loose a yelp before the blow once again forced the air from my lungs, silencing me.  I curled my body into a foetal position on the ground, covering my head with my arms, protecting myself from any further blows, but none came.

 

“What’s the matter?” Teddy barked at me, nudging me with his foot.  “Is the girly-boy too chicken to fight back?”

 

“Of course he is, dumbass,” I heard Ellis reply.  “He’s a pussyboy.  A six-year-old girl could kick his arse.”

 

“Yeah,” Teddy nodded.  “You’re right.  Pussyboys don’t know how to fight.  Never mind.  We can still have some fun beating the crap out of him.”

 

I winced, tensing my body, preparing myself for a barrage of blows, but before the first could be delivered, Ellis spoke again.

 

“Get him on his feet,” he ordered.  “We’ll figure out what to do with him then.”

 

They were on me almost instantly, two boys, each one grabbing an arm, wrenching me upright.  They pulled me to my feet, holding me, twisting my arms to ensure I made no effort to break free.  My vision blurred for a few moments, my head swimming, but as Ellis moved towards me my vision cleared.  I could see him.  I could see him standing less than six feet away, Teddy slightly behind him, off to the side, both of them leering at me, regarding me with ferocious pleasure.

 

I tried to conceal my fear, to look defiant, brave, unperturbed, but from the look on their faces I knew that I’d failed.  They could see the terror in my eyes and they loved it, relished it, fed off it.  I knew they were going to hurt me, but what they really wanted was to see me scared, see me shaking.  They wanted to feel powerful by making me feel weak and as much as I wanted to deny them that satisfaction, I couldn’t.

 

“So what are we gonna do with him, Ellis?” Teddy grinned, gazing expectantly at his brother.

 

“I haven’t decided yet,” Ellis answered, his eyes fixed on my face.  “What d’you think?”

 

“I say toss him over the cliff,” the boy on my right announced, his words causing me to shudder.

 

“Nah,” Ellis replied.  “We don’t wanna kill him.  Besides, it’s dark.  We wouldn’t even get to see him land.”

 

“I say we do what they used to do to fags around here a couple of centuries ago?” Teddy suggested.  “They’d strip ‘em naked, drag ‘em to the centre of town, shove a red hot poker up their arse then cut their balls off.”

 

“Bullshit,” Ellis responded, rolling his eyes.

 

“Well, p’haps not,” Teddy admitted, “but they should’ve.”

 

Ellis shook his head, turning from me to his brother.  “Y’know, sometimes I wonder if you were adopted.”

 

“Hey,” Teddy protested.  “I was…”

 

“Just shut up asshole,” Ellis instructed, grinning menacingly at me.  “I’ve got an idea.  Let’s take him into the woods and have ourselves a little party.”

 

I began to struggle immediately, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t break free.  As they turned me towards the trees I opened my mouth, intending to cry for help, but before I could make a sound Teddy’s hand clamped across my mouth.  All I could do was whimper as they carried me from the roadside, carried me beneath the darkened canopy.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

I lifted my head, watching as they ran, listening to their panicked cries as they fled.  My vision was still distorted by the tears that flooded my eyes, but I could see it.  Not clearly, but I could see it, the black shape that bounded after them.  I could hear it too, its feet pounding against the ground so hard I swore I could feel the ground shaking beneath me, a low, guttural growl flooding the stagnant night as it chased them.  I lowered my head again, closed my eyes, listened to their frightened shouting, their terrified screams.

 

It was music to my ears, the sweet melody of fear emanating from boys who had sought to hurt me, to terrorise me, to humiliate me.  I smiled as I heard Teddy cry out, a sob in his voice as he pleaded with his brother to help him, my smile evolving into laughter as I heard Ellis let out a pained squeal, laughter that lapsed into tears as I recalled their laughter as I’d made similar noises just minutes earlier.

 

I threw myself backwards, my back, my head crashing onto the carpet of fallen leaves, opening my eyes to stare through the barren canopy at the ocean of stars above me, the only witnesses to my anguish.  I wanted to listen, to hear the boys being torn apart by the creature, but the sounds were drowned out by my thoughts, by the memory of what they’d done to me, the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and vulnerability I still felt.

 

My whole body shook as I remembered how I’d felt as they led me into the woods, how the fear had crippled me, prevented me from doing anything but go along with them, do as they commanded, all the while hoping to come out the other side unscathed.  They hadn’t taken me far from the road, perhaps a few hundred yards, but the walk had seemed to last an eternity.  As they’d led me silently through the trees I’d had visions of being made to dig my own grave, of kneeling in the hole, my body aching from the strain, my hands caked in mud.  In my mind I’d seen Ellis step down behind me, gripping my hair with one hand, jerking my head back before running a knife across my throat.

 

With every step I’d grown more and more convinced that I would never leave the woods again, that my body would lie rotting in a shallow grave, lost, forgotten.  When finally Ellis announced we’d gone far enough, I’d been ready to do just about anything to ensure my survival.  I would have dropped to my knees, begged him, pleaded with him, licked the mud from his shoes if that what it had taken to save myself, but as they’d turned me to face him I’d seen in his eyes there was nothing I could say or do that would make a difference.

 

For a moment, he’d said nothing, just stared at me with those cold, unfeeling eyes, regarding me in a way I could not adequately put into words, but it terrified me.  He’d smiled at me as he plucked a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, stepped towards me as he’d pried one of the cancer-sticks free, his eyes boring into me as he’d flicked his lighter, the flame filling the night with a fiery glow.  He’d taken a long, slow drag on the cigarette, his eyes never shifting from me as he’d held the smoke in his lungs, his lips arching into a smile as he’d leaned forward, exhaling the nauseating fumes into my face.  He’d laughed as I coughed, as I choked, shaking his head as he turned to his brother, as he uttered two words, two little words, that made me want to cry aloud.

 

“Strip him.”

 

It happened fast.  The three boys set upon me like a pack of rabid dogs, their hands clawing at me, fabric tearing as they fought to free me from my clothes, tossing garments and shreds of garments aside.  By the time I found myself on my feet again every stitch of clothing from my body was gone and my flesh was left exposed to the icy air, shivering, shaking as the two boys either side of me held me up, held my arms.

 

In that moment I didn’t care that I was naked, that I was frozen, that all four boys were leering at me, but as I remembered it I felt my cheeks flush red with rage and humiliation.  I sat up, sniffling as fresh tears flooded my eyes, looking around in the dim silvery light for my clothes.  I could see the remnants of my shirt in three pieces strewn across the ground, the buttons glinting in the moonlight.  My shorts were in tatters, both legs ripped apart, but the thick denim trousers I’d worn that day seemed to be intact.

 

I reached out for them, plucking them from the ground, wincing as my body protested against the movement.  I dragged them over to me, determined that I would pull them on, find my shoes and coat, then flee, run before they or the creature had time to return, but as I slid my legs into the garment a throbbing sensation in my abdomen reminded me of what they’d done next.

 

Ellis had stepped in front of me again, his eyes trailing up and down my body, his hand reaching out to pat my shoulder before he drove his knee up into my groin.  As I doubled forward he followed it with a blow to my stomach, his fist hammering into me with a force I’d never believed another human being to be capable of exerting.  After that I don’t know who hit me, only that I was lying on the ground attempting to shelter myself from the torrent of blows that rained down upon me.

 

At some point I must have blacked out, for the next thing I knew there was liquid running down my face, flowing over my cheeks, into my ear, into my eyes, into my mouth and nose.  The liquid had a slightly salty taste to it, but it was not until I opened my eyes and saw Teddy urinating on me that I realised what it was.  I’d gagged, bile rising in my throat as I turned my face away from the stream, spitting to rid myself of the piss that had flowed into my mouth, struggling not to think about how much I might have swallowed before I realised what was happening.

 

“Welcome back,” I’d heard Ellis say, his voice sounding distant, muffled.  “Get him up.”

 

Once again I’d felt myself pulled upwards, only this time I whimpered, pain seeming to consume every inch of my body.  My head was throbbing, my ribs aching, my back screaming for mercy as I was yanked up.  I’d barely been able to hold my head up, the muscles in my neck refusing to cooperate.  My head rolled from side to side as Ellis approached me, still sucking on that cigarette, or perhaps another, grinning at me, a grin that told me my torment was far from over.

 

I pushed myself to my feet, stifling a cry as my whole body seemed to throb at once, reaching out to a nearby tree to steady myself.  My legs felt weak, my knees ready to buckle, but I knew I had to stand.  I couldn’t just lie down and wait for the pain to subside.  I took a couple of deep breaths before pulling my trousers up over my hip, my fingers trembling as I struggled with the button.  When it was fastened I looked around again for the rest of my clothes, spotting my shoes a short distance away.  I walked slowly towards them, my hand instinctively rising to touch the three small, circular burns on my chest as I moved.

 

I could still hear the agonised scream that had gushed from my lips as Ellis extinguished his cigarette on my chest that first time.  I could still smell the odour of tobacco and searing flesh that had flooded my nostrils.  I could still hear them cackling like demented hyenas as I’d sobbed afterwards and the incoherent words I’d muttered as Ellis relit the cigarette.  He’d pressed it against my flesh twice more, creating a triangular pattern around my right nipple, but each time my scream was more subdued than the time before.

 

It hadn’t been enough for him.  When next he lit the cigarette he’d aimed lower, towards my stomach at first, ensuring I was watching it before he moved it downwards, across my belly, continuing down.  I’d heard a sizzling sound as he touched it against one of my pubic hairs, my eyes widening as they’d rose to meet his, to see if he really intended to do what I believed he was going to do.

 

“Time for some barbecued cock,” he’d muttered, but it was at that moment he’d heard it.  We’d all heard it, the low, rumbling growl.

 

I shuddered at the memory, shaking my head to rid my mind of the image of the creature I’d seen.  Even the look of horror on Ellis’ face sent shivers down my spine.  All the while he’d been torturing and tormenting me I’d felt certain he’d never known true fear other than in the faces of his victims, but as much as the sight of the creature terrified me, seeing Ellis quiver like a frightened child, seeing his eyes bulge, his jaw drop, his breath catch in his throat, for some reason that was far more disturbing.

 

I pulled on my shoes, bothering neither with socks nor laces, just anxious to get my coat and flee as fast as my battered body would allow.  Somewhere in the distance I heard the sound of tyres screeching on the surface of the road, a horn blaring as it tore off, though whether it was heading for town or the motorway or whether all four boys had made it to the vehicle I had no idea.  Part of me was excited by the idea of Ellis lying dead, torn apart by the beast before he reached the road, but on some deeper level the notion sickened me.

 

I hated him.  I hated him for what he had done to me, for what he had undoubtedly done to countless others, but the idea of him being torn limb from limb did nothing to satisfy me.  I don’t know whether it was because I found the fate too horrible or not horrible enough, but either way I knew deep down that I hoped he’d made it, that he had reached his car safely.

 

I shook my head, casting him from my mind, turning my attention to finding my coat and fleeing before the beast returned.  I spotted my jacket next to a tree about twenty feet away.  From where I stood I couldn’t tell if it was wearable, but I knew I needed something to wrap around my body, something to shelter me from the bitter cold.  I moved towards it, groaning as my body continued to complain, every limb burning, every muscle protesting, every bone aching, but a low, rumbling growl swept all thought of pain from my mind.

 

I froze.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I could see it approaching, a dark, shadowy figure, a beastly apparition unlike anything I had ever seen before.  I didn’t dare turn my head towards it, fearing that any movement would alert the creature to my presence, prompt it to attack.  I could see it looking at me, its eyes fixed on me, its motion carrying it towards me, but still I remained motionless.

 

The beast continued its approach, moving slowly, steadily towards me.  As it drew near its growling stopped, subsiding into soft, gentle panting, but even that sound terrified me.  I whimpered as it came to a stop just a couple of feet from me, feeling its eyes on me, knowing that it could see me, that it was aware of me, waiting for it to attack.  I flinched, as it sniffed at my leg, preparing to run the moment it showed any sign of attacking, my heart thundering in my chest, my lungs drawing air into my chest in slow, quivering rasps.

 

I let out a yelp as the beast nudged my leg with its nose, losing control of my body for a moment, taking a step away and spinning around to face it.  The beast reared up, letting out a snarl as it raised itself onto its hind legs, as its front legs dropped to its side like arms.  My eyes widened at the site, my mind refusing to comprehend what I was seeing, but as I gazed at the beast I could think of just one word.

 

Werewolf.

 

I knew it was impossible, irrational, but as I stared at the creature all rational thought departed me.  I couldn’t think of any other word to describe it.  It at least eight feet tall, its body covered in thick, dark fur from head to toe.  Long, menacing claws adorned its hands and feet, claws so powerful I had little doubt they could easily rip through human flesh, perhaps even bone.  The shape of its head resembled that of a dog, a long prominent jaw, a rounded snout and ears atop its skull.  As I stared at it the creature opened its mouth, exposing its savage, canine teeth.

 

My legs buckled beneath me, my rump hitting the ground hard.  The beast took a step towards me, in one stride standing over me, its feet either side of my knees.  I scampered backwards, moving as quickly as I could away from it, but the creature moved with me, toying with me.  I yelped as my back hit a tree, turning my head to seek some other escape route, but in that moment the beast dropped onto all fours, bringing its face, its menacing jaws, level with my head.

 

I froze again, whimpering as its hot, fetid breath swept across my cheek.  I closed my eyes tight as a deep growl emanated from the creature, tensing my body, preparing for its teeth to sink into my throat.  I knew there was no escape, nothing I could do, just lie there and wait.  I felt a wetness on my cheek, something moving up my face from my jaw to my temple.  I opened my eyes, whimpering as the beast ran its tongue across my flesh, certain that it was tasting me before tearing me apart, devouring me.

 

The beast whined.  I don’t know what it was in that sound, but something compelled me to turn, to face the creature.  As I gazed at it I saw something in its eyes, something soft, something gentle, something familiar.  I frowned, still afraid, but also confused.  For a moment I found myself wondering if it was not my flesh that it was after, but my affection.  The idea seemed preposterous, but as I looked into its eyes I saw no malice, no savagery, just an animal seeking attention.

 

I flinched as it moved its head forward, but instead of biting me it closed its jaws, nuzzling its snout against my neck.  I closed my eyes, slowly, hesitantly raising my hand, my trembling fingers brushing against its coarse fur, stroking the top of its head.  The beast seemed to sigh, to relax, its snout nudging against my ear in an almost playful gesture.  I opened my eyes again, smiling softly, my fear ebbing away.  In that instant I felt safe, secure, the trauma of that evening soothed by the tender touch of a beast I’d always thought mythical, a beast I was certain could tear me apart in less than a second, end my life before I could utter a single sound.

 

I sighed, continuing to caress my monstrous saviour, but as I did so I saw something move, a figure stepping out from the shadows.  I turned just in time to see Gerry, my boyfriend’s father, a rifle in his hand, his weapon aimed directly at the creature atop of me.  I opened my mouth to shout to him, to order him to lower his gun, but the words hadn’t even begun to form when a deafening crack filled the night.  The beast yelped, its body crashing against me, knocking my head hard against the tree behind me.

 

My last memory as darkness swept over me was of a coldness spreading over my body as the beast departed me, a savage snarl resounding through the trees, then nothing.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

I awoke swathed in warm sunlight, but no longer was I lying on a blanket of dying leaves, instead beneath a warm, thick blanket on a blissfully soft mattress.  For a moment, as I stared up at the ceiling, I wondered if it had all been a horrible dream, if maybe my journey home had been uneventful, but as soon as I tried to raise my head I knew better.  A searing pain shot across my brow the instant I moved, my body aching, throbbing, making me wish I’d just closed my eyes again and fallen back to sleep.

 

I groaned, shifting my limbs slowly in a futile effort to find a more comfortable position in the bed, but I knew the mattress was not at fault, but rather the injuries that littered my battered bones.  I closed my eyes again, hoping somehow I would be able to drift back to sleep, but I knew immediately I could not.  I sighed, resigning myself to the discomfort, certain it would be days, possibly weeks, before I could lie, sit or move comfortably again.

 

I ran my hand over my tender ribs, wincing as my fingers met swollen, bruised flesh.  When I reached towards the cigarette burns I found the area covered by a bandage, soft cloth covering the wounds held fast by some kind of tape.  I frowned, realising my body was not as it was when I’d lost consciousness.  My trousers and shoes had been removed, leaving me naked beneath the blankets, and I could feel bandages in other places, on my head, my hands, my legs.

 

I opened my eyes again, glancing around the room, half-expecting to find myself in a hospital, but instead I found myself in a familiar bedroom.  I knew it wasn’t my own room instantly.  The walls were a different colour and the wardrobe I had was a freestanding one, not the built-in closets I saw to my left.  I knew the room, but for a moment I couldn’t place it, couldn’t work out where I was.  It was only when I raised my head, wincing as my back and neck protested, that I realised why the room seemed so familiar.

 

Kyle sat at the foot of his bed, watching me, his eyes tired, filled with concern, his brow deeply furrowed.  He offered me a weak smile, a troubled smile, but it wasn’t until I caught sight of myself in the mirror behind him that I could see why he seemed so perturbed.  A thick bandage covered the entire left side of my forehead, but it was the right side of my face that caused me to shudder.  My right eye was black, swollen, my right cheek engorged, my flesh coloured with brutal shades of purple, red and yellow.  I groaned, reclining my head back onto the pillow, trying not to think about the rest of my injuries, those hidden beneath the blankets.

 

“I’m a mess,” I muttered, my words barely comprehensible, my swollen jaw preventing me from speaking clearly.

 

“Try not to move too much,” Kyle said in a low, soothing voice, moving from the chair, walking slowly towards me, kneeling on the floor beside the bed.

 

“How bad?” I asked, my eyes dropping down to indicate I was asking about my other injuries.

 

“Nothing broken,” he told me.  “At least, not as far as we can tell.  You might have a couple of cracked ribs, so we’ll have to take you to the hospital later.  The burns on your chest are probably the worst of your injuries.  We’ve cleaned them up, but they’re gonna leave scars.  The rest is really just bruising and swelling.  A few cuts and scrapes, here or there, but nothing serious.”

 

“It feels worse,” I responded, this time managing to form the words clearly.

 

“You’re gonna need to rest for a while,” he informed me.  “My Mum called your Dad to let him know what’s happened.  She told him you were assaulted on your way home last night, but she didn’t go into detail.  To be honest, I don’t think your Dad was particularly interested.”

 

“He’s an asshole,” I groaned.  “Probably thinks I deserve it.”

 

“No comment,” Kyle muttered, but I could tell from his voice he agreed.  “Do you feel up to talking about…what happened?”

 

“Teddy and his brother,” I answered.  “A couple of their friends.  They beat the crap out of me.”

 

“Did they…do…anything else?” he asked me hesitantly.

 

I turned to him, moving my hand from beneath the covers, reaching for his.  “No,” I assured him, stroking his fingers with my thumb.  “I think maybe they would’ve done more, but they were…interrupted.”

 

I flinched, once again wondering if my memory was real, if perhaps they had done more and my mind had substituted the experience for something equally horrific, but as I was contemplating the idea Kyle removed all doubt from my mind.

 

“I know,” he sighed.  “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

 

“You saw it?” I asked, my eyes widening, my heart quickening.  “You saw the beast too?  I didn’t…I saw your Dad but…you were there?”

 

“I was there,” he confirmed, releasing my hand and leaning back, away from me.

 

“What is it?” I frowned, searching my memory, struggling to remember what had happened.  I could see Gerry stepping out of the shadows, his rifle aimed at the creature.  I could hear the shot, feel the impact as the beast crashed against me, as it departed my body.  “Your Dad,” I gasped.  “Is he ok?  Did the beast…”

 

“Dad’s fine,” Kyle assured me.  “He just fired a warning shot into the air.  You’re the only one who got hurt.  He’s downstairs.  He wanted to give us some space so we could talk.  Baby, I’ve got to tell you…oh God…this is so hard.”

 

“What?” I frowned, reaching out for him again, my fingers brushing against his arm before he pulled away from me.

 

“The beast you saw,” he answered hesitantly.  “Do you know what it was?”

 

“No,” I replied.  “I mean, I thought maybe it was a werewolf.  I know that’s ridiculous…”

 

“It was,” he stated, his eyes fixing on mine, displaying his sincerity.  “Well, to be more accurate, it was a lycanthrope.  ‘Werewolf’ is a layman’s term, but essentially they’re the same thing.”

 

“How…” I began.

 

“Just…let me finish,” he requested, taking a deep breath before continuing.  “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of crap about werewolves.  Forget about silver bullets.  They’re harder to kill than people and most other animals, but shoot one enough times and it’ll die.  You might also have heard that if a werewolf bites you then you’ll become a werewolf too.”

 

I nodded.

 

“It’s rubbish,” he informed me.  “Lycanthropy is a genetic disease past from parent to child.  An infected person can bite you, scratch you…hell, you can even have a blood transfusion from them and you won’t get infected.  It’s something you’re born with.”

 

“Kyle, I don’t understand…” I started, but he held his hands up to silence me.

 

“Please, baby,” he begged, a tear slipping from his left eye.  “I need to say this now, while I’ve still got the courage.”  He paused, drawing in another long, deep breath before continuing.  “The disease doesn’t manifest until puberty.  That’s when the change begins.  For three nights a month they turn, becoming monstrous creatures…werewolves, if you like.  At first the beast takes over and all trace of humanity is lost from dusk until dawn, but over time it can be controlled.

 

“Initially you’re aware of what’s happening, but over time you can learn to control the savage impulses, the bloodlust, becoming a human being trapped in a different shell, a monstrous form.  Eventually the change can be suppressed altogether.  When that happens the change can take place at will, full moon or not, with the infected person in complete control, but it takes time to get to that point.  Years.  Some never manage it, but I think I’m…”

 

He stopped, panic flooding his eyes as he realised he’d said to much, revealed too much.

 

“It was you,” I stated, pushing myself up on my elbows, oblivious to the pain.  “Last night…the beast…it was you.”

 

Kyle nodded, tears filling his eyes, his head bowing.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.  “I know I should have told you sooner…”

 

“Why didn’t you?” I demanded.

 

“I…Dad said I should tell you when was sure I could trust you and was certain I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you,” he answered.

 

“But you don’t trust me,” I sighed.  “Or maybe you don’t think we have a future.”

 

“I do trust you and I know I want to be with you forever,” he responded swiftly.  “It’s just…it’s like you said yesterday, about why you didn’t tell Craig and Adam you’re gay.  You said you trusted them, but you were still afraid they would treat you differently and that fear was enough to keep you quiet.”

 

“You were afraid I’d reject you?” I asked.

 

“No,” he replied, shuffling towards me.  “I mean, I guess I was, but I trusted you.  I wanted you tell you…I just couldn’t find the words.  Please don’t hate me.  I know you probably don’t want to be with me after this, but…”

 

“Who said I didn’t want to be with you?” I asked, reaching out, brushing my fingers across his face.

 

“Then you do?” he asked, his eyes filled with hope.

 

“I love you so much,” I whispered to him.  “I can’t pretend I’m not annoyed you didn’t tell me sooner, but I guess I can understand.  Hell, before last night I probably would’ve thought you were crazy if you had said anything.  As for what you are…I’m not going to lie.  I’m pretty freaked out right now and it’s going to take me some time to deal with all this.  I know I’m supposed to say I love you and nothing else matters, but as true as that might be I still need time to think about this, about us.”

 

“But there’s a chance you’ll be able to accept me now you know?” he asked.

 

“There’s more than a chance,” I answered, stroking his cheek.  “I guess I should be…I don’t know…horrified?  All I know is that when I looked into your eyes last night, when you were that…thing, I didn’t see a monster.  Maybe on some level I knew it was you, but I felt safe.  Scared shitless, but safe, if that makes sense.  I mean, you did save me after all.”

 

“I guess I did,” he smiled.

 

“You didn’t…I mean…”

 

“They all got back to the road safely,” he grinned.  “Ellis took off in the car, leaving the other three to run down the road after him.”

 

“Good,” I sighed.  “I thought maybe you’d eaten them or something.”

 

“Ewww,” he grimaced.  “Credit me with some taste.  I may be a werewolf, but I’m a gay werewolf.”

 

I smiled at him, certain as I looked into his eyes that no matter what, no matter how difficult it was, I was never going to let him get away.  “I love you,” I whispered.

 

“Love you too,” he beamed.  “So we’re gonna be ok?”

 

“We are,” I confirmed, “but baby, you’ve got to be honest with me.  There’s nothing else you’re hiding from me is there?”

 

Kyle winced.  “There is one thing.”

 

“What?” I asked, my heart sinking.

 

“Cher,” he muttered.  “I’m sorry baby, but I love her music.  I hid my CD collection from you every time you came around, but if we’re being completely honest…”

 

“Shit,” I sighed.  “You know, I could probably have dealt with all the werewolf stuff in time, but Cher…I’m sorry, but you’ve just pushed me too far.”

 

I shook my head, determined to keep a straight face, but the moment our eyes met I couldn’t hold back any longer.  A smile spread across my face as he leaned towards me, as his lips brushed gently against mine.

 

 


 

 

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