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The Masked and the Monstrous
I hope anyone who struggles to interact with people and make friends will feel seen by this story. You are not defective or a failure because you’re different.
Grayscale landscapes passed by in a blur, only colored by the occasional passing car. Robin slouched back against the stiff seat and stared intently at the passing trees, slowly picking at her nails. The bus was quiet, apart from the monotonous growl of the engine and the occasional sound of a woman up front flipping a page of a newspaper. Normally she’d be pleased with the lack of noise, but today it gave her mind too much space to think. She glanced at her watch again. No, she wouldn’t be late. She’d probably be a few minutes early and have to wait for Audrey at the entrance. It would be fine.
The bus jerked to a stop as it reached a gas station and pizza place with faded paint and dingy signs. It was seemingly the last remnant of town before forest took over, lining the wide road tightly on either side. A few gravel roads split off here and there, probably to detached cabins, but for the most part, it seemed like a ghost town. The parking lot behind the bus stop was large, as if it expected to draw crowds, but its empty expanse only made the businesses look more hopeless.
When Audrey said her uncle’s cabin was near a state park, Robin imagined something a little more… populated. Unnerved, she grabbed her backpack from her feet and hurried to the front, where the driver was staring impatiently back at her in the rearview mirror.
“Sorry,” Robin muttered, glancing away from her piercing eyes, and pivoted to hide a shudder. She tightened her grip on the straps of her backpack and jumped hastily down to the curb. A crisp wind hit her and she stumbled a few steps, vision obscured by her wild, dirty-blonde locks. Scowling, she pushed them away from her eyes and scanned her surroundings.
One of the passengers from the bus disappeared into the restaurant, hand in hand with her small son. The other had already set off down the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. Releasing a small sigh, Robin followed her lead. The park entrance was only supposed to be a quarter mile past the gas station. Then Audrey would pick her up and handle getting to the cabin.
As she walked, she tried to unclench her teeth and relax her face. The kids in her class did things like this all the time. They could drive now, so why not go places by themselves and hang out with friends? It was normal. Not a cause for worry. Even still, Robin’s pulse pounded in her ears. She had no idea what made Audrey think she of all people would be a good person to hang out with. Even worse, she hadn’t figured out what she was supposed to do once she got there yet. At this rate she was going to embarrass herself and end up the friendless weirdo again. Not that she cared.
A sudden crunching of gravel made her look up. The woman with the cigarette ambled onto a twisting driveway and around the corner, vanishing behind the trees. Her footsteps faded, and an unfamiliar silence settled over the empty road. No sounds or traces of human existence; nothing but the whistling wind and swishing trees. Robin quickened her pace, goosebumps rising on the back of her arms. She felt oddly vulnerable and exposed with just herself, the street, and the earth.
At last a lamppost appeared ahead, its warm light flickering uncertainly against the thick gray clouds smothering the sky. Just beyond it, a road interrupted the sidewalk, this one paved. That had to be it. Her paranoia eased as the parking lot came into view. With it came the quiet sound of music—indiscernible, but definitely human. She paused a moment to steady her breathing and adjust her expression, then crossed over the strip of withered grass to the marked pavement. The sole vehicle, parked near the corner with the headlights still on, was a maroon car she recognized as the one Audrey drove to school.
Approaching it slowly, Robin gave a stiff wave and headed for the passenger’s side. She started to reach for the handle, but something in the window made her pull up short.
Any relief she had felt before was gone, replaced with a sinking dread. Somebody else was sitting in that seat, some girl she didn’t recognize. She was leaning forward with her elbow on her knee, head turned to face Audrey, though her perfectly straight brown hair obscured any view of her face. The pulse of music drowned out whatever conversation they were having, but they were apparently too engrossed in it to notice her presence.
Robin stood frozen, debating whether she should knock on the window or escape unnoticed while she still had the chance. But what would she do then? The bus would be far gone by now, and night would fall soon. Walking all the way home by herself would be very long. And lonely.
Tires squealed and she jumped back, wincing in pain. Headlights cast her shadow in front of her, shrinking it as the car rolled up beside her. The windows screeched down and a square-faced boy with dark brown curls stuck his head out to look back at her. “What are you doing, stalking them?”
She scrunched up her face and glared in his direction, searching for an acceptable explanation. “Uh… no.”
He kept staring, making her skin burn and her heart pound anxiously. The doors of Audrey’s car cracked open, and he glanced away, if only for a second. “Hey, uh, Mabel, do you know who this creep is? She’s just been standing out here watching you guys.”
The brunette girl—Mabel—got out, frowning at Robin when she saw her. “No… I don’t know who that is.”
Audrey hurried around the front of the car and chuckled, but it didn’t sound like a real laugh. “Oh, don’t worry, Jaden; that’s just Robin. She’s in my history class.”
The boy, Jaden, raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Never heard of her.”
In the awkward silence that followed Robin studied the trees behind them, pretending she wasn’t the subject of this horrible interaction.
“Well, she’s pretty reserved,” Audrey said slowly. “I didn’t know she was actually coming, so I didn’t think to mention her.”
Jaden and Mabel looked at her silently for a beat, then the boy shrugged, turning off his car. “Okaaay then. Should we get going?”
Robin’s stomach tightened, but she stayed silent. Audrey gave her a perturbing look. “Yeah, all of us who still want to go.”
Jaden climbed out of his car, followed by a girl with short blonde hair and a tall, scrawny boy from the back. Of course there had to be more of them. Robin watched warily as they slung backpacks over their shoulders and talked over each other, already seemingly forgetting about her. They clearly knew each other well and had planned this whole thing together. Somehow Audrey failed to mention that part when she invited her.
The friends pulled out flashlights and strolled toward a road leading into the forest, marked by a big wooden sign with a map. Robin hesitated. This wasn’t what she agreed to in the slightest.
Audrey looked back and sighed, gesturing for everyone to stop. “Are you coming or not?”
She glanced back at the road. Maybe she could scrape together enough coins to use a phone at the gas station and call her mom to pick her up. No, that would be stupid. She was already here; she’d look pathetic backing out now. And then her only chance at being part of a group would be gone.
“Yeah,” she muttered, reluctantly shuffling after them. The feeling in the pit of her stomach deepened as she left the parked cars behind and followed them onto the narrow forest road. It stretched slightly inclined as far as she could see, shadowed by the thick masses of swaying trees on either side. Why are we walking to the cabin instead of driving? What are they planning on doing there anyway? The questions buzzed impatiently in her mind, but she held them back. They’d just draw more attention to her, and that was the last thing she wanted. The best chance of not embarrassing herself was usually to just shut up and go along with it.
Chewing angrily on her lip, she fought the urge to look back and kept trudging forward. Not fast enough to be part of their cluster, but just enough to avoid being completely left behind. The temperature was already dropping; a sort of prickly dampness hung in the air. She tugged on the sleeves of her flannel at the sudden chill and squeezed them tightly over her numb fingers. Sparing a look up at the others, she noted that they were wearing thicker jackets and layers. Well prepared, as expected. Their flashlight beams bounced around the path along with their echoing conversation. It was useless to even attempt to pretend she was one of them at this point. Still, she tried to edge closer to hear what they were talking about.
“...totally gives me weird vibes,” Jaden said in a failed attempt at a hushed voice. “I can’t believe you were crazy enough to invite her. Seems like signing up for your own murder to me.”
The girls—and the lanky boy—snickered. “You should’ve seen how terrified she looked when we showed up. Caught red handed,” the blondie whispered. “I can’t believe she didn’t make a run for it. Maybe she’s planning to try again.”
Robin quickly averted her eyes and plastered on an oblivious expression, pretending to be fascinated by the clouds. Right on cue, they turned their heads to sneak a peek back at her. Apparently not expecting to find her so close, they snapped back around to hide their startled looks and suppressed laughter. Robin let the irritated scowl fall back on her face and dropped her eyes to her feet.
Idiots, she thought, kicking a stray rock into the woods. But underneath the bitter armor, she felt the hole in her chest tear open a bit wider. No matter how much she tried to convince herself that she didn’t care about the people who rejected her anyway, it was hard to discount them when they all came to the same conclusion. That she was a weird, unwanted loser.
Their voices drifted away, and she found herself stuck in her tracks. It would be better to just turn around and go home. She would be doing them all a favor. And walking alone in the dark would be less miserable than spending the whole night listening to them speculate about her.
Just as she started to turn, a loud, sudden crunch resonated through the forest.
Crows burst from the treetops, cawing and flapping their wings frantically. Robin’s heartbeat quickened as she whipped around. But no one was in sight.
“Ha ha. Very funny,” she called shakily, bracing for Audrey and her friends to jump out from behind the trees cackling triumphantly. Several long moments passed in silence. “Hello?”
Great. It was probably just a squirrel, and now she was standing there talking to thin air like a fool.
Except it sounded much too loud and heavy to be a normal animal.
Instinctively, she reversed back in the direction of the group. She could still catch up to them if she hurried. Maybe they wouldn’t think she was a creepy psycho if she warned them there might be a wild animal prowling around. Maybe they were actually really nice and would like her if she could just prove herself to be more like them.
That’s what she told herself as she strode as fast as she could without running, trying to put her mountain of worries behind her. It was getting harder and harder to see, but the path remained a lighter gray against the darkness on either side. One step at a time. Just focus on steps, she urged herself. She’d find them soon, and they’d have flashlights. There was no need to get freaked out.
Another crunch, followed by a snap, snap snap.
She broke into a jog, panic getting the best of her.
This was so stupid. Why didn’t they take the cars? Maybe getting creeped out was fun for them, since they were traveling in a pack. But it didn’t feel like a game when you were the one all on your own.
Breathing. She could hear them breathing ahead. They must be really close. She let her steps slow as she came to a bend in the path. They were probably waiting for her to catch up on the other side.
Before she could make the turn, hands grabbed her wrists from behind and jerked her backward.
A strangled cry of alarm escaped her as she stumbled back. Pain shot through her shoulders. Frantically she tried to wrangle herself away, but the rough-fabriced gloves tightened their grip. Over the rapid thumping of her pulse in her ears, a man’s heavy breathing was all she could hear.
The sound paralyzed her, smothering her brain’s urgent pleas to scream for help. Terror wrapped around her throat like a snake slowly securing its prey. She planted her feet and pushed her body weight in the opposite direction, but it was useless. Whoever was behind her was strong—strong enough to knock her off her feet. She scrambled helplessly, but any chance at escape was quickly disappearing. The snake squeezed tighter, suffocating her as she watched her body be dragged off the road.
They were plunged into darkness. She couldn’t see where they were going, but her senses bombarded her on all sides. Pine boughs struck her in the face while barbed undergrowth scraped at exposed skin. Their struggling forms crashed through leaves, the sound filling her ears like roaring static. Tears stung her eyes as a wave of nausea hit her.
“Help,” she tried to yell, but it came out in a breathless rasp. She sucked in a deep breath. This was her last chance. “HELP. AUDREY, SOMEBODY, PLEASE—”
Her attacker grunted as he lifted her by the wrists, setting her back on her feet just long enough to wrap one arm around her waist and clasp the other hand over her mouth. The glove rubbed against her face like sandpaper. She gritted her teeth as he scooped her up off the ground and continued trekking deeper into the woods. His arm dug painfully into her ribcage and she doubled forward limply.
The hand on her face fell away. Gasping for air, she strained to hear someone—anyone—coming after her. Calling her name. Searching for her.
Silence was her only answer.
There was nobody. Nobody noticed when Robin stopped following them. Nobody went back to look for her. Nobody was around to hear her desperate screams. Nobody was coming to help her.
She was all alone, at the complete disposal of a kidnapper who had a whole dark forest to use as his playground. Nobody would find her body or know what happened to her. They probably wouldn’t even care.
The fight suddenly went out of her. She should’ve known it would end this way. She was the outsider, the invisible passerby, the abandoned “friend.” Even if she spent her whole life tagging along with new groups, putting on an act and pretending to be one of them, she’d always be alone. There was no way to fool herself otherwise anymore. Not when faced with the cold, empty reality that in the end, no one really cared.
A tranquil lake appeared through the trees, its dark surface illuminated only by the moon’s dim reflection. Her captor trudged slowly but steadily toward it.
Robin’s heart skidded to a stop. This was it. He was going to kill her.
He stopped when they reached the edge of the clearing, where all that awaited was the lake and its muddy rim. Wordlessly, her captor dropped her. She thudded to the ground in a heap, her backpack sliding off her back. Ignoring the pain igniting each of her bones, she shoved herself back to her feet and staggered forward, putting as much distance between them as she could.
Maybe he had succeeded in choosing the perfect target, a girl who nobody would miss until it was too late. But she couldn’t just accept death and let him win. Being on her own wasn’t an excuse to give up.
Balling her trembling hands into fists, she spun to face her attacker in one last act of defiance. For the first time, her glaring eyes met his.
Only, his appearance didn’t strike terror in her like she expected. The man was tall, but his limbs were spindly and quaking from the effort of dragging her. His eyes were dark and glassy, but they were shadowed by the crudely cut fabric of a black ski mask.
He was a monster, so twisted he was willing to kill a kid for his own enjoyment, but he was also joltingly human. A man so broken and sick that he resorted to hiding under the cover of a mask and dark forest in an attempt to fulfill whatever he was lacking in life.
He was just as desperate and vulnerable as her.
They both moved at once, breaking from the stare down. Robin took off toward his left, aiming for the path back to the road, just as he shot forward. Their bodies collided, but the man’s hit hers with greater force. She reeled back, her surroundings spinning uncontrollably around her. Before she could react, the ground beneath her began to slip away. The mud. But it was too late. She toppled over into the lake.
She plunged to the bottom faster than expected. The water splashed around her, spraying her face with grittiness. It was frigid, numbing her to her core. But she could still breathe; she was still in the shallow.
There was no time to think before the man lunged forward again, his hands finding her shoulders and dunking her back. Robin sucked in a futile breath before her head went under. Icy darkness submerged her. Clamping her lips shut, she held the oxygen tightly in her chest and kicked, pummeling the body above the surface with renewed strength. This couldn’t be the end. She wouldn’t let it.
The grip on her shoulders loosened, if only by a notch, and she took her chance. Her hands shot out of the water and wrapped securely around his arms. Pushing herself deeper into the lake, she yanked him down with her.
The man tumbled and crashed face first into the water above her. He reared and flailed, struggled to pull from her grasp and regain control—but her hold was vise-like. Curling her fingers, she dug her nails into his skin like claws and twisted.
Inch by inch, she rotated forward until she was the one leaning over him. She was vaguely aware of his shoes pounding against her shins, but she ignored it. The upper hand was all hers now. Her feet planted on his chest, and using her last bit of power, she dropped his wrists and thrust herself upward.
Her lungs ached as she broke through the surface coughing and wheezing. But there was no time to stop and catch her breath. Blinking the stinging water from her eyes, she fixed her sight on the blurry shore and dove forward with frantic strokes. If she started running before he made it up for air, maybe she could lose him.
Her outstretched hands met the muddy bank a brief moment before she threw herself over to dry ground, landing panting and shaking. The heaviness of her waterlogged body threatened to keep her pinned down, but a sudden splash spurred her to her feet. Time to go.
As she dashed for the thick woods to her left, the masked man hissed a curse. She didn’t let herself hesitate or look back. Her legs took her faster than she knew they were capable, refusing to slow at the branches that stabbed and scraped and threatened to trip her. Adrenaline pounded in her veins, and the will to survive burned a little hotter in her chest.
She had only been sprinting for a few minutes when she unexpectedly burst free from the trees, nearly running straight into the side of a house. No… a cabin. Muffled music drummed through the walls, matching with the racing tempo of her heart. Backing away, she ignored the muddled emotions whirling inside her and circled around to the other side of the cabin. A barren front porch held nothing but curtained windows and a chipped burgundy door. To the side, an overhang hid a rusted car on a patch of gravel connecting to a pavement road.
This had to be Audrey’s uncle’s place. Meaning she and her friends were in there partying and carefree, despite Robin’s sudden disappearance in the forest. They were probably eager to assume she had just gone back home and continue their fun without her.
Robin felt no desire to join them or chase after them anymore. But she strode determinedly up to the front door and rapped her knuckles loudly on the wood. They may have been cruel and selfish enough to leave her behind, but she wouldn’t be the same kind of person they were. She couldn’t leave them alone and unaware of a killer nearby, even if they’d hurt her. Bitterness and pain weren’t an excuse to become a monster.
She waited for several long moments, anxiously tapping her fingers at her sides. Her soaked clothes dripped steadily onto the floorboards, audible even over the music. The door stayed shut. She glanced away from the house to scan the surrounding forest. Wind stirred the trees, waving their branches like skeletal fingers, but nothing else moved in the shadows. Why wasn’t he following? Unease prickled her skin. It wasn’t safe to linger out here.
Swallowing the fear that urged her to run, she knocked again and leaned close to the door. “Guys, are you in there?” Her voice echoed uncomfortably loudly. And yet they still didn’t answer.
A quiet pitter-patter rose over the music and wind. Crap. Rain had begun to sprinkle from the sky. Giving up on them, she hurried over to the overhang and examined the car beneath it. It wasn’t in the best state, but maybe it’d still drive. It was worth a try.
She tugged on the handle of the driver’s door. It swung open easily. Surprised, she carefully climbed in and searched for a key. The car was stuffed with scattered papers and crumpled up trash, but she quickly spotted it lying in clear sight on the passenger seat.
Shoving the key in the ignition, she snapped on the seatbelt and held down the brake with her soggy sneaker. Driving wasn’t her strong suit, but she could do it when necessary. And now was certainly necessary. She released a shaky breath as she put the car into drive and eased off the pedal. The car rolled forward, out of the safety of the overhang and into the growing storm.
Sweat dampened her hands; she squeezed the steering wheel, panic buzzing in her chest. Keep calm. You’re almost out of here. The dim headlights glimmered sporadically off the sheets of rain, and she tried to focus on her surroundings. Every few seconds her eyes darted to the rearview mirror, but no human form came running out from the darkness behind her. Everything was eerily still.
She nudged the gas a little harder, her entire body on edge. A yellow glow appeared ahead, hazy through the downpour. For a moment she questioned whether it was actually there or just a desperate hallucination. But the orb grew larger, materializing into a familiar lamppost. Relief flooded her as she drank in the blessed sight of the parking lot. This time, its openness felt like a promise of safety. She was going to get out of here.
Slowing down as the car rumbled down the slope, Robin got a better look at the lot. Rain bounced off the gray pavement, uniform and unremarkable. But a black shape in the center of the exit snagged her attention.
The car emerged from the forest. Creeping forward, its headlights illuminated it: a small puddle trembling in a crater of cracked concrete. But it was only after she’d sped past it that she processed what the tattered object floating on the surface was.
An abandoned black ski mask.