They started digging.
See, at first it was just one of the miniature men in a boy's disguise, he originally picked up a twig and he started to dig, and when his stick broke he merely grabbed a larger one. He poked and prodded at the dirt and the grime and revealed a layer of clay and even though his makeshift tools continually snapped, he just kept coming back with larger and larger sticks. Sooner or later, they all had their fill of unearthing the earth and the hole grew to sizeable proportions.
They didn't know what they were digging for.
There were five of them. Four of these were adolescent men, and one pubescent, loud and colorful girl. She could hold her own and theirs. The forest was one of the magical places that they all escaped to. They discovered their hiding place in late summer and retreated faithfully each and every day after school.
In the fall the rain started to fall and their hole, now six feet deep, filled with water. She was the first to jump in it, and the green food coloring from her braids soaked upon her skin and made her look like a swamp monster, as it mixed with the black she used to outline her eyes, and these four all glimpsed touches of black and green permanently decorating her skin that wasn't going to wash off.
She was their little sister, their mascot, their love affair, their paramour, developing in front of them and so oblivious. Any of these boys could have had her at any moment. But for now they just watched the colors she dripped as she jumped in the hole they had spent so long digging. And when she was done being sad, they hoisted her out and gave her a towel and some hot chocolate.
They taught her how to smoke pot. How to really get high, inhale properly, hold it in, let it out, and that coughing is good. The first few times she didn't speak much, just stared at spider webs in a silent wonder, and listening to the birds sing their songs. They were content to just watch her fascination and the look in her eyes that made them think that she was at some sort of peace.
The snow came and laid the ground to rest and covered it with a soft blanket, freezing the entire world underneath them and nothing in their hole would budge. If they brushed away the frozen flakes they found a frozen lake that lay at their feet, but nobody dared jump into the hole this time. They surrounded themselves around it and dangled their feet inside while passing around the pipes, joints, or if brave, a bong. She was now always the first to pack a bowl. They noticed the black around her eyes looking heavier and more thickly-lined. She was always wiping at her eyes and smearing it, but the black never went anywhere.
Eventually the cold got to them and they would head into the basements of one of their houses and dine upon rice cakes and gulps of milk and somebody would strum a guitar casually while the television echoed lightly in the background. She would zone out and she would fall asleep, and these four men would watch her innocent body as her chest took long and gasping breaths and coat her in a blanket and turn off the lights. No phones ever rang to demand why she'd broken curfew, again.
She spent the winter on one of their couches, shivering and afraid of something.
The forest is full of monsters and things that go bump-in-the-night, the things hiding underneath your bed and in your closet. As the days and weeks and months dragged on, it became clear to the four of them that she was hiding monsters underneath her skin.
One day in May the sun came out to play. She'd shed her skin and started daring to wear skimpy clothing and they all saw the damage that had been done, her body decorated in an array of colors, fading and fresh bruises. She was a mess of hues – blue eyes tinged a permanent red, always lined in black and blue, green fingers wrapped around her wrists lined in a sickening ochre, hair that she used to enjoy dying green was now stained black to match her moods, pale skinny white legs frozen red and now dappled in bruises as well. All of the colors that she had hid so well with layers of clothing; she now showed them off proudly, she could trust these men.
She strode through the forest full of confidence where others would be afraid, just to prove she could hold her own and theirs, and they held her hands. They stopped for their obligatory smoke break. They hoisted her up on to two sets of shoulders and told her not to scream. They got her good and stoned so she wouldn't be afraid. They had leftover ropes dangling from their pockets.
She was paraded around as a queen throughout the woods for a good while before they finally dropped her to the ground and she fell to her already scraped knees and enjoyed being high and looking at the sun peeking out through the trees still covered in snowy-tops. They removed the rope in case restraints were needed. They pulled her to her feet and forced her to walk with them for a few more yards and again, made her promise not to scream for help as she held her hands over her eyes.
In a slight clearing, void from snow, green grass was peeking through and they led her through the opening, two in front, and two behind, boxing her in the middle. They told her to open her eyes.
There was a monster tied to a tree, a monster in the disguise of a grown man she had once grown to trust. His mouth was covered but she could hear his grunts and she plugged her ears and vomited at the sight of him. They handed her a stick, a leftover one that they had once used as a shovel, and she gripped it firmly in her hands as she faced this monster.
She painted him as he had to her. She hit him and heard a crack, it could have been the stick or his nose, but blood flowed freely and the sun shone on her face as the tears flowed and she beat him mercilessly. The monster grunted and cried and when she was done she dropped the stick and ran back to the comfort of the four of them. They sparked a joint and let her inhale what she needed to feel okay.
One of them picked up the stick and had his way with him. Bones were shattered as this monster stood helplessly tied to a tree, accepting his defeat. Then the next. And another.
One by one, they each took their turns decorating this monster's body in the same color bruises he had been inflicting on her for months now, possibly even for longer than they had known her. As the sun started to set his bruises were becoming more visible, even in the dark. He hung his head in defeat and begged with his eyes for his life.
The four boys untied him from the tree, he was too weak to fight back and the extra ropes, no longer necessary, still hung from their pockets. They lifted him above their shoulders, as they had previously to her, and carried him. They carried him throughout the woods to a very special place that the five of them used to haunt faithfully.
Their hole that had grown to dynamic proportions was no longer filled with snow and ice, but instead a thin layer of mud splattered upon the five of their faces and mixed with the blood of a monster as they threw him inside of it. One of the boys handed her a shovel and she shook her head and picked up a pile of earth with her hands and threw it inside. Each of them followed suit and the monster lay inside his grave with wide eyes and broken bones.
She paused and the four stopped throwing dirt and rocks as well.
The silence stretched on for forever before she finally broke it.
"Burn in hell." She declared, before scooping a large pile of dirt upon his face. He could no longer breathe and no longer torment her. Within the hour the grave was filled and the sun had set. The five of them stood no longer around, but now upon, the grave of a monster and smoked a joint while he suffocated underneath, buried alive. She smoked her first and only cigarette right there as he died underneath her.
They knew their way out of the forest without lighters. They lifted her upon their shoulders and paraded her out of the darkness and into the glow of streetlights, the five of them covered in blood, dirt, sweat, and tears. They knew now that all of their demons had been laid to rest.
Four boys and one girl had entered the forest the fall before, and that spring emerged four men and one grown woman. She could hold her own, and theirs as well. She was still decorated in the colors of her tormentor's abuse, but these would fade in time. Slowly, the meat would begin to grow back upon her emaciated body and she would start to grow into a woman's body to match the heart and head that she had donned since her torture had begun. She would grow up.
They would make sure of it. Their little mascot, their little sister, their paramour, their love. They would help her grow and form into the person that she could be.
Within a few weeks the five of them ventured out to the woods and stood upon the grave, none of the dirt disturbed, and no trace of a decomposed stench.
In only six weeks her bruises had nearly faded away completely. Her arms held more muscle and her legs more girth, a once-sunken stomach now was slightly rounded. Her eyes that were once lined in black were free of all traces of makeup, and her slightly tanned face shone bright in the sun as her eyes sparkled, staring fascinated at the wonder of the rebirth of the earth around her. Birds sang in the trees and spiders spun their webs.
One of them pulled out a joint and lit it and passed it around. When it reached her, she instinctively grabbed towards it to take a nice long toke, but instead looked around at the wonder of the world around her. She passed it on.
As she stood upon the demons that had once possessed her soul, she realized she no longer had anything to escape from or to. The past was the past and could no longer haunt her. She never needed to come back to this place again.
The four of them understood and tossed the joint and ground out the rest of it with their feet.
This time, she led the way out of the darkness and upon the street, they were content to follow her anywhere and never dream of stealing her crown. When they got to the asphalt she turned around with a big white grin, the first time they had ever seen her genuinely happy.
The five of them shared a secret, and a linked connection that would follow them to their own graves. They were bound by the things that they knew and had done, and the four of them would do anything to protect her and keep her safe, their mascot, their paramour, their best friend, their little sister.
They would make sure the sun was always shining in her world from here on out.