“You never wait to see if it’s really dead,” says Samantha, leaning over the small arsenal configured in pristine rows on the linoleum. “Because, you know, it isn’t. You just put it down for however long, and you run. You try to make it to a new place before it gets back up.” Her voice is casual, conversational, friendly. She might as well be discussing a particularly esoteric hobby, trying to recruit new participants, but not trying too hard. She picks up one of the Molotov cocktails and sniffs the rag. “What, did you soak this in gasoline?”
“Well, yeah,” says Nikki. “I mean, was I not supposed to?”
Samantha shrugs. “I mean, whatever, it’ll be fine, probably.” She sets the Molotov down on the kitchen floor and starts reconstructing her field-stripped Kahr CM9, her fingers juggling the components of the handgun with precise and practiced thoughtlessness. “I’ve always soaked the rag in alcohol or kerosene. Filled the bottle with gasoline. Come to think, I’m not sure why I’ve always done it like that. Read it on the internet, probably.”
A sense of anxious uselessness blooms up from Nikki’s guts and spreads in her chest. Watching Samantha do this stuff, watching her slam together pieces of little death machines and listening to her expound on best practices when building homemade incendiaries, seeing the shiny burn scars that peek out from beneath the collar of her shirt, trophies of the times she has survived, it all makes Nikki feel like a child. This isn’t her kitchen. It’s not anybody’s kitchen. It’s a tiny kitchenette in an extended-stay hotel, another place that doesn’t belong to her. How long is she supposed to live like this?
“Now, what the pros do—I mean, not pros, exactly, but serious revolutionaries, you know—they fill the bottle with… shit, I can’t remember. Anyway, they fill the bottle with one kind of chemical and wrap the bottle in paper soaked with another kind. Can’t remember the chemicals now—ugh—so dumb. When the bottle breaks, the chemical in the bottle reacts with the chemical on the paper, and boom.” She sets the CM9 aside, picks up her sports bottle of lemonade and takes a long drink. Offers it to Nikki. Nikki wants it. She’s been parched all evening. But she says no. Some part of her doesn’t want Samantha to give her anything. Some part of her is afraid of what happens to people when they become Samantha’s friends.
Samantha’s already back at it, picking up weapons, checking them for whatever it is people who know weapons look for, setting them back down. “Oh, and if you mix the gasoline with egg whites, it’ll stick to concrete and burn longer. That’s a cool idea, I think. Really solves a problem I wouldn’t even have thought about. I love stuff like that.”
Nikki says, “We’re not throwing them at concrete.”
“Well,” says Samantha, “we’re not revolutionaries, either. And, um, my advice? Find things you like to talk about. Learn how to talk about them without stopping. It helps.”
Nikki doesn’t say anything.
It doesn’t happen to everyone. Not that many people even know about it. Most people who deal with it walk around their whole lives thinking they’re the only one. Sometimes, they die before they ever get a chance to form complex opinions. Sometimes, they survive for decades and never meet anyone else like them. But sometimes, they run into a thread on a message board or discover a lonely hearts ad in the back of a local weekly constructed with just the right level of esoteric specificity to mean absolutely nothing to anyone who doesn’t know what it’s like. Sometimes, someone else just recognizes the dark hollows around their eyes and the way they keep glancing at all the exits.
That was what it was like with Samantha and Nikki. There was this bar, this super high-class place where dudes wore suits and ordered clear drinks and discussed stupid boring shit in practiced newscaster tones. Nikki didn’t notice at the time just how out of place Samantha seemed in there, with her plaid shirt and the paisley bandana barricading her short hair off her forehead. Remembering it, that’s all she can think about. How conspicuous she looked.
She’d almost forgotten her name at that point. Weeks after the thing had done what it had done to her friends and family, weeks of driving, of whittling away at her meager savings, of trying and failing to sleep, of showing up in new cities and wandering aimlessly, putting herself in places filled with happy functional people in the hopes that their pristine fearlessness would inoculate her from what had happened ever happening again.
She’d sat down at a corner booth and pulled Brett’s North Face jacket close to her face, tried to inhale whatever was left of his scent. It just smelled like sweat and gas station food. Every time glasses clinked or one of the coiffed suits laughed a little too loud, she cringed and whimpered.
And then Samantha was sitting next to her, sliding into the booth with expert gentleness, placing a bottle of beer in front of her. “Hey,” she said.
“Um,” Nikki said. “Hey.”
“Got you a drink,” said Samantha.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“You just look like you could use one.”
Nikki picked up the beer absently. Muscle memory. For a while, Samantha just sat there, nodding in time to the opulent blare of brass instruments in whatever Rat Pack tune was playing through the sound system. Glancing at Nikki, appraising her. Then, she said, “What’d yours look like?”
It took Nikki longer than it should have to process the meaning of those words. When she did, some ragged hybrid of terror and hope gripped her by the ribcage and she made eye contact with Samantha.
Samantha nodded, offered a sympathetic half-smile. I know. You’re not the only one. It’s okay.
“Skin like… I dunno, like beef jerky.” The tears. The panic hitching in her lungs, fucking with her breathing. “Tall. There were, um… always lightning bugs. Fireflies. Wore a… like, a mask.”
“They usually do,” said Samantha.
The Glock 19 scares Nikki. It feels so unbearably natural in her hands, a statement of purpose, a promise. She thinks of all the things she knows about guns now that she didn’t know before. The ergonomics of the grip, the debates within the firearm enthusiast community between autoloader advocates and revolver fans, recoil and the ways to minimize it, Weaver stance, isosceles stance, blah blah blah. She thinks about her stance, tries not to think about the pinch and ache of the protective earmuffs. She tries to keep her muscles loose, fails.
Firing ranges don’t look like they do on cop shows. They’re brightly lit and busy. Undramatic. But her target—a white sheet, a vague implied man-shape—is just about the same. It feels strange to be aiming at something with mundane human dimensions and trying to imagine it as the thing from which she’s running. Like training to become a surgeon by applying Band-Aids to papercuts.
She fires six shots, hits a button, watches the white sheet proceed down its ceiling track toward her. She pulls off the earmuffs.
Samantha leans against the wall of Nikki’s booth and scrolls over something on her phone. “This girl on one of the message boards,” says Samantha. “She thinks they’re some sort of gods. Listen to this: ‘Something is controlling them. Someone. They’re being summoned, they have to be. And we’re the fuel that keeps them in this dimension. Without our blood and our fear, they can’t manifest.’ How do you like that, Nikki? Purty spooky.”
Nikki examines the holes in the target. “God, I suck,” she says.
“Doesn’t make sense to me,” says Samantha. “They’re so fucking clumsy. It’s not, um… I don’t know… not clinical enough to be ritualistic.”
Three shots over the left shoulder, passing cleanly through fuck-all. One in the left shoulder. Two in the left arm. Nothing to the chest or head.
Samantha speaks again, ostensibly to Nikki but apparently to her phone. “I met this woman a couple years ago who had worked out this big elaborate theory that we were film characters. Like, each from a different franchise or property or whatever. That the reason they don’t ever stay down is because somebody keeps writing sequels. I like that one. It’s so fucking meta. I mean, whatever, who knows if it’s true, but you gotta admire that kind of abstract reasoning.”
Nikki is only half listening. It’s always like this. Nikki constantly tense and anxious, constantly waiting for everything to go to shit again, and Samantha scouring every available source for something to fill the silence with. Her voice has become a weird comfort, the third member of their partnership. When they sleep, Nikki always tries to drift off first. If she doesn’t, she won’t sleep all night. The silence feels like a sucking void.
“I don’t like that one,” she says. “I don’t like, um… being diminished like that. All this for someone else’s entertainment.”
Samantha shrugs. “It’s only a theory,” she says.
Most girls who survive, they’re usually the only ones. That’s how you know it’s there for you and not for your friends. The pattern is always the same the first time it comes. It saves you for last. Lets you escape a few times. Plays with you, satisfying itself with whomever you’ve surrounded yourself with in the meantime. Your parents. Your friends. Your boyfriend. And then it starts hunting you in earnest. The process sometimes lasts weeks, but typically plays out over the course of a single evening. According to the message boards, there have been a lot of incidents that seem like they fit the usual pattern in which the target dies with the rest of them, and they’re the subject of heated debate. Who was the target? Why didn’t she survive like we did? Is this really one of ours, or is it unrelated? Can we learn anything from it?
Truth is, you can’t learn anything. Ever. There aren’t any answers.
Nikki never stops smelling it. Manure, wet asphalt, baby powder, bonfire smoke, the ripe sweetness of garbage long past needing to be taken out. That scent has haunted her since the moment it loomed over her in the unfinished basement of her parents’ house, its smiling baby-doll mask so close to her face that she could see that it wasn’t a mask at all, could see the way it pulsed and rippled as alien musculature clenched and unclenched beneath it. She forgot about the fireplace poker in her hands. The stink overpowered the smell of Brett’s blood, which was all over her and had been all she’d been able to smell for hours. In retrospect, that seemed like a reprieve. In a lot of ways, she’d rather be haunted by the ghost of that thing’s scent than by the ghost of Brett’s last scent. She wants to remember the way he smelled before. Cigarettes and a little too much cologne. The way his jacket smelled before she ruined it with fear sweat.
Down in the basement, it strained its overlong neck closer to her, cocked its head to one side, like it didn’t quite understand her, like it was personally wounded by her refusal to die. A single firefly crawled out of one of its eyeholes, floated in the tiny space between them, glowed once, then flew away. Nine feet tall, all of its limbs absurdly long, hunched like a very old man to keep from scraping its head against ceiling beams, clutching her father’s big straight razor like an ape that happened upon a tool it didn’t understand. Her father had loved that razor. Kept it sharp. Took good care of it. Inherited it from mom’s dad when he passed.
She was all out of tears. All out of screams. Empty except for a panicked understanding that her life had winnowed down to a stark binary: she would either die tonight or another night. That’s all there was. All there ever would be. When it raised the absurd disproportionate fist that clutched the razor, she stabbed it in the belly with the fireplace poker. From the wound flew hundreds of fireflies.
The stable is on fire, the thing that hunts Samantha is on fire, and Nikki can’t stop looking at the flames, twitching, swelling, thrashing. The heat evaporates her tears before they can slide down her cheeks. At the fire’s core, the thing slumps to its knees, stops waving its thickly muscled arms above its head, falls over sideways, is still. Samantha’s monster at the climax of her latest sequel. Nikki does not look at the burning thing. She does not breathe. There is only the fire, slowly making its way up the wooden beams, consuming this evening’s hiding spot, consuming Nikki’s awareness, filling her with numb disgust. She did this. This was her.
Then Samantha’s got her by the arm, dragging her away, past the stalls, out of the stable, into the cold night. The thoroughbreds shriek and thrash in their stalls. Nikki, ever haunted by sensations, still hears the sound of the bottle shattering. Still feels the sudden rush of heat from the Molotov igniting. She is here and there. Now and then. Stuck in two instances overlaid into simultaneity.
They bee-line for the fence, ducking down and crawling through the hole Samantha cut to gain access to the stables this afternoon. There had been one more of them, then. A third girl. Esther, whom Samantha had found on the message boards. She’d been nearby. Frightened and confused and alone. They had picked her up, promised to keep her safe. They were broke, but Esther thought that if they could get into the stables, they’d have a place to crash for free. Sleep among the horses and figure out the rest tomorrow. The thing that killed her wasn’t even hers. Samantha’s did it. Surviving doesn’t make you a survivor. You die tonight or you die another night.
They get to Samantha’s car, buckle their seatbelts, slam the doors, turn on the fucking radio, and they can still hear the horses screaming as they burn to death.
“I killed it,” says Nikki. The words escape her like air from a balloon. “I killed it.”
“No, you didn’t,” says Samantha.
“I burnt it. I killed it. It killed Esther, and I killed it.”
“No. Nikki, you need to stop.”
“But I did it, I beat it, I beat your monster, I—I—I… did it. It was me.”
“Nikki,” says Samantha, “hon, I need you to shut up right now, okay? Just shut up and let me drive, okay?”
“But, Samantha, I—”
“Nikki!” Samantha shouts. Nikki has never heard her shout.
She shrinks back involuntarily. “Shut the fuck up. Now.”
They get on the highway. Drive without talking. It’s the first time since they met that Samantha has been silent. There’s a baseball game on the radio, and Nikki thinks of Brett and tries not to cry.
They stop for gas twice, depleting their already dangerously low funds. Samantha has been at this for a while, has had to make money before now, surely. Between panicked non-thoughts and flashbacks, Nikki wonders how.
The sun is starting to come up when Nikki sees Esther’s purse in the footwell. She picks it up, opens it, extracts her wallet. Fifty bucks. A debit card. Two credit cards.
“I had this theory,” says Samantha. Her voice cracks. She’s been crying. This whole drive, Samantha has been crying without making a sound. “I thought… fuck… I thought maybe the things that are after us couldn’t touch a girl that didn’t, uh…” she swallows, “align with them… like, I thought since you were hunted and I was hunted, the thing hunting me couldn’t hurt you. The thing hunting you couldn’t hurt me. Fuck, Nikki. I was wrong. Jesus.”
Nikki doesn’t say anything. She thinks about reaching over and putting her hand on Samantha’s knee, but her limbs tingle bloodlessly, and she’s not sure she can move.
Samantha pounds on the steering wheel with the flats of her hands. The tears come conspicuously now. The wall crumbles, and Samantha, scared and angry and tired of everything, is laid out in front of Nikki like a dissected frog. “You want to know what I think? Where I really think they come from? No bullshit, no meta-movie stuff or god stuff or stupid message board stuff? I think they come from us. I think it’s our fault. We… make them, somehow. They grow in our brains, and then they just sort of… hatch. Like maybe we’re not even real people, like maybe we’re just designed to look like people so that nobody notices one of those things growing in their own house. They’re cuckoo birds, and we’re their eggs, and all the fucked up shit we do or have done to us just bubbles out and turns into them. And they will come, and they’ll come, and they’ll come and come and come, and eventually, we’ll be stupid or tired or sad or weak or… or brave enough to let them kill us. Matter of time, Nikki.”
She’s silent for a long time. Then she laughs and says, “Prove me wrong.”
“It’s going to be okay,” says Nikki in a voice smaller and higher than the one she thinks of as hers.
Samantha smiles sadly. This is where Nikki realizes that something has changed. That this isn’t a temporary break, that Samantha isn’t okay. That probably nothing is or ever will be anything close to okay again, if indeed it ever was. “Nikki, you’re probably… no, you are the best friend I’ve ever had. I trust you, and I like you, and I love you, and I’m loyal to you. But… and I… hate… myself for this, but… if it comes down to you or me? I will let you die.”
She reaches over and turns off the radio. The car is filled with road sounds. The sun climbs a little higher. Then she adds, “I won’t even think about it.”
They always look different. Short and slender, tall and stocky, roughly humanoid, totally abstract. There’s a woman on the message boards who says hers looks a little like one of those animatronic animals at kiddy birthday restaurants. Another one says hers looks like a cloud of phosphorescent gas that occasionally coalesces into the shape of a person. Samantha’s is short and fat, exuding a slimy film all over its cave-fish pale skin, sexless, naked except for a burlap sack over its head, and its fingers are all fused together. She says it smells like her father. They almost always appear to wear masks.
Some women say that they never saw it coming. That their lives as they knew them ended like someone flipping a light switch, normal one moment and shattered the next. That’s not how it was for Nikki.
The first time she saw it, she was sitting on the porch swing rigged up in front of her parents’ house. Carrie was over. They were drinking coffee and watching the sun go down, bundled under blankets and winter coats, reliving high school slumber parties past and knowing they were staring down a sort of precipice. Their teenage selves were sliding further and further into history, and even then, hanging out with Carrie felt like putting on a favorite shirt that had grown a little too small. Things were changing. It was sad, but sort of promising, too, an implication of the women they were respectively becoming. Mousy, chubby Carrie was neither of those things anymore, had a boyfriend now, couldn’t stop talking about him. Nikki couldn’t stop talking about Brett, was equal parts terrified and elated that her parents had invited him to spend Christmas with them.
It was actually Carrie who saw it first. She did that thing people do when something weird hooks their attention, straightening her spine, craning her neck.
“What?” said Nikki.
“Nothing. This dude.”
“Wow. You forgot about David pretty quick.”
“You get hot and suddenly you’re on the hunt.”
“No, shut up, it’s not like that. Just… seriously, look at this dude.”
Nikki tried to follow Carrie’s eyes, saw nothing. “What dude?” she said. “I don’t see a dude.”
“Fucking… right there. Get your eyes checked. Whatever, it’s nothing. He’s just… he looked a little weird to me.”
Then Nikki saw it. It was… it had to be a man. Two blocks down, where the road curved away toward the high school. Almost, but not quite, standing in the cone cast by the streetlight. He hadn’t seemed suspicious. For all they knew, he could have been waiting on a ride or looking for something he’d dropped in the dark. A pang of shame pulsed in Nikki’s belly and she looked away. Just a weird-looking man minding his own business being scrutinized by a couple of shitty judgmental college girls. Poor guy.
“He’s tall,” she said. “Jesus, he’s really tall.”
“I know, right?” said Carrie. “What’s with his neck?”
“I dunno. Some people just have long necks, I guess.”
“God. I guess. Hey, look!”
In the front yard, swelling and subsiding to a rhythm they couldn’t hear, a tiny green glow. There, and then not there. There, and then not there.
“Aw,” said Nikki. “Firefly!”
“We always called them lightning bugs,” said Carrie. “Weird. Super late in the season for it.”
“It’s nice,” said Nikki. “They pack the backyard in the spring. Makes this place feel like home.”
The nights are impossible now that Samantha doesn’t talk as much. Nikki averages three hours of sleep per night. Some nights, she stays awake until sunlight creeps past the blinds of their motel room and sleeps only when her body forces her to do so. She sat up one night and begged, in tears, for Samantha to talk to her, employing the same phrase again and again, wishing she could think of synonyms or speak in a different language or do anything at all to break through the perception she’d developed of her own voice as some sort of terrible broken child’s toy. And when Samantha said, “I’m sleeping,” Nikki knew she meant, “I’m dying.” Sometimes, when she’s floating between consciousness and unconsciousness, she thinks she feels Samantha stroke her hair, but she can’t be sure if that’s real or just a nice dream.
They’ve been here for two weeks. The motel room looks like a crime scene waiting to happen. Nikki sometimes imagines evidence tags tied to the trigger guards of the handguns on the bathroom counter, imagines gloved hands stacking up copies of The Anarchist’s Cookbook and old issues of Guns & Ammo. She wonders what state they’ll be in, what configuration their opened and emptied bodies will comprise, what the detectives and the CSUs will think of them when they open the door and find them torn to pieces. And she knows it doesn’t matter. They aren’t going to stay. Soon, they’ll pack up all this shit and get back on the road. They’ll run Esther’s credit card dry and they’ll dump it in a garbage can and they’ll just keep going. This is their life. Run, hide, wait, fight, run, hide, wait. Endless iterations. It almost never bothers her anymore.
Until one night, while Samantha sleeps in the bed next to hers, Nikki sees something glow green and disappear. The blood in her veins turns into liquid nitrogen and freezes her. And with a certainty beyond fear, she knows.
She shakes Samantha, who sits up without protest, looks at Nikki straight on and says, “Do we need to go?”
Nikki nods. She wants to be the strong one for Samantha, wants to reverse roles and put to work everything she’s learned, to grab Samantha by the arm and lead her through the motel’s third-floor hallway toward the metal stairwell and down to the pool, past it, into the parking lot, away. She wants to give that to Samantha, a gift for all the times she kept Nikki safe and sane. But she’s scared, and all the strength Samantha instilled in her has drained away. That long-limbed thing with the fake face. It’s here. Somewhere close. Close enough that thinking is analogous to wasting time. Close enough that each heartbeat represents a moment she should have spent running. So she nods, whimpers when she should speak, tries not to cry.
Samantha’s out of bed, packing up the guns and explosives, throwing her jacket on, slipping her arms into the straps of her backpack, saying, “We need to be gone six seconds ago. Let’s move. Come on. Go.”
Nikki obeys. Readies her pack. Straps on the shoulder holster Samantha gave her, checks the clip in the G19, tucks it beneath her armpit, covers it with her jacket. Brett’s jacket. But not really. Not anymore. It smells like smoke and dirt from the stables, like cordite, like someone else’s blood. For a second, Brett’s face rises up in Nikki’s memory, but then it’s gone, and she hardly feels anything at all in response.
Samantha opens the door and steps into the hallway. She’s got her CM9 raised, ready to fire, and although she has adopted the expression of a movie heroine—furrowed eyebrows, thin lips firmly set, jaw clenched—her hands shake. Nikki follows her out. They run down the hall toward the outdoor stairs. They keep passing fireflies. “Car keys?” says Samantha, and Nikki gropes in her pocket, finds the keys, makes a wordless noise in the affirmative. Samantha doesn’t stop running. She puts her arms out and collides with the pushbar of the door. It doesn’t open. “Motherfucker,” she says, puts her weight behind it, tries again.
Somewhere, an ice machine shutters and rumbles. Something smells like baby powder.
“Fucking thing,” says Samantha, rams into the door with her shoulder, but they both know it’s not going to open. The message boards talk about this. Doors locking on their own, refusing to unlock. Cell phones malfunctioning. Car engines suddenly and without precedent becoming as responsive as bricks. These things happen. They’re to be expected. God, it’s weird how numb you can get, how analytically you begin to approach the impending end. Nikki reminds herself to breathe, feels exhausted, feels terrified, wishes she could lie down.
“Samantha, come on,” says Nikki. “Find something else.”
“Fuck,” says Samantha, charging the word with desperate defeat, a wailed and impotent protest. She turns to run toward the elevator, and the power goes out. The two of them scream. Everything is black.
In the millisecond before she begins to sense the passage of time again, Nikki thinks, I’m already dead.
Then the hallway pulses with green light. Hundreds of fireflies. Nikki watches them weaving and floating through empty space a moment at a time. Fade in: they trace idiot trajectories through empty space. Fade out. Fade in: twice as many. Fade out.
Whatever manic force was propelling Samantha has run dry, and she stands next to Nikki and inhales long and noisy draughts of musty motel air.
Fade in: crouched, too tall for the ceiling, long neck carrying its fake baby-doll face from left to right pendulously, long arm dragging Nikki’s father’s razor across the tacky wallpaper, opening a gash that either looks deeper than it is in the weird shadows or actually is deeper than it ought to be. Fade out. Samantha’s breathing sounds panicked and fragile and terribly human, and Nikki is hit with the sudden understanding that she’s in charge now, and that understanding feels like a bloodless limb, limp and tingling and not quite functional.
Fade in: it never seems to get any farther from them even though they’re running, Samantha’s bicep clamped in Nikki’s hand, Nikki dragging her backward, numb, trying to access everything Samantha taught her before Samantha herself lost the lessons. Fade out, and Nikki’s own screams (“Go, Samantha, come on, we need to fucking go, let’s go,”) turn into faraway echoes buried beneath hollow ringing.
Fade in: by the light of the fireflies, they spot a corridor and turn the corner into it, because motel hallways are labyrinths designed to get you lost, designed to trap you and keep you good and scared and fresh when your monster comes for you, and Nikki glances over her shoulder and sees it, dispassionate, peeking around the corner at them with its too-long neck, with its baby-doll un-mask, with its kindergarten-sketch proportions, and she thinks, without much strength, This is pointless. Fade out. They’re running in the dark, toward void, from void.
Fade in: it’s in front of them. No precedent, no rationale. Behind one moment and in front the next, and nobody’s surprised, but they’re both so goddamn sad. It’s reaching for them (not really, though, not for them, but for her, for Samantha, just another thing Nikki loves) with one terrible mottled arm, its skin the color and texture of old rawhide. Nikki’s seen it before. She saw the thing grab hold of her mother like this, snatching her up by the hair, whirling her around to face her screaming family as they stood on the porch and stared out into a suburban winter street suddenly swarmed by fireflies, and even though her mom must have died quickly when it slashed her throat with dad’s straight razor, the look of awful regret, of defeat, remained on her face for a long time. Instinct takes over, and Nikki turns on her heels, positions her body between Samantha and the thing that killed everyone she loved, and she feels its fingers grip a handful of her hair and lift her into the air. Fade out.
Fade in: she’s in the air, and her father’s razor is at her throat, and now, now they get to see what happens when one of these things finally catches its girl. Now they get to see what it does when its purpose is extinguished, what anything at all means after that. Samantha is staring up at her with her CM9 in her hands, not aiming, just holding, like the gun is the grip of an umbrella and she’s scared of getting wet. And Nikki knows, even before Sam turns and runs, that she won’t even try to save her. She’s said as much. That prophecy was made a long time ago, and it couldn’t help but come to pass eventually. Fuck you, Samantha, she thinks but doesn’t mean, couldn’t mean, not ever. Nikki cries, but she’s already far away. Fade out, and, slowly, the razor digs in, opens up a tiny gash, and when the pain comes it is academic, and when the blood trickles out it is a footnote. And Nikki accepts that she is about to die.
Down the hall, in the darkness, Samantha screams.
There are so many fireflies that the corridor glows like its under stage lights, and Nikki sees that Samantha has turned around, is running back toward her, toward Nikki’s monster as it digs its razor in a little more, takes its time. No. No, not taking its time. Stopped. Frozen. Stuck.
And behind Samantha—thick-armed, short, stocky, nude but sexless, staring eyelessly out of the holes in its burlap sack, the slime on its skin reflecting the light of countless fireflies—Samantha’s monster. Mid step, its fused fingers reaching out, one foot in front of the other, but motionless. Stopped. Frozen. Stuck.
Samantha stops before Nikki’s monster and collapses into a heap on the floor. She cradles the gun like a teddy bear and sobs as Nikki dangles above her.
Nikki’s monster and Samantha’s monster stand opposite each other with their girls in between, and neither of them moves. They cock their heads, and between the blank eyeholes of their respective false masks is an invisible but rigid straight line. Neither moves.
Some girls on the message boards say that their monsters talk. Some say their monsters look, in some way more complex and upsetting than physically, like somebody they used to know. Some say they deserve their monsters, and some say they summoned their monsters on purpose, and some say their monsters are just as afraid of killing as their victims are of dying, and some say their monsters are the spirits of their neglected dead childhood pets, and some girls say the monsters are testing them to see if they’re worthy of some magnificent reward. It’s impossible to know how many people on the message boards are lying. But nobody ever accuses anyone of making shit up, no matter how much a particular post might smell like bullshit. These strangers are all you’ve got, and you can’t afford to alienate them.
Some girls—well, really, just two girls—say that if one monster meets another, they freeze. They don’t know what to do when they encounter one another. They need to kill you and everyone you love, but they both need it. And they can’t both do it. Maybe. Who knows? So they freeze. They stare at each other, and even though you can’t see past their bullshit masks, you can’t help but feel like they’re longing for one another. The girls on the boards can’t quite explain it. It’s not like they say anything to each other or cry or whimper or fold in on themselves with the weight of their own loneliness. But there’s just this sense you get when you see it. Trust us, say the girls on the message board. They’re lonely, but their purpose demands solitude. So they freeze under the pressure of their conflicting duty and their desire not to be alone anymore. There’s no answer for them. And it doesn’t mean anything. Except that you can get away, then, once you’ve pulled yourself together enough to cut off a hock of your friend’s hair. And you go.
That’s what it says on the message boards, anyway.
An old T-shirt held to an open wound. A rest stop bathroom and a needle and thread held by shaking hands. Amateur stitches. The sunrise.
And then the two of them standing on either side of a picnic table, waiting for the other to sit. There are a thousand angry words in Nikki’s throat, and a thousand pleas for forgiveness, and a thousand soothing reassurances, and what she wants exists at the intersection of all of them, a nonexistent point at the center of an impossible Venn diagram. She looks at Samantha, looks for the woman who found her in that bar and saved her from the deep-pressure crush of isolation and trauma. She isn’t there. She’s dead, Nikki thinks, and starts to cry. And then Samantha is crying too.
What do you do? Nikki thinks. What’s the right move when you hate someone so much for abandoning you but you love them too much to abandon them?
Dawn gives way to full-grown morning. People stop their cars, wander into the bathroom, pretend not to be staring at the two of them. And Nikki and Samantha ponder the air in between them, how badly they want to close that distance and how impossible it is to do so.
They freeze in each other’s eye line. They don’t move until the sun is high enough in the sky to evaporate the dew on the surface of the picnic table. Then Nikki says, “Okay.”
So they get back in the car and drive.