Here’s the thing about surviving a slumber party massacre: no one really wants you around anymore. All your friends are dead, and your mom is dead, and you get shuffled off to live with your miserable Aunt Katherine, who blames you for getting her sister killed because she’s an awful human being like that. And you try to move on, but you don’t know how because your nightmares are constant and therapy is hard, especially when a new killer arrives and murders your therapist with his own pencil. You survive that massacre, too—this one’s on a field trip—but nobody cares that you saved some band kid’s life because, clearly, you’re cursed and should just leave town. Even the band kid isn’t grateful, that pimpled little shit.
So, you leave town. But first, you rob your aunt blind.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about leaving town: you start getting scared everyone’s right.
You’re living in your car, which at first is pretty fun, right up until you realize you don’t have a diploma or a GED, and your entire work history is three months at a shitty diner, a job you still had to have a home address and three personal references to even apply for. Also, it’s four in the morning and you really have to pee, but it’s pouring and you’re alone, parked on some dark road near a forest full of howling things. Your only choices are either to brave the storm or finish the bottle of Gatorade and awkwardly squat over it in your backseat; you try the latter and end up with a mess, which means your car now smells like pee, which means your home now smells like pee, and you just want to give up, drive home, and admit defeat. Aunt Katherine would never take you back, though; you’d probably enter the foster system and get some abusive church lady, or, worse, somebody wonderful, someone who doesn’t know how to cook and earnestly fails at slang and lets you cry on her shoulder whenever you wake up screaming. And a month will pass, then two, and you’ll think it’s over, it’s okay, we’re safe, until one day you come downstairs to find New Mom at the table, an axe in the back of her head and blood pouring out of her mouth and into her cereal.
You can’t let that happen to another mother. You can’t let anyone else die because of you, which means this is it; this is your future: alone, in a smelly car, until you run out of money and die. No. You have to do something. You have to make a plan. A five-year-plan, just like in school, only cross out applying for scholarships or taking the SAT’s. Replace them with . . . replace them with . . .
You can only think of the things you stole from Aunt Katherine, especially the gun.
But you’re not ready. You’re so scared. You fought so fucking hard to live.
Eventually, you fall asleep. In the morning, you drive to a new town. Buy an air freshener. Drink some coffee. Spot a flier for tonight’s frat party. Your dead friends would’ve loved a party like that, would’ve begged you to sneak in with them. Peer pressure isn’t really your problem anymore, though, so instead you drive south for hours. You only hear the news days later: FRAT HOUSE MASSACRE, 14 DEAD.
It’s terrible. It’s a tragedy. It’s evidence you aren’t to blame, that there’s slaughter in this world that doesn’t solely belong to you. You didn’t talk to any of these dead guys. You aren’t responsible for any of this—
But you can’t stop thinking about that band kid.
Jesus, what an asshole. What a typical Nice Guy turd, and you could’ve let him die, but you didn’t, and there’s power in that. Maybe you’d have saved more people, if you’d gone to that party. Maybe if you came across the killer yourself . . .
Well. You’re not going to find out anything sitting here.
You drive back and it might be suicidal, but at least it’s suicidal in an active way? That sounds suspiciously unhealthy, but you’re too busy to consider it further: the frat’s sister house is planning a memorial kegger because nobody ever learns anything, because the definition of insanity is who the hell knows, but the definition of willful ignorance is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Whatever. The important thing is, you smell bad, so you sneak in a shower at some public gym before heading over to the sorority house. Can you pass for eighteen? Nope. But everyone’s drunk, so they let you in anyway.
You try to find the killer before any of the girls die. It doesn’t work: one gets smothered with her own sorority flag, while another is chopped in half mid keg stand. But you do shoot the killer right in his creepy doll face before a freshman gets disemboweled. Well. Okay. She gets a little disemboweled, but she’s still alive when the paramedics come, and that means she’ll be okay, probably. Anyway, that’s still a dozen girls without a scratch on them. All psychologically scarred, sure, but there are limits to what you can fix.
One of the drunk girls hides you until the cops leave, and there, under the bed, next to a bunch of dirty clothes and—gross—a used condom, you think, well, it’s a reason, anyway. It’s some kind of blood-soaked future.
Altruism isn’t putting gas in your car, though, so you make that drunk girl give you a hundred dollars and some fancy Juicy Couture shit to replace your gory jeans.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about your new future: it’s hard and it’s sad, but mostly it works.
You drive from town to town, looking for signs. Wild parties. Incompetent sheriffs. Fatal pranks one-to-five years prior. It gets easier to spot them. Easier to spot the girls, too, the ones killers gravitate towards: nice girls, good grades. Virgins, all of them.
You used to have good grades. Used to be nice, too.
Virginity, though, is still your superpower. It doesn’t keep you alive, but it improves your chances. It means you can kill the monster, or die trying. It means you die last. It means you find the bodies.
Most people find that sort of thing traumatic, though, so you try and help them avoid it. Find the impending massacre. Track down the virgin. Get them the fuck out of town and slay the monster in their stead.
It’s not a career for everyone. It’s hard on the clothes, and you can never have sex. But honestly, that last part’s a bonus, because you’re ace as fuck, and it’s really rewarding how your sexuality comes with practical benefits like this. Doesn’t pay great, though. Some can’t afford much, even when they’re grateful. Others are just assholes you have to persuade with your gun. Your mom would be pretty horrified; she didn’t believe in violence, so that axe to the head must’ve been an especially big shock. But you need that money: for gas and tampons and laundromats and weapons. Food, too, although there’s not always much left for that. You almost get killed once by some asshole in a Dobby mask—a Dobby mask—because you haven’t eaten in two days and get dizzy when you try to stab him in the balls.
You make friends with this kid, José. You try not to make friends, but it happens sometimes: not all research can be done from the library, and you have to infiltrate the school: walk around, pretend you’re a new student, duck whenever a vice principal walks your way. You interrogate José for gossip because he looks sharp. He secretly follows you back to your car because, well, you weren’t wrong.
José tries to help you save virgin Zoe and the entire Valentine’s Day Court. The King and Queen are lost causes, but everyone else would’ve been fine if the bucktoothed sheriff hadn’t bust in and arrested you for vagrancy, among other things. Considering you were holding a hacksaw at the time, you’re lucky he didn’t just shoot you. Still, by the time José breaks you out, the killer has resurrected and killed the sheriff, two deputies, Zoe’s boyfriend, and Zoe’s mom.
You decapitate the killer. It doesn’t feel like a win. You have an overwhelming urge to get so drunk you can’t even see straight. That’s sure what José does. You force him to drink water, get him into bed. He grabs your hand when you reach for the light.
Stay, he slurs into his pillow. Please.
You shush him gently, tell him he’s okay, but he shakes his head and almost rolls off the bed. YOU, he says loudly, pointing. Don’t go. You’re not. Don’t . . .
No one’s ever asked you to stay before. Maybe you cry a little, but he’s too drunk to notice.
It’s not safe to stay, though, and anyway, he’s wrong; you’re doing fine.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about never sticking around: the towns all blur into one another until one day, about ten months after you ran away, you’re back in California. You end up in this two-stoplight town where a gravedigger somehow impaled himself on his own shovel, but that was just an unfortunate accident, and those missing teenagers? Playing hooky, obviously. Can’t be anything more than that: this isn’t the big city, after all.
You find the virgin almost immediately. Actually, she finds you: Joey Santiago, seventeen, named after Josephine Baker and Joey Guerrero, and, she tells you confidentially, Joey Potter, too. You’re not sure what to do with that information since you don’t know who any of those people are, but she’s already handing you a water bottle as you put your last five bucks in the tank. Apparently, Joey and her mom foster a houseful of rescue dogs, and you’re the human equivalent of a sad, hungry puppy with a broken tail. She insists you come home for dinner.
Mrs. Norwood is a pretty black woman in her late thirties: tall, muscular, very short blonde hair. She delicately asks if you’d like to use the shower, and finds you absurdly long pink pajamas to wear, and loads up your plate with more take-out than you’ve ever seen. Don’t worry about the cost, honey, she says. Just eat up, and maybe we can discuss your living situation tomorrow.
You desperately want to go along with it. These people are so kind, and you’re so tired, and these empanadas are so fucking good you’re about to cry . . . but you can’t risk it. Mrs. Norwood is black, and Joey is black and Filipina, and all PoC, but especially Asian people, are way more likely to die in these scenarios, virgins or not. Not to mention they live in a converted barn with bad cell reception and six dogs, and the only reason the killer isn’t already here is that Joey’s half-sisters live an hour away with their dad. There just aren’t enough victims for a proper slaughterhouse.
So, you give it to them straight and wait for the inevitable questions about your sanity. Instead, Mrs. Norwood takes her daughter’s hand and says, in this house, we believe in masked killers. Global warming, too. And Joey’s trembling, but her eyes are focused. Will he leave me alone if I’m not a virgin? Because that’s a social construct anyway, and my boyfriend lives five minutes away. And Mrs. Norwood makes a face, but that doesn’t stop her from asking will that work? Because I do have condoms, and you vow to yourself, here and now, that you will protect these precious people at all costs.
Unfortunately, that’s when the doorbell rings and six teenage girls pile in with presents and a Safeway birthday cake. Joey’s surprise party is supposed to be tomorrow, but one girl has to babysit and another has some cheerleading competition, and before Mrs. Norwood can make them leave, the lights cut out, and a dog, barking loudly, suddenly goes quiet. It’s too late, you say. He’s here.
Two girls immediately assume it’s a prank. You tell them they’re wrong, and they say shitty things about you and mental asylums. Joey goes off, which is delightful but also poorly timed, as it distracts you from stopping the panicked cheerleader from running out the door. By the time Mrs. Norwood calms everyone down, it’s clear the party isn’t going anywhere: every car has a severed fuel line and the cheerleader has a severed head.
Everyone screams a lot.
You get them all back inside. That includes the dogs, even the little black one who’s definitely losing that leg but, shockingly, isn’t dead yet. It’s been a while since you could afford bullets, but you gather every knife in the house, all except the kitchen shears, which have mysteriously gone missing. Then you gather the girls in the living room, trying to make it to dawn.
You make it fifty-seven minutes, just enough time for two pieces of birthday cake and a ton of high school gossip: Madison, the blonde who was an asshole to you, used to date Joey’s boyfriend. Charlotte, the brunette who was an asshole to you, hates Sam for beating her in girls’ javelin. Sam, the only other brown girl, thinks Emma’s basic; also, a slut. Emma, who wears both terms proudly, might be cool if she didn’t constantly say things like I don’t mean to be racist, but. And the babysitter, well. You don’t even know her name, since she hasn’t spoken since the cheerleader died. Joey’s efforts to comfort her go pretty well until Emma, completely ignoring everything you’ve said, gets too close to a window. She’s quickly impaled through the gut, her body pulled outside.
The babysitter half-faints. You seal up the window, but now someone else is screaming: a guy, somewhere out back. Charlotte says it’s her boyfriend, Jake, or maybe Joey’s boyfriend, Tyler; they were both going to sneak over with beer after Mrs. Norwood went to bed. We have to help them, Charlotte insists, and runs out the back door into the dark. There’s a strange, gurgling sound. Then, nothing.
Soon, someone emerges from the fog.
It’s Tyler. They’re dead, he says, bleeding from a non-vital place. Oh God, oh God, they’re dead. You want to kill him right now, but no one else will let you. They won’t even let you tie him up, an obviously reasonable concession, probably because he insinuates you’re crazy and lesbian-obsessed with Joey. Madison apparently believes in homicidal lesbians so much that she actually attacks you; you twist her arms behind her and yell, Joey, why are you friends with these horrible people?
No one has a good answer to that, but Sam does ask where Tyler’s car is. Tyler doesn’t think it matters. The killer probably cut my fuel line, too, he says, but that only makes Joey back up. We never told you about the cars, she says, and Tyler’s all whoops before he pulls Madison from you and stabs her in the face.
This time, it’s not just the girls screaming; Tyler does too because he’s one of those types, maniacally laughing as he slashes forward like a drunk Robin Hood. You don’t bother dodging much, just slide a boning knife straight into his heart.
Oh, Tyler mouths, and dies.
Mrs. Norwood hugs Joey, and Sam hugs the babysitter, and you just stand there, looking at your left arm. It hurts like a motherfucker—Tyler cut it up pretty good—but there’s only minimal blood on your pants and shirt.
It’s not over, you say but Mrs. Norwood doesn’t hear you, opens the back door. I’ll check on the others, she says, and you scream—
But someone’s already stabbed her with the kitchen shears.
The killer is tall and narrow, wearing a dark robe and a devil mask. Mrs. Norwood collapses at their feet, while Joey screams and Sam turns and runs. The killer breaks a nearby broom across the countertop and launches it forward. It spears through Sam’s chest into the front door. She slumps over, half-hanging and dead.
You look back at Mrs. Norwood. For just a second, you can’t move. For just a second, you’re not even in this house at all.
But then she gets up.
Her skin is ashy, her forehead beaded with sweat. The shears are still embedded in her shoulder. But she’s on her feet, and when Devil Mask stalks past, Mrs. Norwood tackles them into the dining room. Immediately, she collapses again, but it’s enough to snap your brain back into action. You kick Devil Mask in the devil mask; they grab a chair and knock you into the living room. Something squelches unpleasantly underneath you. You think of a body exploding into blood and cream, but of course it’s just Joey’s half-eaten birthday cake.
Hands around your neck, then. You reach for something, anything. You can’t breathe. You can’t—but your fingers grasp something, even as you knock away the mask.
Of course. Asshole brunette. Girls javelin. Ran outside to “check” on her boyfriend.
Fuck you, Charlotte, you wheeze and stab the plastic cake fork in her eye.
Charlotte screams and reels back. She pulls an actual goddamn machete, but Joey kicks her in the head soccer style. The machete flies up in the air.
Still coughing, you catch it and shove it right through Charlotte’s fucking lying mouth.
Now. Now you’re covered in enough blood for it to be over.
It hurts to move. You do it anyway, staggering over to Charlotte’s purse as inexplicable sirens wail nearby. Charlotte has ten bucks, which isn’t enough to repair your car by a long shot. Tyler doesn’t have any cash at all.
He does, however, have car keys.
Honey, Mrs. Norwood says weakly. Your arm.
Your arm’s nothing. It’s fine. You can do the stitches later yourself. Mrs. Norwood doesn’t seem assured by that and tries getting up again, but she’s woozy from blood loss and almost passes out. Joey, squeezing her hand, bursts into tears. Neither tries to pull out the scissors. You love them impossibly.
But they can’t want you, feral thing that you are, and even if they did . . .
No. You couldn’t risk it. You won’t.
The babysitter makes a small noise. Right, you forgot she was still alive. You should take money from her, too, since she hasn’t done anything productive all night, but she wasn’t actually shitty to you, and you feel bad, robbing some traumatized kid. You tell her it’ll be okay. The ambulance is almost here. They’ll all be okay, probably.
You don’t have to leave, Joey says—
But you do. Of course, you do.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about leaving: you end up in a town ten minutes outside home because that’s where Tyler’s truck runs out of gas.
You hop out with some vague idea of making it to the gas station; instead, you end up at the cemetery where your mother is buried at. And your best friend. And your four other friends, and their boyfriends, too. You’re still wearing the bloody pink pajamas from two days ago, but it’s midnight and no one’s around to notice. Anyway, the important thing is talking to your mom, but what can you say? Sorry you’re dead, Mom? Sorry I’m everything you didn’t want me to be?
You’ve never been able to risk getting drunk before. But right now? You need to get so drunk you don’t even remember your own name.
So, you take your ten bucks and buy the cheapest bottle of whiskey you can find. The cashier is freaked out by your clothes, but he’s also really high; plus, selling to a minor, so hopefully, he won’t call the cops on you. You hike back to the truck and start drinking. It tastes like ass. You keep drinking. It doesn’t taste so bad. You keep drinking. It doesn’t taste like anything. You keep drinking.
Someone gets into the passenger seat. You’re probably about to die.
The person becomes Mrs. Norwood. You think, anyway; her face keeps rippling. A hallucination, then. That’s nice. You can tell the truth to hallucinations; they already know all your secrets, anyway. You try and tell her lots of things, like what fire axes can do to human skulls or how you see your mom in your dreams sometimes, but her head splits open wider and wider each time she says she loves you. And then Mrs. Norwood’s drinking from the bottle, which, when did she get the bottle? And you’re outside somewhere, throwing up, and Mrs. Norwood’s telling you it’ll be okay, and you’re lying down in the backseat of some car, and you can’t see her, but she’s still saying it.
You’re okay, now. You’re safe. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.
So you sleep.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about passing out in a car that you may or may not have hallucinated: you don’t know where the fuck you are when you wake up, and Jesus Christ, you feel like shit. There’s water next to your bed with a note that says DRINK ME, and you should absolutely not do that, but you’re thirsty, so. If you open the door and get stabbed to death by a man in a Mad Hatter mask, you’ll only have yourself to blame.
You open the door and are immediately attacked by six scrappy mutts. The smallest one only has three legs. You pick him up carefully and go downstairs.
Mrs. Norwood is in the kitchen, moving slowly. Carrying your drunk ass around couldn’t have been any good for her shoulder. She serves you a plate of hangover food and only adds more each you time you protest. Eventually, you give up and eat it. Where’s Joey, you ask.
At her Dad’s, Mrs. Norwood tells you. We’re probably going to move. You’re going to come with us.
You almost choke on your food.
You tell her she doesn’t need to do that. She gets you another bottle of water. You tell her she can help pay for your car. She says your car smells like piss and should be sold for parts immediately. You tell her you’re fine. She says you’re full of shit. You tell her you’re dangerous. She says your Aunt Katherine’s full of shit, too, and everyone else from your hometown, blaming a child for monsters in the night. You tell her you’re eighteen, which is a year and three months from the truth. She says you’re a child and retired from this life of chasing killers, at least until you graduate college. You tell her it was your choice to leave, your choice to fight, your choice to live the way you’ve been living. She looks at you real close and asks was it?
You start crying.
She lets you sob on her shoulder. You’re staying, she tells you firmly, and eventually, you swallow and say, okay.
• • • •
Here’s the thing about sticking around: sometimes, it’s hard not calling the shots. Sometimes, Mrs. Norwood’s rules are stupid. Sometimes, you and Joey fight over the dumbest things. And killers do come back, occasionally: you go to some Christmas party and find a dead body underneath the tree, but Mrs. Norwood breaks through the door with a chainsaw, and Joey’s aim with the rifle is really improving, and all you have to do is make cocoa and wipe blood off the presents. Sometimes, you’re scared to touch your new family; sometimes, you think you should run away for their own good. But mostly, you institute Friday Movie Nights and eat whenever you want. Mostly, you get hugs before going to bed. Mostly, you keep adding to your five-year-plan.