It's a little after one in the morning when my computer lights up with a GourdChat notification. A pending message from Keira. I open it, praying to anything listening that it's not what I think it is.
Guess who just got back today?
The words stab me in the gut. No, no, no, it's barely been a month!
I clutch the edge of the computer table. The Boys can't get me here. They can't, they can't, I left them behind when I left town.
Keira's message scrolls across the screen. As much as I'm scared for myself, I'm even more scared for her, so terrified it's sitting on my chest and suffocating me. She wouldn't leave she wouldn't leave she wouldn't—
A month ago, I was with Keira in Janet's living room, and Keira was painting Janet's nails. It had been three months and six days since The Boys had last come, past the point where their absence was a relief and into the nervous counting down until they showed up again.
"I'm thinking of taking night classes," Janet said, squinting down at her fingernails. "Careful around the edges, Keir. They're doing Mandarin in the fall."
"You should!" Keira dipped the brush back into the polish. "We can take a vacation to Beijing or something, wouldn't that be great?"
They wouldn't, and all three of us knew it. No one left town. No one except The Boys, and they always came back, sooner or later.
"Be right back, guys," I said as I headed for the bathroom. As I washed my hands, I heard glass shattering, and a scream.
I stepped in something wet—the nail polish, spilled across the hallway. I wiped my foot off in the carpet, but the next step took me into a bigger puddle, tacky and warm.
Blood oh god oh god oh god—
I looked up, heart sinking to my toes, and saw a Boy. He tipped his baseball hat at me, grinning with red-stained teeth.
"Leave us alone!" I shouted, backing towards the door.
"Oh, don't do that," another Boy said, moving in front of the doorway. "We don't want to hurt you."
"We only hurt your friend because she was rude," the first Boy added. "You shouldn't hit your guests." He gestured to his cheek, which was red and streaked with purple nail polish.
Oh God, Janet. I cautiously stepped forward and scanned the room. Three Boys, whose faces slid from my mind as soon as I looked away. Janet, on the floor with her throat ripped out. Blood on Janet and on the floor and on the walls and—on Keira, who was in the corner.
She looked up, tears drawing tracks down the blood spattered on her face, and mouthed, "Run."
But there was a Boy by the door and a Boy only a few steps away from grabbing me. I leaned back against the wall, knees shaking, and hoped the Boys didn't feel like getting more blood on their button-down shirts.
The Boy by the door grinned at me, wild and wicked eyes glinting in the light. "See you later, doll." He slipped out, and the other Boys followed suit.
I called 911, even though I already knew Janet was dead. When the Boys set out to punish someone, that someone didn't make it out alive. I dutifully checked for a pulse anyway, reporting my findings to the operator, and wrapped a blanket around Keira.
Janet's funeral was a week later. I didn't stick around for it; the day after the Boys' visit, I got the hell out of dodge, emptying my bank account and driving my rust bucket truck as fast as it would go.
No one left town, no one as long as I'd been alive and as long as my parents had been alive and likely even longer than that, but I did. I put a down payment on a shitty studio apartment and got a job at Starbucks and hooked up the computer I'd brought with me (it had made the drive buckled into my passenger seat, with me terrified it would fall off and break the whole way) so I could chat with people back home. And now I'm here—the Boys are back in town, but I'm not.
Keira's scared. And not just normal scared for a Boys' night either, scared for me . I tell her the same thing I said when I left. The Boys don't go to other towns. They only come to ours, and when they leave God only knows where they go, but it's not to my shitty neighborhood in this city.
My computer screen starts to flicker. An error message pops up on the screen.
Someone knocks on the door.
"Hey, doll! We missed you back in town!"
I know it's the same Boy, even though I can't name a single thing that makes his voice distinct.
"You didn't tell us you were moving!" another Boy adds, whining.
"You can't come in," I say, as much to myself as to them. I shuffle towards my bed, reaching underneath.
The Boys start hammering on the door. I can hear the wood creak under their fists. "C'mon, let us in! We brought a housewarming gift."
I move quietly towards the entrance, setting myself up right beside the doorframe. When the Boys break through, I take a swing.
The Boys howl and snarl, but this time I'm ready for them. The first time the bat connects I almost drop it, surprised by the squelch as it hits and the spray of blood that hits my face. But a scratch to my arm draws me back to the fight, and I manage to knee the offending Boy in the balls before I give him a blow to the stomach.
He falls to the ground and I kick at him, wishing I was wearing my boots. I make do with my bare feet, though, swinging out at the other two Boys whenever they step into range. Soon the Boy on the floor is curled up unmoving, and the other two are moving slower.
The one I got in the face grins at me, his face covered in a black liquid that's not like any blood I've ever seen. "You want to play, we can play."
I catch him in the face again, hearing his cheekbones crunch. "Let's dance, asshole."
By the end of it all, my arms ache and I'm covered in a sticky substance that is disturbingly unlike blood, but there's a pile of three Boys on my bedroom floor. Oh God, what am I going to do with them now?
I grab one by his legs and start dragging him out the door, down the hallway, past the busted elevator, and down three flights of stairs. Thank God it's three in the morning and no one is out.
And then a woman walks into the building just as I'm walking out—just my luck. But her eyes glance over the Boy dragging behind me and slide away, and she just gives me a tired nod as she heads inside.
I throw the Boy in the river out back, and head back upstairs for the others. One by one they make it into the river, and once the last one is in, I watch him float away like so much trash.
"Have a nice swim, doll," I mutter.
Then I shower, and rinse the black not-blood off of my skin, and change into my uniform. I have a morning shift today, and I'm pretty sure my boss won't take "I was up late killing a pack of Boys who chased me across the state" as an excuse.
When I get home that afternoon, I fall into bed and laugh. The Boys had dragged themselves all the way here to get to me, and they'd lost. Fuck them! Fuck them and their smug unmemorable faces and their preppy collared shirts. I won this round.
Once I've finished sleeping off last night, I rummage through my bathroom closet for my polish box. Tonight, I'm sitting down and painting my nails purple.
I check the news every day, but weeks pass and there's no reports about bodies in the river. Not that I'm surprised. When I first got here, not one person had heard of my hometown. It's not on the internet, and even the librarian couldn't help me track it down. My grandparents don't have obituaries. Maps just have a blank space. As far as the world's concerned, my town doesn't exist—and neither do I.
It's a heavy weight, being the only one in the outside world to have any of my memories. No one else can remember that day in third grade when I showed up to school and Jack Taylor was gone and everyone knew why, or the night my grandfather let out a rattling cough and then froze in terror as the Boys stalked into his hospital room, or the way Janet's blood painted the ceiling. No one in this city would believe me if I told them.
A month goes by. The first few days after the Boys' visit, I fell asleep sitting up, looking at my computer screen. Now, I barely even think of them. The not-blood on my carpet is scrubbed away, leaving only a faint gray smudge. I'll get my deposit docked for it, but what can you do?
Then one night, a little after one in the morning, Gourdchat flickers on. Keira messages me for the first time in days: The Boys are back.
I grab my bat.