Jay was her best friend. Had been her best friend for years, in fact. They did everything together. Played video games, did homework, spent lunchtimes at school together. Ro knew everything there was to know about Jay. That is, up until about 9 months ago.
“I gotta go,” Jay blurted.
“It’s only 6,” Ro said with a glance at her phone.
“I know, I forgot I have to do a thing. Sorry. I’ll see you at school, yeah?” Jay replied as he packed his things. Before she knew it, he had bolted out the door with a wave and smile.
It took a while before Ro figured it out. For a long time, it just seemed like every so often, Jay would get up in a rush, proclaim he had somewhere to be and he’d leave. Forgetfulness, Ro thought at first. Poor scheduling habits, surely, she’d told herself. Those excuses worked for a while. Made sense, in fact. Everyone double books themselves sometimes -- maybe Jay had hit a particularly busy time in his life. So she brushed it off; didn’t ask questions. But it kept happening.
“Sorry, gotta jet,” his voice came through on her gaming headset.
“We’re in the middle of a match!” Ro said.
“I know I just gotta go -- rematch tomorrow?”
And with that, his name blinked off the screen before Ro had a chance to protest.
That’s when she started keeping count, and soon after, she had a pattern.
It happened every four weeks, give or take a day. Never exact, but always around the same date on the calendar. It was weird. She did try to press him on it, but...
“Did you get to finish that assignment?” Ro leaned on the wall next to Jay’s locker.
“The what?” he raised an eyebrow.
“The assignment? The one you had to leave last night for?” she prompted.
“Oh, right! Yeah it was super easy. I was worried over nothing,” Jay smirked and pushed his locker shut.
“Nice. What class was it for again?” she asked, falling into step with him. She noticed he was walking faster than usual.
“English,” he muttered.
“I thought that homework wasn’t due until Thursday.”
“Extra credit. Hey, nice job on the run during P.E., by the way!”
...The conversation drifted. It always drifted.
Was it crazy to pay this much attention to a friend’s schedule? Probably. Frankly, though, Ro was concerned. Jay was pulling away. She felt unnerved. Hurt. It wasn’t like him to be cryptic. Not with her, anway. The running joke among their parents when they were kids was that you couldn’t tell one of them something without the other finding out eventually. She began to resign to the fact that maybe their friendship was coming to an end. She could take a hint. If Jay was holding back, it was in his right to do so and Ro would have to deal with that. Confusion turned to anger which turned to grief, and Ro was ready to accept that this was the new normal. But then one day Jay showed up to school, limping.
“Whoa, you okay?” Ro asked, furrowing her brow.
“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine, why?” Jay asked, barely meeting her eyes. Ro scoffed and gestured at his foot. She raised her eyebrows impatiently.
Jay looked down and laughed.
“Oh,” he waved it off. “You should have seen it. I tried to jump a fence and got my pants caught in a bush. Hurt my ankle. It was really graceful, actually. Except the family of pigeons wasn’t too pleased I ruined their home.”
Ro snorted, hoping it was enough to mask the concern on her face.
A couple of months later, he had a large scrape down his leg.
A month after that, a splint on his wrist.
“Ran into a wall.”
The next month, an ACE bandage wrapped around his knee.
“Sprained it while running.”
Always minor injuries. Always once a month. Always the day after he went MIA for a night. What, did Jay all of a sudden turn into some kind of klutzy werewolf? It didn’t make any sense.
Whatever it was, there was only one way to find out. Jay was her friend, and he was hiding something. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to find out on her own, and on the 9th month to the day of his first disappearance, she did.
With a low creak, the metal door opened into a stairwell with a narrow staircase. The light from outside allowed her to see only a few feet in, but it was enough to know the stairs spiraled deep underground. She stepped inside, letting the door close behind her with a cacophonous clunk that shook the walls. As the echoes of heavy metal on metal bounced around her, she stopped for a moment to appreciate the insanity of the situation.
Earlier that night, she was parked in front of Jay’s house. It was around the time of the month Jay was due to disappear again. Knowing this, she kept a careful eye on him, spied on him after school for a few nights. Until that night, she saw him sneak out of his bedroom window. Who wouldn’t have followed him?
So, there she was: in an obscure part of town, in an abandoned building, in a stairwell she had seen Jay go into only minutes before.
“What have you gotten yourself into, Jay?” she breathed.
The thought bounced around her head along with “you can still turn back” and “this is lunacy,” but she started climbing down the stairs regardless. With every step, the thoughts got louder and her heart beat faster. But she was determined.
Eventually it was too late to turn back even if she wanted to, because at the end of the staircase, she found a door with a small window, and curiosity getting the better of her, she peeked. Perhaps, had she been more careful, more silent, then she could have gotten the chance to listen in on the room. Perhaps, she could have reassessed the situation then, decided to turn back then. But she didn’t do any of those things, and the first thing she saw when she peeked through the window, was a man staring back. And before she had a chance to cry out, the door opened. She was yanked inside by her jacket collar and thrown onto the floor. When she looked up, she saw that three people surrounded her: two were strangers, one was Jay.
“Ro?!” Jay gasped.
“You know this person?” barked the stranger who yanked Ro in. He was a burly man. Tall and wide. Older than Ro and Jay, but not by much.
“She’s a friend,” Jay said.
“A friend?!” the second stranger shrieked, a woman this time. “What do you think this is, book club?”
The woman was small. Quite a few inches shorter than Ro. Short, cropped hair and round glasses framed her face.
“Calm down, Aiva,” Jay said, sternly. He turned his attention back to Ro, “Are you okay?”
Ro didn’t answer, only looked back and forth between the strangers and Jay.
“Ro?” Jay asked again, concern growing in his voice.
“I- I think so,” she stammered.
“How did you get here?” Aiva demanded. Jay shot her a warning look but nodded at Ro.
She gulped hard. This could not end well for her.
“I followed you.”
If it was possible to hear blood boiling, Ro would have heard it coming from Aiva in that moment. A beat of silence followed, then Aiva slowly turned to Jay.
“Do you realize what this means?” Aiva fumed.
“We’ll have to move,” the man said.
“Start over somewhere else,” Aivia added haltingly.
“Jay, man, this is no joke,” the man cautioned. Jay held up a hand and they both instantly fell silent. What the hell is going on, was the only thing that crossed Ro’s mind.
“Aiva, Dex, it’s okay,” Jay extended his hand to Ro, who accepted it gratefully. She winced as the full force of her shoulder injury came to the forefront as he pulled her up. For the first time since she came into the room, she got a good look around. The room was spacious, with smooth gray walls and high ceilings. Ro noticed that the only light in the room came from a tangle of geometric lines painted along the walls. They emitted a soft, blue glow evenly across the room. On one end of the room was a table with a large map and tokens placed on top of it. It reminded Ro of a war movie she had seen once. The opposite wall was decorated from end to end in...were those weapons?
“It’s okay,” Jay repeated. Then, sheepishly, “This isn’t how you’re supposed to find out.”
A puzzled expression must have crossed Ro’s face because Jay chuckled.
“You mean she’s one of us?!” Aiva shrieked.
Ro was sure she dreamt up the next five minutes of the conversation. In fact, she probably dreamt up the entire night. All she had to do was rub her eyes, pinch herself, and poof she’d be back home before she decided to go out and get herself into this mess.
The conversation started innocently enough:
“Ro, there are things in this world we can’t explain.”
And somehow it ended with:
“Wait, so you’re telling me...” Ro said slowly.
“Uh huh,” Jay coaxed.
“...that the stuff from nightmares and scary stories…”
“Monsters...ghosts...vampires. That’s all real?”
Jay nodded, “All real.”
“And…” she continued, “and they only come out once a month on the full moon.”
“Only during the week of a full moon,” Aiva corrected from across the room. She and Dex had moved to the large table to study the map.
“We don’t know why yet,” Jay added. “We don’t know a lot of things. But we learn something new every month. And every month, we get better at killing them.”
And that’s how the rest of the conversation went. Naturally, Ro resisted at first, but after Jay showed her countless images, intricate maps that Dex had drawn up, tracking devices Aiva built, and multiple assurances that she, in fact, was not being punk’d, Ro took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Jay was never in the mafia. Her lycanthropy theory was closer to the truth! Jay hunted monsters. The reason for his mysterious disappearances was that this team of hunters needed to be available at a moment’s notice, because while they knew the week they would have to show up, they didn’t know exactly when. Ro opened her eyes.
“Okay,” Ro said. “Okay.”
Jay grinned widely.
“Great!” he said, “Because there’s something else.”
Ro only stared back in response.
“Well,” Jay began. “The people who get to do this -- it’s not random. We’re selected. Dex was first, then me. Aiva joined us only a couple of months ago. And, well, next on the list…”
Ava’s eyes widened as the realization dawned on her. Jay nodded.
“That’s right,” Jay walked over to the wall with the weapons. He perused a section of sheathed knives that ranged from tiny throwing knives to machetes the length of Ro’s arm. He paused at one in the middle and lifted it from its display, a needle-point dagger with a jet black hilt and sheath to match.
“The only rule is-” Jay pulled the knife out to inspect it and then locked it back in its case when he was satisfied, “-we can’t tell anyone.”
Without warning, he tossed the knife to Ro, who, to her own surprise, caught it with one hand. She gripped it by the hilt and noticed immediately that it was perfectly balanced, as if it was made for her.
“So what do you say, Ro?” he asked. She looked up to meet his gaze. He was smirking.
“Can you keep a secret?”