The glass of the diner’s window shattered, crashing in shards to the floor. The tempting smell of cooking hamburgers on the grill was replaced by the overwhelming stench of raw sewage. Outside, in the street, their yellow eyes burning in the night, the monsters roared. Then, the screen went black, and the credits began to roll.
Ray leaped from his seat on the couch. “Now that was a movie!”
Reclining comfortably, with his arm around Scully as she snuggled against his shoulder, John smiled.
Red sat staring at the screen with a frown pulling the corners of her lips downward. “I don’t get it,” she said.
Ray whirled on her. “What don’t you get? That was amazing.”
Red looked up at him. “That toxic . . .” She glanced at Scully in her struggle to find the correct word.
“Waste,” Scully filled in the blank for her.
“That toxic waste,” Red continued. “It changed those poor people into monsters right?”
Ray nodded. “Yeah, so?”
“It’s just that if they’re monsters now and not human, they’re not really people anymore. That means you can’t really call them cannibals because they’re not eating their own kind.”
John smirked as he watched Ray. Ray looked like he wanted to explode in frustration and anger.
“Easy now, mate,” John laughed, “She has a point, you know.”
“But . . .” Ray started.
John cut him off, shifting on the couch to look at Red. “Don’t overthink things too much. Sometimes it’s best to just take them as they are and enjoy them.”
Red didn’t appear convinced but she dropped the issue of the movie’s title and changed the subject. “Thanks for having us over, Scully. This was a great idea.”
John squeezed Scully tight. “I agree, love. We can’t be out there fighting monsters all the time. Besides, being here is a lot safer than the stuff we normally do. It’s a nice change.”
“You just don’t want to meet another Yeti.” Scully smiled and poked John in his ribs.
“You got that right!” he said. “My ankle’s almost healed up so I figure we’ll back to it soon enough.”
Ray had moved closer to the TV and was kneeling next to it. “What do you call this box that plays the movies again?”
“A VCR,” Scully answered. “My dad gave it to me the year before the Ring of Fire brought the town of Grantville here.”
Red wandered over to the small stack of VHS tapes and started digging through them. “What should we watch next?”
Ray piped up so fast, it made Red flinch and almost drop the tape she was holding.
“Who ya gonna call?” Ray belted out but never got to finish as John stopped him.
“Not tonight.” He glanced at Scully. “Right?”
She shook her head in agreement. “We’re not watching that again. I know it’s a classic, but you’ve seen it before, Ray. We need to watch stuff you guys haven’t seen so we can come up with a new adventure.”
“He just loves the secretary.” John grinned and winked.
Ray flushed but made no move to deny John’s remark.
Red held up a tape. “How about this one?”
The tape’s box had a woman dressed in a strange red and blue outfit on it. She was beautiful and wore what looked to be a lasso fastened at her hip to the belt she wore.
Scully shook her head. “Naw, that’s not scary. We need to watch something else with monsters.”
The cover of the box she held up had a giant creature that resembled a tree with a long pointed tongue stabbing outwards from its mouth towards a screaming woman.
“Is that really a killer plant?” John asked, leaning forward.
“It’s a Triffid,” Scully giggled. “You guys will love it.”
Ray came over to the table, grabbing up a tape himself. “This looks pretty good,” he said, holding up a box with a cover that had a person covered in pinkish goo who appeared to melting on it.
“Guys,” John said, “Maybe we should call it a day with the movies, huh?”
“We’ve only watched three so far,” Ray protested. It wasn’t every day that the Monster Society had access to such a treasure trove of up-time horror.
“I know, but it’s getting late,” John pointed out. “Natalie’s parents will be home soon, and we need to clear out before they get here.”
Both Red and Ray stared at John. He’d used Scully’s real name. There was an unspoken rule in the Monster Society. When they got together, they always used the names of their chosen characters.
Red picked up on John’s hint. “He’s right. It is getting late, Ray. We better get going.”
Ray threw up his hands in defeat as if he were surrounded by traitors. “Fine, but we are so going to make an adventure out of that last film. Those monsters were . . .”
“Amazing, awe-inspiring, epic. Yeah, we know, Ray.” Red grabbed Ray by his sleeve. “We can talk about all that later though.”
Red led Ray to the door and helped him somewhat roughly through it, as Scully opened it for them.
“Have a good night, guys.” Scully smiled as she wished them off.
John got up from the couch as she closed the door. “Sorry about Ray.”
“Ray’s all right,” Scully said. “He’s really just a kid despite his age.”
“Hey now, none of us are that old,” John protested, stepping closer and taking her in his arms.
“John.” Scully turned serious. “I think the two of us really need to talk.”
“Of course, love.” He paused as her frown deepened. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you ever stop playing?”
“I’m not playing now, love.”
Natalie shook her head. “No. Not . . . being playful. Do you . . . are you ever not in character?”
He blinked, feeling a wave of heat creeping up the back of his neck until his ears felt nearly scorched. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” He bit his tongue to keep from adding the trademark love.
She looked at him, a glimmer of hurt in her eyes, quickly replaced by a gleam he was certain was anger. “See, I thought the problem would be with the others. Trying to stay friends with Ray and Red while being . . . closer with you. But that’s worked out.” She rubbed her hands on her jeans agitatedly. “I mean, Red still looks at me a little stabby-like sometimes, but she and I want to be friends. We want to stay a part of the group so we make it work. But this . . . I don’t know what to do with this.” She gestured at John, his makeshift trenchcoat and battered tie knotted loosely around his neck.
John smoothed the front of his coat instinctively. “I know it’s not the real thing, but it’s close enough, right?”
Natalie made an exasperated noise and turned her attention to the pile of VHS tapes—gathering them up and putting them back on the bookshelf next to the TV.
John stared at her, an angry pinch in his throat. “Don’t you enjoy the Monster Society?”
“Yes.” She slapped a couple more tapes onto the shelf.
“Then I don’t understand what your problem is.”
She turned and glared at him. “My problem?”
For a moment he considered reminding her that she was the one who had decided not to cuddle on the couch, but the last video tape, still clutched in her hand, convinced him otherwise. She does have a good throwing arm. “Okay. I don’t understand what the problem is.”
Natalie threw her hands in the air, then turned and shoved the last tape back on the shelf. She propped her hands on her hips, head tilted to one side as she stared at the bookcase. “I get it. I mean, I’m one of the Monster Society, so I get it. I like the opportunity to be smart and still have friends. That’s why I wanted to be Scully.
“And Henrietta. Well, I think she picked Red because it gives her a chance to kill the monsters that would hurt her friends and family. You know?” She fell silent for a moment.
John shuffled sideways, trying to get a look at her face, but only able to lean on the edge of the table and watch the muscle in her jaw tremble. “And Ray?” he asked, trying to coax her into talking to him, even if it was about someone else.
“Konrad is easy. He picked Ray because the occult is his thing.” She glanced sideways at him. “And because he can tell stupid jokes and be enthusiastic and still be a part of the group. Not weird. Not alone.”
“Okay. Right. So we all wish we could be something different.” John leaned forward. “That’s why we have the Monster Society, right?”
“Yeah.” Natalie stomped back across the room and flopped onto the couch. “But . . . for us it’s an escape. A thing we do part of the time to get away from the stupid stuff in real life. But you . . .” She waved a hand at his clothes again. “I’ve met this John.” Her fingers made invisible quotation marks in the air. “But I don’t know if I’ve ever even met John.”
John fumbled in his pocket for his wooden cigarette, then paused, rolling it between his fingers. “Damn.” He shoved the prop back into his coat pocket. “Does it matter that much?”
Natalie bit her lip. “Yes.” It was just a whisper, but it shook him.
“Damn,” he said again.
She looked at him, rubbed her palms on her jeans again. “I’m worried, John. I know it must have been hard for you, getting kicked out of the army, but . . .”
“Leaving the army, love.” He crossed his arms over his chest and tried to force himself to grin.
Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
John glared at her for a moment, then sighed. “All right. It wasn’t entirely my idea to leave. But it’s just a game, right?” His lips trembled with the effort of trying to smile. “Don’t you ever wish you could be Scully all the time?”
She tucked her feet up under so she sat cross-legged, and rested her elbows on her knees. “Sometimes, I guess. But even if I could make that real, I’d still run into the things I want to escape here.”
He sat down on the other end of the couch with a frown. “What sort of things?”
“Have you ever seen the show, John? It’s fun and scary and there’s always some mystery to be solved, but Scully spends a lot of time alone. A lot of time trying to convince people that her best friend isn’t crazy.” She licked her lips. “Trying to convince herself he isn’t crazy.”
John leaned forward, the anger he had felt earlier melting into worry. “Is that what this is about? Has someone been causing you grief about me? Your parents?”
“Nah, not them.” She shook her head. “Mom and Dad are just pleased I have friends. Even if we do dress up in costumes and run around the woods like idiots.”
“Then who?” He scooted closer and took her hand. “Who has been telling you I’m crazy?”
Natalie shrugged, staring at her hand wrapped tight around his. “Some girls at school said all the Monster Society was crazy. If I was hanging out with you, I must be too. And I tried to tell ‘em it was just a game, you know? But they said they’d heard that after you . . . left the army you just weren’t the same. Just always pretending to be this John.”
“Natalie . . .” John paused, not sure what to say.
She folded her other hand around his and leaned toward him as though she were about to tell him a secret. “I don’t know what happened, John. I do understand that some things . . . you just want to leave behind, to escape. But this . . .” She brushed her fingers across his shoulder, straightened the collar on his trench coat. “It is pretend. At some point we just have to be ourselves.”
He swallowed hard. “Yeah.” He clutched her hands tight. “Just give me a minute.”
Ray had trotted down the street, humming to himself. “Who you gonna call? Bam-nuh-nuh-nana.” Already he was thinking up ideas for future campaigns involving toxic cannibals and trying to figure out a means of simulating a sewer system. He paused realizing Red was no longer walking beside him. “Hey.”
She was still standing on the corner up the block from Scully’s house, fiddling with her cloak, then bending down to pull at the laces on her shoes.
Ray doubled back, still humming, as he looked down at Red. “You okay?”
Red twitched and stood up quickly. Even in the dim light from the streetlamps her cheeks were pink. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.”
“We were going and then you stopped to . . .” He paused, glancing back at the house. “Oh. Right.”
“Just forget it.” Red crossed her arms on her chest and strode up the street.
Ray combed his fingers through his hair, then hurried after her. “I think when John said, ‘We should go. Natalie’s parents will be home soon,’ he meant, ‘You should go.’ ”
“Really?” Red glared at him, her voice sharp enough to cut stone.
“No need to bite my head off. It’s not my fault they like each other.” She didn’t say anything, still stomping along like she was ready to hurt something. “I mean, I’d rather be snuggling too.” His cheeks flushed at the thought, but he waggled his eyebrows at Red suggestively.
“Uh, no.” But some of the tension left her shoulders.
“Aw, come on.” He swung around so that he was facing her, walking backwards as she continued up the street, and spread his arms wide. “You’ve got that nice hayloft at your place. Just a little cuddle, love?” He batted his eyelashes, then made a kissy face.
“Stop it.” But there was a hint of grin.
“Stop whaaaa—“ His foot came down funny as he reached the curb and he plopped down in the street. “Ow.” He lay still for a minute, trying to catch his breath.
“Are you okay?” Red looked down at him with concern.
“Yeah.” He pushed up into a sitting position. “Just bruised a little.”
“You sure?” She offered him a hand up.
“Yeah.” He brushed bits of slush off his jumpsuit. “Don’t seem to have John’s knack for injuring myself being silly.”
“Hah.” That time she actually grinned, and he grinned back.
For a moment they just stood there. Ray becoming uncomfortably aware of how close they were standing and the way the light from the streetlamp fell across Red’s face. He’d always thought she was pretty, but tonight, for a moment at least, there was something . . . personal about the way she looked at him.
He held his breath, started to lean in . . .
“No, Ray.” Red put her hand on his chest firmly. “Not tonight.” She started walking again, tucking her arms up under her cloak again.
Ray blinked. Not tonight. “Hey. Wait. So, maybe some other night?”
Red laughed. “Shut up, Ray.”
“But . . . not tonight? Come on.” He hurried after her. “Don’t tease me like that.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again, looking at him thoughtfully. “No teasing, Ray. It doesn’t mean maybe on a different day. Or not on a different day. Just . . . not tonight, okay?”
“Okay.” Ray nodded. “Okay.” He couldn’t help but grin. He hitched his utility belt up and followed Red down the street toward the edge of Grantville. “Bada-nah-na-nana. Who you gonna call?”
Natalie looked at John. “You don’t have to tell me—“
“No.” He shook his head. “You’re right. I guess you’ve not met John. Not real John. I’m just… what if you don’t like me?”
She frowned. “Would you rather I liked you just because you’re pretending to be someone?”
“Well . . .”
“I mean, you met me when I was just Natalie. Not Scully. Not even part of the Monster Society. Just plain old geeky me.”
“But you’re an up-timer and you’re cool and love monster movies and even just Natalie is someone I like.”
“And maybe just John is someone I’ll like.” She squeezed his hands. “I’m pretty certain that he can’t be that different from this John. But I need to know that I’m talking to you. Not just a character.”
John nodded. “Right. Okay.”
Clearing his throat, John said, “Look, Natalie, I’m just a loser, okay? Always have been, always will be. I thought the army was my shot to change that but it . . . didn’t work out. Now, all I have is the John I pretend to be . . . and you. To be honest, the John I used to be before I took on my character died a long time ago. I guess . . .I guess I just don’t honestly know who I really am anymore. Does that make sense?”
Natalie was frowning.
“But I do know I love you, Natalie,” John added. “Isn’t that enough?”
“For now, I suppose,” Natalie shrugged. “But someday, John, you’re going to have to tell me what happened in your past.”
“I will, but not tonight,” John said. The tone of his voice was almost a plea for forgiveness. John leaned forward and took her hands in his. “How about the two of us work on finding the real me again, together?”
“I’d like that, John,” Natalie smiled. “I’d like that very much.”