Early Spring, 1635
Natalie pulled on her boots and grabbed her backpack off the bed. The weather had been mostly wet and grey as spring slowly replaced winter, so she hoped the puddle-filled streets would be enough of an excuse to be wearing boots instead of her normal sneakers. If Mom even notices.
She shoved her textbooks a little further under the edge of her bed with her foot, then stepped out into the hall. “Hey, Mom. I’m headed for school. I’ll see you this afternoon.” She headed for the door, trying not to look like she was in a rush. Trying not to look guilty.
“Wait a minute, Natalie.” Mom poked her head out of the kitchen. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Natalie paused, fidgeting. “Uh . . .”
“Lunch,” Mom said with a smile. She came down the hallway with the lunchbox.
“Oh. Right.” Natalie took it from her with a nod. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You’re in a hurry this morning.” Mom paused, looking at her more closely. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Fine. Just . . . there might be a pop quiz this morning.” It wasn’t a lie. There might be a pop quiz, but even if there was Natalie didn’t plan to be there.
Mom nodded. “All right. I’m sure you’ll do fine.” She gave Natalie a quick hug. “Go on, then. And be careful. There’s still ice in some places.”
“Right, Mom.” Natalie waved as she hurried down the steps toward the street. “See you this afternoon.”
She waited until she reached the street corner before she stopped to unzip her backpack and stuff the lunchbox inside. There was already other food in the bag where her school books would normally be. She zipped it back up, glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mom wasn’t still watching her from the house, then turned left at the corner and headed for the edge of Grantville instead of continuing up the street toward the school.
There were some other folks out, but none of them paid any attention as Natalie hurried past. Not even the other kids headed to school seemed to notice she was headed in the wrong direction. She wasn’t even sure they noticed her at all. One advantage to having no friends. No one really cared where she was going.
She tucked her thumbs through the straps on her backpack, pulling it more snugly against her back so it wouldn’t jostle as she walked, and hurried on.
By the time she reached the edge of town and the big tree by the crossroad, she was breathing hard—cheeks and nose prickling from walking in the chilly morning.
“Red? Henrietta?” Natalie paused, wondering if the other girl had already left without her. “Henrietta?” she called again.
“It’s about time you showed up.” Henrietta stepped out from behind the tree. She was wearing a plain gray cloak, her red hair hidden under a white cap with frayed ribbons that tied loosely under her chin. A sack containing what looked to be her Monster Society costume rested in the grass beside the tree.
Natalie blinked, barely recognizing her without the trademark crimson cloak she wore when they were campaigning. “Hey. Didn’t see you there.”
“I was just about to give up on you.” Henrietta crossed her arms over her chest.
“Yeah. Sorry. Mom wanted to chat right before I left.” Natalie shook her head. “Thanks for waiting. I’m not sure I know where . . . Konrad lives.”
Henrietta nodded. “We should probably get started. It’s a bit of a walk and you said you have to get back by the afternoon.”
“Yeah. By the time school gets out. Otherwise my mom’ll start to worry.” Natalie fell into step beside her longer-legged friend.
“You sure it’s okay for you to . . . skip? I thought that school was important to you.” Henrietta looked at her, part frown and part curious.
“Yes. But I’ve been doing all the extra credit for the past week so it’s not like I’m falling behind or anything.”
Belated, Natalie remembered that Henrietta didn’t go to school—not even the old-fashioned school in the down-timer village. “They send home work each day. A kind of review of what we’ve studied so we can practice at home. There are always a few extra questions that we don’t have to do unless we did bad on a test or missed a day or something.”
“Oh.” Henrietta nodded.
They walked a little further, squeezing over to the muddy verge of the road as a man with a cart passed them going the opposite direction.
Natalie stuffed her hands in her coat pockets. “Are you okay?”
“What?” Henrietta looked at her with a frown.
“You just look worried. It is okay that we’re going to visit . . . Konrad?”
“Yeah.” She made a face. “You say his name funny.”
“Just not used to it. But I figure his mom might not like me calling him Ray.” She grinned. “John called me Scully in front of my mom and her face . . .” She puckered her mouth up in an imitation.
“Yeah.” Henrietta nodded. “Sure.”
“You don’t sound—”
“When I saw John last week he said Konrad was pretty sick, but he should be better soon. But I overheard a couple of folks in the village talking and they seemed to think . . . he was still really sick.” She looked at Natalie, and she looked more than worried.
Natalie swallowed hard. She looks scared. “John would have told us if it were something serious, right?” She put her hand on Henrietta’s shoulder awkwardly. “I’m sure they were just gossiping. My dad says anytime a down-timer has a cold for more than a couple of days everyone starts wondering if it’s the plague.”
“Yeah. I guess.” Henrietta twitched her cloak closer, folding her arms up in it.
“It’s not the plague, right?”
“If it were, everyone would know.” She started walking again, and Natalie hurried after her.
Her backpack was getting heavy, and she wondered if maybe she should have left some of the stuff behind. She’d figured Ray . . . Konrad would like the cookies, but seeing that Henrietta hadn’t brought anything except a sack which looked to have her costume in it, she wondered if maybe she should have left the food at home. Maybe down-timers didn’t give each other gifts while they were sick. Maybe she doesn’t have anything to give.
Natalie hitched at the straps and took an extra couple of steps so they were walking side by side again. “Is it much further?”
“Just around that bend.” Henrietta pointed ahead to a curve in the muddy road.
“Okay. Hold on a second.” Natalie pulled her backpack around and unzipped the front pocket. Inside was a card she had drawn. It had taken a few tries, but the front had a drawing of Konrad in full Monster Society gear on it.
Henrietta peered over her shoulder. “That’s pretty good,” she said grudgingly.
Natalie blushed. “Thanks. I know it doesn’t look too much like Konrad, but . . .”
“No. It’s good. He’ll love it.” She slipped her arm through Natalie’s. “Come on.”
Konrad’s house sat back a little way from the road, a rutted path that was mostly mud and puddles leading in between the bare-limbed trees. There was smoke drifting from the chimney, but the house itself seemed oddly quiet. Grantville had brought with it a new era of prosperity for the lands around it but there were always, always, those who fell through the cracks, even in the good times. The house was little more than a hut compared to the houses that lined the streets of Grantville. Natalie felt ashamed that she had never been here before. How many times had Konrad, in character as Ray, visited hers? Maybe if she had known just how poor Konrad’s family was before now she could have asked her parents if they could have helped them somehow. Konrad was always so happy and giving though. It was hard to imagine he lived in a place like this. Natalie promised herself that she would talk with her parents about Konrad and his family when she got home. Surely, there had to be something they could do for them.
Natalie and Henrietta both stopped at the edge of the yard, uncertain.
The door of the house opened, and John stepped out, a basin of cloudy water in his hands. He tossed it out along the side of the house and then stood for a moment staring up at the empty trees.
Natalie clutched the handmade card, the paper crumpling in her fingers. Something is wrong.
John looked exhausted with deep shadows on his face, almost as though someone had blackened his eyes. And his face was pale and drawn, like he hadn’t been outside in days.
Henrietta pulled her arm free of Natalie’s and strode forward. “John.”
He flinched and moved toward her hurriedly. “What are you doing here?” The muscle in his jaw trembled as he saw Natalie was there too. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
“We wanted to see Ray. I mean K-Konrad.” Natalie stumbled over his name more than usual.
“He’s still sick. You should go.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the house.
Henrietta stood her ground. “You told me he would be getting better by now.”
“Well, he’s not and you need to go.” John grabbed her by the arm, trying to turn her away from the house.
She knocked his hand away. “Tell me what’s wrong, John. What’s wrong with Konrad?”
In the house someone screamed though it sounded muffled somehow. It was a raw and agonized sound that rose up and then abruptly stopped, but Natalie recognized the voice anyway. “Ray.” She clapped her hand over her mouth as tears welled up.
“John.” Henrietta grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
The door of the house opened again and a woman stepped outside. She looked even more worn than John, her eyes bloodshot and pale cheeks streaked with tears. “John?”
“I’m coming.” He looked at Natalie. “Please. Go home.”
But Henrietta pushed past him. “Agnes. Tell me what’s happened to Konrad.”
Agnes swayed, looking up at her in confusion. Then her eyes flickered with recognition. “Henrietta, isn’t it?” She smoothed a wisp of hair back from her face automatically.
“Agnes. What’s wrong with Konrad?”
The older woman glanced at John and her mouth twisted as though she tasted something bitter. “You haven’t told them?”
John shook his head. His hands dangled limply by his side and Natalie thought she’d never seen him look so old.
“Told us what? Haven’t told us what, Agnes?” Henrietta was yelling.
“It’s lockjaw,” Agnes said. “Konrad won’t . . . he’s not . . .” Tears slid down her face, but her voice remained steady. Wooden. “It’s almost over.”
Henrietta turned and glared at John. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He lifted his hands, helpless. “What would I have said? That he was as good as dead? I thought it would be better . . .”
She shook her head. “No. No.” She caught her dress in her hand and ran back down the path.
Natalie jumped as a horrible noise of pain drifted out of the house again.
John’s shoulders sagged and he went back inside without a word. Without looking at her. For a moment, Natalie wondered if she should follow him, but she knew she couldn’t.
Agnes stood by the door, swaying a little and looking at Natalie. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought John had told you.”
Natalie shook her head and stepped closer. “No. I . . . uh.” She was still clutching the card in her hand. She smoothed the wrinkles out of it and held it out. “I made that for Konrad. I didn’t know . . .” She rubbed her face on her sleeve. “I’m so sorry.” Then she dropped the card and ran after Henrietta.
The inside of the house was warm, but sour with sweat. John huddled on the stool next to the bed, wishing he could throw the shutters open and let clean air blow through. He closed his eyes, imagining wind sweeping away the darkness, the stink. Wind pouring over and through the house and taking Konrad’s sickness with it.
But when he opened his eyes nothing had changed. His friend still lay in the bed, dying.
Konrad’s entire body arched up off the bed as another convulsion twisted and shook him. The same terrible scream building in his throat, then cutting off abruptly as he strained for breath as his own muscles tightened to the point his bones creaked under the strain.
John clung to his hand. “Hold on, Ray. It’ll pass. Just hold on, mate.”
After what seemed like hours, Konrad went limp, sagging back against the sweat-drenched sheets.
John wet a cloth in the basin and wiped a dribble of saliva from Konrad’s mouth. “Easy, Ray. Just rest for a minute.”
The door opened, and Agnes came inside, shutting the door quickly to keep the cold spring air outside lest it trigger another spasm. She came and sat on the other side of the bed, a muddy piece of paper in her hand. “Some more of your friends came by, Konrad. They brought you . . . this.” She held the card up uncertainly.
Konrad’s eyes, blurry with fever, trembled, but John wasn’t sure his friend was aware of much.
Agnes smoothed the quilt over her son. The sickness had melted away his rolls of fat as he had lost the ability to eat, as the fever had consumed him, leaving him gaunt and even more fragile. She set the card on the shelf above the bed. “It’s all right. I’ll just put it there and you can look at it when you . . . when you’re feeling better.” At first John had thought Agnes had said those things because she didn’t want to admit what they all knew—Konrad was dying. She always said When you are better. She’d even promised, when he had first lost the ability to open his mouth, that she would try and make him a proper costume once he was well. All your friends will be jealous, she’d said. John had wanted to shake her, to yell at her and remind her that Konrad would not be Ray ever again. That soon he wouldn’t even be Konrad.
Then he’d realized the things she said were not for her own benefit. The lines around her mouth, the redness of her eyes, the way her shoulders sagged every time she looked at her son wasting away in her bed, all of them told John that she talked of getting better because it was the only way she knew to comfort Konrad. And he knew, when she held her son’s hand and prayed through the night, she was no longer praying he would get better, but that he would be released from his agony soon.
“John,” Agnes said in almost a whisper.
John looked over at her, not knowing what to expect.
“I just wanted to say thank you for all you’ve done for my son,” Agnes explained. “Your Monster Society . . . It’ s everything to Konrad. I didn’t realize just how much it meant to him until . . .”
Suddenly, Konrad shuddered, another spasm forcing him into the brutal arch—only touching the bed with his heels and head. But this time he made no sound other than the guttural wheeze of the breath slowly being forced from his body, he just clutched John’s hand—fingers squeezing tighter and tighter.
John winced, but held on. “Easy, mate. It’ll pass.” He’d said the same thing, over and over again, in the past few days. Anything to try and fill the silence. He was usually good at talking, good at filling in the silent spaces when things were awkward, but now, even he was at a loss for words. Ray’s hand went limp and John knew, even before he looked up and saw his friend’s eyes staring into nothing, that he was gone.
Agnes began to sob, the first time John had seen her cry in front of Ray. Only now she was just crying beside him.
John stood up and went outside, unable to stand the heat and the smell inside the house. Unable to watch Ray’s mother weeping for her dead son. With Konrad gone, he felt like an intruder in Agnes’ home. He had done all he could for them, and it hadn’t been enough.
He wanted to smash something, to tear the whole house down with his hands as if maybe, once the house was gone, the rest of it would be, too. But he couldn’t and there was nothing in the muddy little yard to break, nothing to bear the brunt of the grief threatening to turn him inside out.
John doubled over and vomited, mostly bile and spit.
It was not fair. Ray was too young to die. Especially like this. Stabbing his hand on a bit of rusted metal while they had been prepping their last game. Not fair. Ray should have been hanging out with Red—the Monster Society’s round little ghost hunter and the big, tough warrior having stumbled on something more than their first strained friendship.
But Ray was dead and Red . . .
John straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He knew he should have told her and Natalie the truth, but he’d thought it would be easier on them not to have to share in the grief of watching Ray wither away in the unforgiving grip of lockjaw. Now he realized all he’d done was deny them the opportunity to say good-bye.
The door of the house opened, and Agnes emerged. She was wearing her cloak, face pale but unnervingly calm. “I have to go and make arrangements for the burial,” she said. “Will you sit with him while I’m gone?”
He didn’t want to but how could he refuse? John nodded. “Of course, Mother Agnes.”
“Good. He shouldn’t be alone.” For a moment her lips trembled, fresh tears welling up, but she brushed those away with her fingertips and squared her shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
John went back into the house slowly. Ray was tucked under the quilt, his hair combed neatly across his forehead. Almost as though he were sleeping.
John sat down beside the bed. Glanced over his shoulder, but he was alone. Agnes would be walking into the village to find the priest and hire gravediggers.
He reached out and touched Ray’s cheek, but it was already growing cool. Not fair. He rubbed his fingers through his hair, wishing again for magic that would have kept all this from happening. He paused. Magic. It had always been pretend when they campaigned, but maybe . . .
John leaned close to the bed. “I’m going to find a way to make this right, Ray. You hear me? I’m going to fix this.”
The candles on the table flickered, nearly guttering out before the flames stretched up tall and straight. He wanted so badly to believe the flicker was more than just a random coincidence.
John sat back in his chair with a sigh. I’m going to fix this.
The sun was almost gone from the sky by the time Henrietta made it home. She had left Natalie hours earlier, wandering about the woods alone, trying to process what the two of them had discovered at Konrad’s house. Henrietta had heard Natalie calling after her as she ran but ignored her. The pain had been so sharp then that she had just wanted to be alone. She felt guilt over leaving Natalie like that especially since she had lied to Natalie about how long the walk to Konrad’s house would take. There was little chance of Natalie making it home in time for her parents’ liking even though they lived near the edge of Grantville. Henrietta had just wanted to see Konrad so badly but had lacked the courage to go alone. She hoped Natalie was okay. Natalie was an up-timer, after all. But, Natalie was smart, though, and tough, Henrietta reminded herself.
Henrietta knew she would never see Konrad again. Fresh tears stung her eyes as she remembered the night he had gone on and on about kissing her. She cursed herself for not doing it then while she had the chance. Now, she never would. All the moments they could have shared had been stolen from them and by what? Bad luck? The devil? Was she being punished by God for being a part of the Monster Society? She knew very well how the church felt about the Society even if it hadn’t taken any action against them . . . yet.
In a fit of rage, she threw the sack containing her costume onto the ground. She left it there as she went and got a shovel. When she returned, she attacked the dirt with its blade like a demon-possessed maniac. Covered in sweat, her gray cloak smeared with dirt, and her white cap gone from her head, she stood staring at the hole she had dug.
The shovel slid from her grasp as she sunk to her knees. She reached out and pulled the sack containing her costume over to her. “Goodbye, Konrad,” she whispered as she stuffed the sack into the hole and then stood again. She buried her costume deep and her pain deeper as she finally, shovel in hand, headed for her house.
The funeral was a small one. As soon as it ended, Natalie made a dash to catch Henrietta before she left. Henrietta saw her coming but made no move to stop. Natalie wasn’t going to let her get away though. She outpaced Henrietta and put herself directly in the larger girl’s path.
“Henrietta . . .” Natalie started and then realized she didn’t really know what to say. “I just . . . I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your pity, Natalie. Konrad is gone and nothing you can say will change that,” Henrietta told her.
“You don’t have to be alone Henrietta,” Natalie said.
“I’m not alone. I have my family. Now please get out of my way.”
“John and I miss you,” Natalie pleaded. “The Monster Society needs you.”
“The Monster Society died with Konrad, and you know it, Natalie. It’s time we all grew up and put those kind of games behind us,” Henrietta told her. “I’m going home, Natalie. I suggest you do the same and get out of my way before you force me into doing something we both will regret.”
Natalie looked into Henrietta’s eyes and saw that she meant what she said. Stepping aside, Natalie watched Henrietta leave, holding back her tears. If Henrietta wanted to be left alone, in truth, there was nothing she could do about it.
“We’ll be around if you change your mind!” Natalie called after her. “You’re a part of our family, too!”
Henrietta didn’t even look back at her. She just kept on walking until she disappeared into the trees and Natalie lost sight of her. Natalie clenched her hands at her sides, so tight that her knuckles went white and her nails dug into the flesh of her palms.
Natalie had to remind herself that however much she was hurting that Henrietta had to be hurting more. Henrietta had known Konrad a good deal longer than she had and they were both down-timers. On top of that, Natalie had watched how the two of them had seemed to be drawing closer to each other after the last movie night at her house. She had hoped that Henrietta and Konrad would find the same happiness she and John had without all the drama that came from John being John.
The dark clouds overhead opened up. A heavy rain began to fall in waves that splashed down over her. Natalie felt John slip his trench coat over her shoulders without saying a word. She hadn’t seen him coming and wondered if he had seen what had happened between her and Henrietta.
She turned to stare into his eyes. All that was in them was pain.
“I’m sorry,” John said after a moment. “I should have told you. I should have told you both. I just didn’t want . . .”
“Ssshhh,” she pulled him into a hug, clinging to him.
John gently wormed his way out of her embrace. “I love you, Natalie,” he said. “But this isn’t over.”
“What?” Natalie asked, both confused and stunned by John’s statement. “What do you mean it’s not over?”
“You’ll see, love,” John tried to shoot her his trademark grin but it broke apart on his lips. “It can’t end like this.”
With that John darted away, disappearing through the rain into the woods.
“But it already has,” Natalie sobbed, standing alone with John’s trench coat on her shoulders and fresh tears mixing with the rain that ran over the curves of her cheeks.