The Monster Society: From the Ashes

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Henrietta crossed the muddy yard between the house and the barn, weaving back and forth to avoid the worst of the puddles. It was barely an hour past dawn, and already she was exhausted. No matter how hard she tried to put the Monster Society and the loss of Ray out of her head, she had lain awake all night thinking of things she might have done differently—things she might have done that would have saved him.

She ducked into the barn and stood for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light. It was warmer than the yard, at least. The ox and pigs gave off heat, and the hay in the loft above held it in, even when the wind whispered against the roof.

Henrietta tucked her braid up under her cap and grabbed the two-pronged pitchfork from beside the door. On any other day she might have been resentful of doing this work alone and the knowledge that she might not be able to see her friends. But with Ray gone, she no longer had friends, and the work was at least an outlet for the anger and grief that held her so tight she wondered if it would ever fade.

She murmured to the ox soothingly as she used the fork to pull the dirty straw from his stall. Her arms and back aching as she worked with a feverish determination – tossing the soiled bedding over her shoulder into the middle of the little barn. Thrust. Lift. Toss. Focusing on the work so she would not have time to think of anything else.

The door to the barn creaked open, light spilling in for a moment before it shut again. Henrietta shoved the fork into another mound of straw. "I'm not done yet, Papa."

"It's not . . . Hey!" Natalie dodged sideways as a clod of straw and manure hurtled toward her.

Henrietta turned and looked at her with a scowl. "I'm busy."

"I can see that." Natalie shuffled her feet. "But we need to talk."

"About what? The Monster Society? I told you. I'm done with that." She dug the fork into another pile of straw and hurled it over her shoulder.

"Hey!" Natalie sidestepped again. "No, it's not about that." She moved closer, leaning on the top rail of the stall. "It's about John."

Henrietta paused, a new wave of anger making her cheeks flush. She had known from the moment she first saw John and Natalie together that he was more interested in the up-timer than he ever had been in her. But now, with Ray gone, hearing Natalie say his name was just a reminder that she was alone.

She scraped the last bits of dirty bedding out of the corners and tossed it onto the pile, looked at Natalie, ready to tell her to get out. But Natalie's normal shy demeanor was gone—a serious wrinkle across her forehead.

Henrietta sighed. "What about John?"

"He's not taking Konrad's . . . passing very well."

Henrietta shook her head. "Some of us were his friends. Not just in the Monster Society. Some of us knew him. Some of us . . ." She stopped, throat burning with the effort of holding back tears.

Natalie reached out impulsively and laid her hand on Henrietta's shoulder. "You loved him."

Hearing it out loud hurt more than anything else, and Henrietta tried to shake her head, but tears spilled over, and she reached up to take Natalie's hand. "Maybe." She took a deep breath. "Yes."

Natalie rubbed at her own eyes fiercely, but didn't let go of Henrietta's hand, still leaning awkwardly across the top rail of the stall. "I am so sorry, Henrietta."

Henrietta looked at her, trying to say something sharp and nasty. Because she knew that being around Natalie and John again would only make Ray's absence more obvious. But she couldn't. Deep down she didn't want to—she wanted her friends back, even if it meant thinking more about Ray. She realized that as much as it hurt to remember him, trying to forget him hurt even more.

She let the pitchfork fall to the ground and took Natalie's other hand. "I'm sorry, too." For a moment they stood, tears running across their cheeks in hot and sticky lines.

Finally Henrietta let go and wiped her face on her sleeve, then took a few deep breaths of the warm and pungent air inside the barn. "Tell me about John."

"I think he's lost it, Henrietta," Natalie told her.

"Lost it?"

"We both know John walked a razor's edge sometimes between what was real and what he had built in the Monster Society, but—" Natalie frowned as Henrietta interrupted her.

"John always knew what was real and what wasn't," Henrietta protested. She had seen firsthand what happened when someone got lost in the games the Society played. Her brother, Van, was the reason she had joined the Society. Van had never been right in the head. That and his age had drawn her to follow him in the Society to watch over him. With each passing adventure, Van had become more dangerous and more caught up in the world that the Monster Society had helped create in his mind. Ultimately, Van had injured another new recruit that John had brought in and was booted from the Society altogether. She had stayed, though. She had found more than she bargained for in the Society and fallen for John at first sight. The Society had become her family.

Natalie shook her head. "I got to know John better than any of us guys did, Henrietta, and you know it. I loved him too," Natalie paused so she could keep her voice under control. "Trust me when I tell you that he was . . . troubled. Something happened to him during his time in the army. He never told me what but whatever it was, it shook him to the very core of his soul. I think the Monster Society was his means of coping with his past. It was a new start for him that gave him purpose. Through it, he wasn't alone anymore either. He had us . . . all of us. When Ray died, all that shattered for him."

"He's hurting," Henrietta said, "We are, too."

Natalie couldn't argue that. "Yes, we are, but John . . . I think John believes he can really bring Konrad back from the dead."

Henrietta stared at Natalie for a long moment before she spoke again. "And you think he may hurt himself or someone else trying to do it."

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About Eric S. Brown

Eric S. Brown is author of numerous books including War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, the Bigfoot War series, the A Pack of Wolves series, the Crypto-Squad series, and World War of the Dead to name only a few. The first book of his Bigfoot War series is now a major motion picture from Origin Releasing.