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.
“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.”
Natalie nodded. “John has never fit in anywhere but the Monster Society, Henrietta. He’s always lived on the edge and thought outside of the box. There’s no telling what he may do if he believes it could bring Konrad back to us. We have to stop him before something bad happens.”
“Fine,” Henrietta consented. “I’ll help you. Do you know where he is now?”
“No,” Natalie admitted.
“We’ll find him together then but not right now,” Henrietta told her. “I have to finish my chores around the farm first. You go on. I’ll meet you at the edge of town in a few hours.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said and left, leaving Henrietta to her work.
Henrietta finished her chores as quickly as she could. After she was done, she popped into the house long enough to tell her parents she was heading out for the evening to see her friends. As she left, Henrietta carried a shovel with her.
When Konrad died, she had buried her Monster Society costume nearby and swore to never put it on again. That was a promise she had known even then that she might not be able to keep.
Henrietta found the spot where she had buried her costume and set about digging it up. Sweat poured from her skin as she dug into the earth. Soon, she would be “Red” again. When she wore her hood and her cloak, she always felt stronger than she ever did as plain old Henrietta. It was as if the character of the wolf slayer that she portrayed became a part of her.
She flung the shovel aside in the wake of uncovering her costume. She cleaned it as best she could flapping the cloak about in the air to fling the dirt from it. Her hands trembled as she clasped the cloak around her throat. As she flipped its hood up over her head, her hands stopped shaking. The features of her face hardened with determination. Losing Konrad had been enough. She wasn’t going to stand by and let John destroy himself if there was anything she could do about it. Leaving the shovel lying where she had thrown it, Red set out towards the edge of town where she knew Natalie would be waiting.
Natalie paced a slow circle around the tree where the members of the Monster Society always met up. She had already eaten one of the sandwiches out of her backpack. It was the second time in a month that she’d skipped school without telling anyone, which meant she hadn’t gone home after she left Henrietta, but had stayed here—near the edge of Grantville—trying to pass the time while she waited.
She considered eating the other sandwich, but she wasn’t really hungry, just bored. And cold. She breathed into her gloves to warm her fingers and plodded another circle around the tree.
Up the road, something flickered. A splash of scarlet among the grey-brown winter trees. “Ah.” Natalie snatched up her backpack and broke into a run. There was no need to wait and see who it was; the red cloak could only belong to one person.
“Red!” Natalie sidestepped a puddle and skidded on the muddy road, struggling to stay upright as her arms flailed around for balance. “Whoops. Hey, I’m glad you’re here.”
Red nodded. “I’m glad you waited.”
Natalie looked at her more closely. “Are you all right? You’re a little , , , uh . . . ” She waved a hand at the muddy cloak.
“Oh. Yeah. I’d buried it.” She smoothed her hands across each shoulder, coaxing the wrinkled fabric to lie flat. “I guess some things shouldn’t stay dead.”
“Cool.” Natalie stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, suddenly wishing she’d brought her costume, too. But that would have made Mom suspicious.
“So.” Red looked at her intently. “Now what?”
“Now we go talk to John.” Natalie stamped her feet, boots squelching in the mud. “I do miss paved roads, you know. We could have taken my bicycle.”
Red nodded. “But our legs work. And it’s not that far if we go together.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Friends make things easier, right?”
“True,” Natalie said. She hitched her thumbs through the straps of her backpack and started walking. “And at least if we’re walking my feet won’t be so cold.”
John had been kicked out of his relative’s tavern and now lived in a tiny hut tucked back in the woods. There was a path that led from the main road, but it was narrow and the trees on either side tended to snag and catch at anyone walking that way.
When Natalie and Red finally reached the little clearing around the hut they were both red-cheeked and brushing bits of twigs from their clothes and hair.
“Oof.” Natalie untangled a particularly stubborn piece of a branch from the flap on her backpack. “Stupid trees.”
Red thumped on the door with her fist.
There was a muffled clatter from within, then silence.
Red frowned and knocked on the door again, surprised that doing so didn’t cause it to fall from its hinges. “John.”
Natalie leaned down close to the door jam. “We know you’re in there. Answer the door.”
There was more clattering, like pots or crockery being shoved to one side, and the floorboards creaked.
Red was just raising her fist to knock a third time when the door flung open and John burst through. “Hello.”
He pulled the door shut behind him and looked at both of them with a ragged smile. “I wasn’t expecting . . . And Red. I thought you were finished with the Monster Society?”
Red shook her head. “Maybe not. You look terrible.”
“What? Oh.” John raked his fingers through his hair, and tugged at his shirt. It did little to hide the black circles under his eyes or the dirt crusted under his fingernails.
Natalie wondered about the reddish tint to the stains on his shirt. “Is that blood, John?”
“No. No.” He flinched back as Red stepped closer. “I mean, yes. But I cut my finger the other day and I must have, you know, wiped it on my shirt.” He blinked and rubbed his sleeve across his face. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’ve been worried about you, John.” Natalie looked at Red. “And so is Red.”
“Worried? Why?” He looked back and forth between them.
Natalie fidgeted. “You told me you were going to . . . fix things. With Konrad. And you’ve been shut up in here for days now doing something. Getting dirty.”
“And bloody,” Red said quietly.
“Oh.” John flung his arm around Natalie’s shoulders, a gesture she would normally have found comforting, but today was only stiff and cold. “You don’t think I’m trying to do magic, do you?”
“Are you?” Red asked.
John laughed uneasily. “Magic is pretend, Natalie. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” She looked up at him. “Do you?”
“Of course. There’s no such thing as a proton-pack or aliens or magic.” His fingers dug into Natalie’s shoulder. “I know that.”
“Then you won’t mind if we come inside for a minute.” Red stepped toward the door and John leapt sideways to put himself between her and his little house.
“No. Ah. I mean. It’s kind of a mess.” He licked his lips. “You’re right about . . . I’ve been trying to . . . well, I needed some time to myself. And losing Ray was very hard. So, it’s messy in there. And you wouldn’t . . . there’s no need to come inside.”
“We could help you clean up,” Natalie said.
“No!” He wiped his mouth on his hand and forced a smile. “Thank you. But I’m all right. I just need to be alone right now. Okay?”
Natalie looked at Red, hoping she would push past John and throw open the door, wanting her to confront him about whatever it was he was doing. But Red was quiet, her face nearly hidden beneath her hood.
Natalie cleared her throat. “We just want to help, John. Red and I are both upset about Ray, too.” Her eyes stung with tears. “We all miss him. Just tell us what we can do to help. Please.”
“You can leave me alone,” John snapped. “If you want to help, then go away. Let me . . . let me do what needs to be done.”
“And what’s that, John?” There was an edge to Red’s voice that Natalie had never heard before.
John chewed on his lower lip for a moment, as though trying to find the right words. “Grieve,” he said finally. “And I don’t need either of you around for that.”
“Ah.” Red slipped her arm through Natalie’s elbow. “All right.” She tugged Natalie back towards the path.
“Red?” Natalie looked at her in confusion. “What—”
“We’ll leave you alone, John. Just like you’ve asked,” Red said loudly. Then softly, to Natalie. “He needs to think we’ve given up.”
Natalie nodded, drying her eyes with the back of her glove. “Goodbye, John.”
They pushed their way back along the little path, until Natalie, glancing back over her shoulder now and then, saw the white blur of John’s shirt disappear. “I think he’s gone back inside.”
Red stopped, head tilted as she listened for any sign that John was following them. “I think you’re right.”
“So, now what?”
“You’re right. He’s up to something stupid.” Red looked around for a moment. “There.” She pointed to a fallen tree, the trunk nearly covered in a drift of old leaves. “We’ll hide and wait to see what he’s up to.”
“Don’t we need to be closer to the hut?” Natalie asked as they squeezed slowly between the trees on either side of the path.
“No. Whatever he thinks he’s going to do, he’ll need Ray at some point.” Red climbed over the fallen tree and settled on the other side.
“But he’s . . . oh.” Natalie flushed as she understood. “He’ll have to go to the cemetery.”
“That’s right.” Red pulled some of the leaves over her cloak so the red was mostly hidden, lying down on the ground so only the top of her head poked above the fallen trunk. “And then we’ll follow him.”
The sun had long sunk from the sky when John emerged from his hut. Natalie knew she was way beyond just getting trouble for ditching school now. Her parents were likely freaking out. She’d be lucky to see the light of day, outside of school, for months when she got home. There was nothing for it, though. If they didn’t find out what was going on with John and help him, no one would. They were his only friends left in the world.
Just as Red predicted, John headed for the cemetery. Quietly, ever so careful not to be seen, they crept along after him.
When John reached the cemetery he made a beeline for Konrad’s grave. Once there, his hands vanished into the depths of his trench coat to re-emerge with five small candles in them. He positioned one atop Konrad’s grave and the others around it at four fixed points. John picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dirt around the four candles, muttering something in a bizarre language as he did so.
“I told you he’d gone off the deep end,” Natalie whispered to Red, shooting her a look where they hid in the trees at the edge of the cemetery.
“Shhh,” Red hushed her.
John lit all five of the candles and moved to kneel at the edge of Konrad’s grave within the circle. He began to chant as he removed his shirt. Natalie gasped as she saw the wounds that covered his chest. Red moved quickly to grab her and slap a hand over her mouth. Natalie was thankful she had; otherwise she might have screamed.
His voice rising, John cried out at the moon and stars above, still speaking in the strange language he had been muttering. One of John’s hands slipped down to the top of his right boot. He drew a small knife from it and brought the blade up in front of him, holding up and out into the light of the moon.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen next.
“I think we’ve seen enough,” Red told Natalie in a gruff voice.
Red stood up and launched herself from the trees. “John! You put that knife down right now!”
John spun about to face them. His cheeks were slicked with tears as he stared at them as if he wasn’t sure they were really there. “Red? Natalie?”
“I thought you said you didn’t believe in magic John?” Natalie challenged him, anger thick in her voice.
“Put the knife down,” Red ordered him again, more firmly.
John looked at the knife he held and then at Red. “You don’t understand, Red,” he started but Natalie was on him before he could finish. Her hand shot out to knock the knife from his grasp. It went flying to land in the grass nearby. “How could you?” she rasped as she hauled back and slapped him across his cheek with all the force she could muster.
Staggering back a step, John caught himself before he lost his footing and toppled over.
“Look at what you’ve done to yourself!” Natalie raged thrusting a finger towards his wounded and scarred chest.
At that moment, John broke down, collapsing to his knees in front of Natalie. Tears streamed from his eyes. “I don’t . . . I don’t know how to bring him back Natalie. I’ve tried everything.”
Red stepped up to stand beside Natalie. “That’s because you can’t bring him back, John. Konrad is dead. There is no coming back from that.”
“It hurts so much,” John sobbed. “Please . . . Please help me.”
Natalie and Red exchanged a look of pity for the broken former leader of the Monster Society and friend.
Natalie dropped to her knees and pulled John into an embrace. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do John, help you.”
“Come on,” Red told the two of them. “Let’s get you home, John. We need to take a better look at what you’ve done to yourself and make sure those wounds aren’t infected.”
Natalie helped John to his feet and tried to lead him after Red, who was already heading for the trees. John stopped her, looking over at shoulder at Konrad’s grave, to which he said, “I’m sorry, Ray. I am so sorry I let you down again.”
Taking hold of him gently by the underside of his chin, Natalie pulled his face around towards her own. “You didn’t fail him John. You gave him a life of friends and fun. You were there for him to the very end and even beyond. Konrad loves you, John, even now, wherever he is, he loves you just like we do.”
It was going to be a long night, Natalie knew, as she and Red tended to John and a worse day afterwards as she faced the wrath of her parents, but it was all worth it. The Monster Society was together again and it took care of its own, no matter the price.