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Chapter 24

Melissa's concerns for Gretchen's image proved to be moot. In the end, the solution to that quandary was provided by another.

It was only a partial solution, of course, as solutions usually are, and addressed only one specific problem, as solutions usually do. But, as was often also true, it opened the door—if only a crack—for the multitude of solutions to follow.

Melissa, in a way, played a role in that solution. Not directly, not immediately. But a genuine role nonetheless. The same role that teachers—good ones, anyway, and she was truly excellent—have always played. The same role, in a different way, that parents play. Parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents—even, when you get down to it, the guy at the corner grocery who, in an idle moment, tosses off his opinion of how the world oughta be to a youngster come in to buy a soda.

Good boys, like bad ones, are shaped. The process is not perfect, and goes astray often enough. The mold is crooked, often warped, cracked—but it's still a mold.

Grantville, West Virginia was the mold that produced Jeff Higgins. All things said and done, it was as good a mold as any and a better one than most.


Add to that the boy himself. Sitting alone, now, at the cafeteria table, staring at a window. There was nothing to see in the window. Night had fallen on the countryside beyond the glass.

The others were all gone. Melissa had ushered Gretchen and her family into the classroom which was being used, temporarily, as a refugee quarter. The floor was covered with mattresses and blankets donated by the town's inhabitants. She had shown Gretchen how to operate the toilets nearby, and then hurried to the council meeting.

Jeff's friends were gone too. They were not far away—not more than a few yards. They were in the school's library. The library, like much of the school, was open twenty-fours a day now. Such a valuable resource could not be kept out of circulation for a moment. They were in there, heads hunched together, studying one of the school's few copies of a German language textbook. They also had the school's only copy of a German-English dictionary.

Under any other circumstances, Jeff would have been there also. But tonight he had a much more pressing problem to deal with. A German herself, not the language. A decision was before him, and he knew that it had to be made quickly. Gretchen would wait, for a bit, to hear his decision. She would not wait long. She had people to care for, and nothing to care for them with. She did not have the luxury of waiting. So, at least, it would seem to her. In truth, she had entered a world in which old courses of action were not necessary—but Jeff knew that she would not believe it. Not yet. Not soon enough.

Jeff Higgins was very far from stupid. He was innocent, more or less, but not really naive. Certainly not that naive.

Like all teenage boys, he had his fantasies. Some of those he exorcised playing D&D, others with war games, others on computer screens, others living a vicarious life in books, others on his dirt bike. Still others—especially those involving the female sex—mostly in his mind. And a rich and sometimes feverish mind it was, too. Wildly imaginative, and ready at an instant to take flight from reality.

But he could still, quite easily, separate truth from fiction. For all the fantasies about Gretchen which had raged through his hormone-saturated brain in the few short hours since he first met her—today—he understood the reality.

Jeff was not a virgin. But his two brief encounters had not given him delusions of being irresistible. He knew perfectly well that no beautiful young woman was going to fall head over heels in love with him in an instant. If ever. True—here his fantasies tried to rise in rebellion—he had met her in quite a dramatic manner. Rescuing her, almost single-handedly, from the proverbial "fate worse than death." A classic from fairy tales!


He knew Gretchen. Well enough, at least. For her, that fate was not worse than death. She had already suffered it, and survived. And kept her family alive. He thought she appreciated—sincerely—what he had done. But he understand also that the woman he had watched murder a wounded man in cold blood in order to protect her sister—her, not her "virtue," which would soon be gone anyway—was not going to be bowled over by another brave soldier.

He paused over that, in his thinking. He had been brave, he realized. If he looked at it from the right angle, he could even say he had been heroic. He paused, there, and took deep satisfaction in the knowing.

For himself, however, not for Gretchen—or what she thought of him. It was good to know that courage lay within him. Very good. Courage, in this new world even more than in the old, was something he was going to need.

But he knew, without knowing any of the details, that the man who had formerly "possessed" her was brave as well, whatever his other characteristics had been. Jeff was not one of those foolish sentimentalists who thinks that courage is a monopoly of the virtuous. Like many boys his age, he was an aficionado of military history. The Waffen SS had compiled a criminal record almost unparalleled in modern history. Yet no one in their right mind had ever called them cowards. Certainly not more than once.

Gretchen did not care about his courage on the battlefield. He knew that for a certainty. She was no fairy-tale maiden, to swoon over her rescuer. She was what many people would call a camp whore, who had done whatever she found necessary to keep herself and her family alive. And, he knew, was doing it still. His fantasies could rage and bellow at every glimpse of her flashing eyes, gleaming promise at him. His hormones could rush like Niagara, knowing that her luscious body was his for the taking. But it was all a lie.

Jeff knew the truth. As much as the sight of her exposed breast had fired his imagination, his reason had seen what was real. The breast was real enough, of course. Far more real had been the baby suckling at it. A camp whore's bastard, that the whore would trade her body to keep alive, just as she had butchered a man to do the same for her sister.

He faced the truth, squarely, and came to his decision. Peace poured through his soul.


He was surprised, at first, to see that the decision had already been made. Surprised, and then, obscurely pleased.

He had been pondering nothing, he realized. Simply rationalizing an argument that could not be argued at all. It was not rational in the first place. He was quite certain that everyone he knew would be explaining that to him within the next few hours.

He did not care. It was the only decision, under the circumstances, that he could make. Others could think what they wanted, say what they would. He was who he was. Accidentally, in that moment, without knowing he had even done so, Jeff adopted for his own an ancient motto. Here I stand. I can do no other.

Anymore than he could have stepped aside, on the first battlefield of his young life, and let the choosers of the slain pass by, flapping their carrion-eater wings.

Jeff Higgins, too, would be a chooser of the living.


The decision made, it remained to carry it out. That would be difficult, but not impossible. Not by any means. He would have help. He knew that just as certainly as he knew the rest. Gretchen would help him.

He rose and marched into the library. Well, padded in. His big feet, flapping nakedly, were no more romantic than the rest of his heavy, awkward, intellectual's body. No one would ever confuse Jeff Higgins for a figure of martial glamour.

When he reached the cluster of his friends, he asked for the dictionary. They handed it over. Their eyes were full of question, but he gave no explanation. They did not press him, for which he was thankful. They would be pressing him soon enough, crushing him under ridicule.

With the dictionary in hand, he walked down the long corridor to the room where Gretchen and her family were preparing to sleep. At the door, he raised his hand. Hesitated, but only for a second, before knocking. Gently, so as not to wake whomever might be asleep, but firmly.

He was relieved when Gretchen herself answered the door. He was even more relieved to see that the room beyond her shoulder was quiet and dark. Everyone in the crowded room must already be asleep. That was not surprising, of course, given all that those people had been through that day. But he was still vastly relieved. He had been afraid he would have to wait while Gretchen went about the task of caring for her folk. The wait would have been very hard.

From the look of her face, he thought he had probably awakened Gretchen herself. But, if so, she recovered at once. Again, her eyes and lips were shining with promise.

At his gesture, she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. Jeff looked up and down the corridor, before deciding that this was as good a place as any.

He sat down on the floor, legs sprawled out before him. Gretchen immediately took the same position, by his side, and nestled against him sinuously. Feeling her body so close, nothing between them but two bathrobes, and seeing the long stretch of bare legs exposed under the robe—long stretch; she had seen to that deliberately, he knew—Jeff felt giddy for a moment. The passion raging in him was almost overwhelming.

But not quite. He took a deep breath, smiled awkwardly at her, and opened the dictionary. Moving from one page to the next, he began spelling out his purpose.

When she realized what he was doing, Gretchen gave a little gasp. Her eyes, startled from the word in the dictionary, came to his. Her mouth opened, shaping a denial. Her head began to shake.

Jeff, seeing that reaction, beamed from ear to ear. He was smiling like a cherub. "Yes," he said. "I do."

She stared back at the dictionary. She seemed paralyzed. Jeff twisted, rising to his knees, and took her face between his hands. Brought her eyes up to meet his own. Light brown; light green. "Yes, I do," he repeated. "Ja, ich muss."


Then, of course, Gretchen began nodding. Nodding. Nodding and nodding. Nodding and nodding and nodding and now she was beginning to tremble and then the tears began to flow and then she was clutching Jeff so tightly he thought for a moment his ribs might crack. It didn't matter. He couldn't have breathed anyway, he was so relieved.

The nodding meant nothing to him. It would later, but not now. That first little headshake gave him the world. He had been prepared to live without it, but his heart was singing knowing that he had it.

Her first reaction, when she understood, was the key. That instant denial, that unthinking shake of the head. You don't have to do this!

"Yes, I do," he whispered into her hair, cradling her. "Ja, ich muss." He could feel, now, the years of terror which caused the strong body in his arms to tremble like a leaf. Terror held under such tight control for so long that now, when it was finally breaking loose, the one who held it had no idea how to let it go. For all the tenderness of the moment, some part of Jeff wanted to shake her more violently still, just to hasten its departure. It's over. It's over. I promise.

An uncalculating denial, a little shake of the head. That was all he would need to keep him steady, in the hard years to come. It would not be easy for them. He was old enough to understand that much. But at least he could face those years without suspicion. A woman who had lived with no choices at all had still had the courage, at the end, to hold out one for him.

He had been trapped, snared, caught. But not tricked. The lamb was fair and truly slaughtered. But he could never claim, thereafter, that his executioner had not shown him the blade before he came, willingly, to the altar.



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