Unexpected Concerns

This is the story that introduces Konrad and his siblings.  I wrote it just over a year ago.  It fits with the story that I’m writing now, which is why I’m posting it now.

**

Henry tried to remember the last time he’d seen Adrien and Kamile.  Their first meeting had been pure chance.  They had just come to the United States from Alleman and Henry had just married Ann.  That was eleven years ago.  Kamile had been pregnant then, with what they hoped would be their second child.  Just a few months later, those hopes were fulfilled and Markus was born.

The memory of holding the tiny boy brought a smile to Henry’s face.  It had been shortly after that when Henry had been deployed.  The Engels had settled somewhere in Maine and he’d stayed in West Virginia with his wife.  The families had kept in touch through letters and cards, as well as occasional phone calls.  They’d come down for the funeral of his wife and daughter.  Now, he was returning the favor.

He slipped into the church feeling just a bit out of place.  Religion and faith had always been at the center of Adrien and Kamile’s life.  For him, it was pushed to the edges.  He thought about God and believed, in his own way, but he didn’t make the time to attend church, not even on the big holidays.  Since his wife and daughter had been killed, he had one focus: stopping people like the one who had taken them from him.

The church was already crowded with people.  Two closed caskets stood in front of the altar.  In the front row, to the right side of the church, sat five young people: Adrien and Kamile’s children.  He’d met Konrad when the boy was six years old and he’d held Markus when he was only days old.  However, he’d only seen the younger three in photographs.

The youngest boy was hugging an over-sized stuffed animal of some kind to his chest.  His face was buried in the soft plush.  The little girl beside him was crying softly, while her elder brother rubbed her shoulder.  Markus stared at the coffins as he rubbed his sister’s shoulder, but his face was an emotionless mask.  He looked as if he were in shock.

The other little girl was sitting in Konrad’s lap.  She was giggling as if there was something humorous about the affair.  Konrad rubbed her back soothingly, but he looked as if he was getting close to his breaking point.

Heaving a sigh, Henry moved up to the pew behind them.  A few people shifted over so that he could take his seat.  As the funeral progressed, there were prayers and songs and words of comfort.  Henry could hear three of the five children crying by the end of the service.  Konrad was stoically biting his lip to hold back his own tears while the little girl he held continued to laugh.  The sound had an almost hysterical edge to it.

Finally, the pallbearers lifted the coffins off their stands and headed out of the room.  Konrad stood, lifting the little girl with him and caught the hand of his youngest brother.  Markus held his other sister’s hand and the little family followed their parents’ bodies out of the church.  Henry trailed behind them, joining the rest of the crowd.

At the request of the family, most of the people didn’t proceed to the graveside.  However, Henry was an exception.  He got into his car and followed the hearse and the car that held the Engel children in the small procession to the cemetery.  Once he was there, he waited at the periphery of the scene, near enough to hear, but not close enough to intrude.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Shepherd,” a soft voice said.

Henry glanced over at the speaker.  It was Adrien’s cousin, Roderick.  They’d only spoken on the telephone and only since Adrien and Kamile’s death.  “I didn’t come just because you asked me to come,” he said, his voice faint.  His gaze flicked back to the graveside service.  “Adrien and Kamile were my friends.”

“I know,” Roderick said.  He heaved a sigh and Henry looked back over at him.  “You… know what they were?” he asked.  When Henry nodded, he frowned.  “One of those children inherited Adrien’s gift.  He’d always assumed it would be Markus, but… I’m not so certain.”

“I wouldn’t think the Elders would like me being involved,” Henry said, shaking his head.  “I’m an outsider.”

“Which, I think, is exactly why Adrien and Kamile made the arrangements they did,” he said.  He heaved a sigh and fidgeted with his fingers.  “They didn’t want their children dragged into this madness, even if they have the gifts.  They… wanted for them to be able to live relatively normal lives.”

“Did the cops catch the person who killed them?”

Roderick shook his head.  “They won’t,” he said, grimacing.  He heaved another sigh.  “It’ll be some time before it will be able to cause anyone any trouble, however.  Adrien was… quite skilled and powerful.”

Nodding in understanding, Henry asked, “What do the kids know?”

“I wasn’t sure how to tell them,” Roderick admitted.  He heaved a third sigh and Henry got the impression that he was as overwhelmed as Konrad was, perhaps even more so.  “They had enough to deal with.  All they know is… Konrad’s only seventeen.  Legally, he’s still a minor.  Their parents left a will that says you are to be their legal guardian in the case that…” he trailed off.  Looking back at Henry, he said, “If you’re willing.”

Henry looked over at the family gathered around the grave.  Konrad glanced across the short distance separating him and he sighed.  How could he refuse such a request?  “I’m willing,” he said, nodding.

 

Konrad was only too happy to get the children back to their uncle’s house.  They’d been staying there since the attack.  They could hardly stay in their house, not with… everything that had happened.  Still, he was glad to be away from all the people wishing him the best and offering their condolences.  He was sick of being told that it would be all right.  Most of all, he was tired of everyone staring at Liesel as if she were possessed.  Whatever was going on with her wasn’t the work of the devil.  It was in her own mind.

“I wish she’d stop that laughter,” his aunt grumbled as Konrad carried Liesel inside.

Frowning, he set her on her feet.  “Go and change into play clothes,” he told her, his voice soft.  He watched as she caught Frieda’s hand and practically dragged her sister along behind her.  He looked over at his aunt.  “I don’t think she can help it, Aunt Tessa,” he said.  “There’s… something going on in her head.  Inside, she’s crying and sad, like the rest of us.  It just… comes out as laughter.”

His aunt started to say something, but Uncle Roderick cut her off.  “Tess,” he said.  Then, he cleared his throat.  “Konrad, Mr. Shepherd is here.  Do you feel up to having… a word with him.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Konrad said.  He glanced over at the man in question.  Konrad remembered meeting him when he was Johannes’s age.  Back then, he’d been young and happy, like their parents.  He’d had a young wife too.  Konrad knew that his wife and little girl, who would have been just a bit younger than Markus, were both dead.  They’d gone down to West Virginia for the funeral, leaving Konrad and Markus, as well as the twins, at home with their uncle.

Nodding at Shepherd, he said, “We can talk in the living room, I guess.”  He waving towards the room and then led the way there.  Markus, like Frieda and Liesel, had gone to change out of the clothing he’d worn for the funeral.  Johannes was sitting in the living room, hugging the bear that the police had given him a week ago.

“Hansel,” Konrad said, “do you want to get changed?  We’ll be having lunch soon.”

“I want Muti,” Johannes said, looking up at Konrad.

Tears blurred Konrad’s eyes and he nodded.  “I know,” he managed.  “Me too.”  He swallowed thickly and wiped away the tears.  There wasn’t time for that.  Sniffling, he sat down beside Johannes and pulled his baby brother into his lap, bear and all.  “Can you say hello to Mr. Shepherd?”

“Hello, Herr Shepherd,” Johannes said, rubbing his own tears away on the bear.  It was going to need a good washing when they finally pried it out of his hands.

“Hello, Johannes,” Shepherd said.  “Do you know why I’m here?”

“Uncle said we were going to live with you in West Virginia,” Johannes said, blinking at him.  He tilted his head slightly.  “Do you know that there are five of us, Herr Shepherd?”

Nodding, Shepherd said, “Your parents told me all about you.  Kamile said you were her little man and that you play the piano.  Is that right?”

Johannes smiled and nodded.  “Uncle doesn’t have a piano,” he said.  “Do you?”

Shaking his head, Shepherd said, “I’m afraid not, but one of my friends does.  I’m sure he’d let you play it, if you asked him very nicely.”

Konrad sighed when Johannes chuckled softly.  It was the first time his brother had seemed close to his normal self in nearly a week.  “Would you like to go and get changed now?” he asked, his voice soft.

Johannes hopped off his lap and, dragging the bear with him, headed out of the room.  “See you later, Herr Shepherd,” he called.

Then, they were alone.  Konrad grimaced and looked over at the man seated across from him.  “My birthday’s in January,” he said, ducking his head.  “It’s j-just ten months away and then I’ll be eighteen.”

“You’ll be in college, though,” Shepherd said.  When Konrad didn’t answer, Shepherd set a hand on his shoulder.  As their eyes met, he said, “It’s all right to ask for help, Konrad.  No one expects you to do this by yourself.  That’s why your parents made sure that there were provisions in their will, in case something like this happened.”

“You… barely know us,” Konrad said, his voice cracking.  “Why would you… want to help us?”

Shepherd shrugged.  “It’s what your parents would have wanted,” he said, his voice soft.  “It’s… what they asked of me and I know what it’s like to lose someone so close to you.  It’s not something you can go through alone and it’s not something you should hold in.”

Konrad released a shaky breath and tears blurred his vision again.  A moment later, Shepherd was hugging him.  Then, for the first time since he’d learned what had happened to his parents, Konrad began crying.

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