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Something Wicked 2.0 - STORY THREAD


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Something Wicked 2.0 

This is an alternate version of the world of Something Wicked it is the same…only different. 

 

You still live in the quaint Georgia town of Blairsville in Union County Georgia nestled in the blue ridge mountains. 

 

Located in the Appalachian Mountains of north Georgia, Blairsville is the land of clean air, friendly neighbors, scenic mountains, quality demographics, low crime, and a thriving local economy. And something else... something in the shadows, hidden in the hills, Something Wicked.

 

The heart of Union County Georgia, the city of Blairsville is small, its city limits are about 1 mile in diameter in the shape of a rough circle. The city itself has a population of only around six hundred and fifty souls but that is somewhat misleading. The county as a whole with a population nearing twenty-two thousand, live and work in the small unincorporated communities like Suches, Ivy Log, and Owltown, which lie around Blairsville. They attend churches, shop, and send their children to school in Blairsville and when they are outside of the county and are asked where they are from, they invariably answer, “Up around Blairsville” or simply “Union County”.

 

It is in many ways an idyllic community, with its low crime and beautiful rural location nestled in the Appalachian Mountains it defies the stereotype of the poverty-stricken white trash country hicks perpetuated by television and movies. Most of the residents are comfortably middle class with nice homes and an automobile or two for the family, those with more wealth are rarely ostentatious with it. While there are a few very wealthy families with long history in the region few of them have the ego of those gentry from say Atlanta, or Savannah.

 

The county has all the amenities of a modern city, internet, airport, a Super Walmart, the city of Blairsveille itself, retains a quaint look at its center of a mid-twentieth century town. You are just as likely to see a 1955 Chevy Bel Air in pristine condition on the road or in a driveway as you are a 2020 SUV. There are the usual Fast-food restaurants as well as many local ones, plenty of mom-and-pop shops and everything you need within the environs of the city or nearby. The only thing it lacks is a robust nightlife and it must be kept in mind that Union County has Blue Laws in effect, meaning among other things, no alcohol is sold on Sundays. For nightlife and other big city adventure both Athens and Atlanta are only 2 hours away.

 

Our protagonists in this alternate universe are four friends who grew up on Walsh Street. Once they numbered seven, but time and parents have whittled that down to just these four. Jo, Hank, Roach, and Ben.  Silas and Hannah both moved away during the summer, Hannah to Savannah and Silas to New Orleans. Quinn who was best friends with Silas has drifted away from the others after he left, spending more and more time with her beloved horses.

 

The others probably would have drifted apart as well if not for the circumstances of Jo’s love life, or rather the sudden end of it last year.

 

You see while these kids grew up together and shared all the crazy adventures of mountain kids from this area, they were inseparable, but they each had their own things as well, Roach had her computers and her dads fix it business, Hank was the epitome of boy scouts and was often helping his dad with his Wilderness Guide business or his mom with his sisters, and Jo, well Jo was a sports fanatic and a very popular girl with loads of boy interest. Then there was Ben.

 

Ben Thompson was the smallest of the group a slight nerdy young boy who didn’t fit in, not that any of them did really. Ben had developed a crush on Jordan Johansson long before she blossomed first into an attractive young lady then into the massive amazon she now resembled. But being the shy and insecure young boy, he never let on his feelings or heaven forbid, acted on them. What Ben did do was keep them all together as they grew older.

 

Ben was the intellectual of the group even more so than Hannah, he was the most well-read of them all and he was totally a fanboy of science fiction and fantasy and as was the usual case with kids that didn’t quite fit in he was an avid gamer, not only on computers but the old fashion kind, war games and role playing games and he got his friends hook on them too. They cut their teeth in junior high on DND and Pathfinder and played regularly until high school and Jordan's sudden blooming into the school’s fem fatale.

 

Jordan became a beauty just when all of them were discovering the first pangs of sexuality, but Jordan (due to a then undiagnosed genetic condition) had seemingly become an adult siren overnight and was launched into the social stratosphere of Union County Highschool. This sudden disruption almost derailed the Walsh Street Kids own social hierarchy and Ben struggled hard to keep things going, but to the rest of kids the weekend gaming sessions were losing their luster and what was weekly became semiweekly, then monthly, until by the last semester of their freshman year everyone had begged off.

 

And then it was the last day of school of their freshman year, and Jo’s boyfriend, a graduating senior who had taken advantage of the much younger girl, dumped her. Jo was alternately furious and disconsolate, and Ben knew what he had to do.

 

 He cajoled the rest of the kids and brought them back to the gaming table under the pretense of cheering up Jo and thus began what was to be the twilight of their gaming, their last campaign. The summer started with all seven but soon things began to sour. At the end of June Hannah moved away and while missed she had never been a cornerstone of the group but then in August, Silas Walsh told them that his dad had took an offshore job and that they were moving to New Orleans. Once Silas was gone Quinn lost interest and then it was just the four of them and as school started back up, the interest in gaming waned, and once again Ben Thompson’s word was falling apart.

 

I

HARVEST MOON

 

The end of September came and went and there it was, October, the beginning of Fall, in a few weeks it would be Halloween. But first there was the Sorgum festival and then the fall festival, football games and dances. Dances that everyone would be going to with or without dates. 

 

Ben paid for his lunch and balancing his tray one handed scanned the cafeteria for his friends. Jo was easy to spot she was towing over the other girls who did sports with her all of them up by the stage where the boys, and there were plenty of those, were ogling the girls. He felt a pang of longing and quickly shoved that back into its cage. Ah there was Hank. Ben headed that way and arrived just about the time Roach showed up with her brown bag lunch.

 

“Hey Y’all,” Ben started before he even sat, “I was thinking if y’all were gonna skip the dance I got a great Idea for a new campaign. We can do session zero Saturday. What do y’all think?”

 

Spoiler

 

BENIJAMIN FRANKLIN THOHMPSON

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Hank looked up at Ben, as he was already seated, waiting for him and Roach.  Jo didn't eat with them as often any more, though stranger things did happen these days.  Hand smiled, and motioned for the two of them to take a seat.  "What sort of idea were you thinking?"    He wasn't going to commit yet, because that was essentially admitting he had no chance and zero prospects for actually going to the dance.   

Truth was, Hank liked a number of the girls, and like others, Jo had caught his eye, but he never said anything, in truth, He thought of Jo and Roach like another pair of sisters, after all, they'd grown up together, and even as things changed, how he felt hadn't really changed.  Hank was somewhat awkward socially outside those he knew, something he knew he'd have to work past if he was ever going to Guide with his dad full time.

 

Spoiler

Are Tom Holland and Zendaya a couple? A timeline of the Spider-Man stars'  relationship - Wales Online

 

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Ben wasn't surprised that Hank responded with at least a modicum of interest, after all Hank was a boyscout in all aspects, polite, equanimous, and above all had a desire to please. No Ben watched for Roaches reaction, she was going to be the sink or swim on this one, If he could get her he had a chance of getting Jo, maybe even corralling Quinn back into the group. 

 

"Well, I was thinking to switch to a modern style campaign, but we play ourselves not some made up characters."

 

Roach rolled her eyes and quickly looked away, and muttered, "Ugh, gimme a break, not some Stranger Things knock off."

 

"No! Well not exactly I have some twists."

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Chatting idly with her teammates as they watched the guys eying them, Jo was distracted, maybe even in turmoil. A little turmoil. Turmoilish. She liked being big, taller than everyone, stronger than everyone. She stood out in a crowd, for sure. But lately, she was just feeling... apart from everyone. Dex may have broken her heart and made her feel so stupid, but there were some things she missed about having a boyfriend. She wanted one again, especially with dances and the Sorghum Festival and the like coming up, but it never seemed to click.

Maybe it was her fault.

Since Dexter Fox had graduated and crushed her feelings, Jo was far more wary giving her trust. She'd hooked up with Simon Shuster - the second place finisher in the 16-17 year old division of the CrossFit games - after she had demolished her competition and won the title of Fittest Teen on Earth. One night - so glad her mom hadn't caught her - and it had been a total disaster. Sure, he was cute, kinda short - but few Crossfitters were tall, and she'd been the tallest of everyone by inches, including the men - but very buff. It had been unsatisfying for one. Second, he kept trying to overpower her, trying to dominate, trying to prove the man stronger than the woman. She didn't like that. She'd pretended with Dex, she wasn't ever going to do that again.

She was pretty, she knew that, height and muscle hadn't been the only way she'd developed during a painful grade eight. From fourteen to fifteen, she'd shot up twelve inches in twelve months before she'd been put on pills to help regulate her out of control hormones. Her doctors believed it might have been a record growth spurt. Working out and exercise had help distract from the pain from such rapid growth, as well as helped with alleviating the clumsiness, eventually. She hadn't been the best athlete that year and had failed to even qualify for the CrossFit games, though she'd finished in 9th place the year before, the first year she was eligible. The boobs had practically appeared overnight. An athlete since she'd been a kid, she'd gone from needing nothing to a real, full, grown-up bra.

As a freshman, she'd stood out from every other girl in school. Taller, stronger, she'd made every team she tried out for, joining the varsity team rather than the junior team, and was the top athlete in nearly every one, despite competing with students two and three years older than her. She'd also caught the eye of the basketball captain. With a senior for a boyfriend, and juniors and seniors for teammates, she'd hung out more with them than people her own age, except for her friends that lived on the same street. And even then, she hadn't hung out with Hank, Ben, Roach, and Quinn as much as she used to.

Only in retrospect did Jo realize the senior girls, for the most part, didn't like her. When Dex had broken up with her, they had seem cruelly delighted. With them graduated, the juniors had taken their place and didn't seem to like her any more than the previous seniors had, an overgrown sophomore who still caught the eye of nearly every boy in school, and might claim another senior as hers.

A sophomore now, and after an angry summer, Jo if anything, had filled out even more despite the pills. She'd gone a few dates - and yes, they had all been with seniors, and one junior - but never more than one with a particular guy. The spark just hadn't been there. The guys, even if they were attracted to her, some seemed scared, others just wanted to claim they had 'climbed The Mountain,' believing since she'd had put out with Dex, she'd been an easy lay.

Well, that was one reason she wanted a boyfriend again. Dex was a complete asshole, but she could admit to herself, if no one else, that some things hadn't been bad at all. But after Dex and Simon, she wasn't about to just jump into bed with some guy because of teenage yearnings. Not yet, anyway.

And she didn't feel much in common with the girls in her grade, some of whom she'd known for years and played on various teams with, and the new freshman. It was just that, she couldn't help but see them as girls, while she was a woman. And many of them looked at her in the same way.

She certainly looked the part. Unless you had grown up with her, or looked real damn close, you could be forgiven in believing Jordan Johansson was a top level Collegiate  or professional athlete. A sub had once thought her the phys. ed teacher, and at the CrossFit games last summer, she kept being mistaken for a competitor in the individual division rather than the 16-17 division. She'd had an easier time buying alcohol than the seniors had, well outside of Blairsville, anyway. She'd even gone to a nightclub, once, with Dex, in Atlanta. He'd had a fake ID, but the doorman hadn't even asked to see hers. It had been kinda exhilarating at first, then more than a little gross when she'd noticed the way men had been looking at her, men twice her age, three times, even, men as old as her dad and more. She'd gotten drunk.

And Dexter had been her first... well, everything, except kiss, if you counted playing around with Hank and Ben when they had been little kids, and Jeff Tate, during Seven Minutes in Heaven when they'd been fourteen. Jo hoped to God her parents didn't know everything she'd done with Dex, she didn't think her brothers knew - and if they did and told Mom, she'd pound them into the floor - but the other girls in school, they knew, they could tell. On the other hand, many of the girls also thought she'd slept with a lot more boys, and men, rumours about teachers, and coaches, and personal trainers.

It put a distance between her and most of the others her age. She sighed and looked over a broad shoulder, saw Hank, Ben, and Roach sitting together, a melancholy frown crossing her lips for a moment. It was putting a distance between her and her best friends too. She'd always been the most into sports, the most athletic, and it hadn't put a strain on their friendship. But dating was, her admittance into the higher social circles was. She liked dances, she liked having a boyfriend. She didn't think any of the other Walsh Road kids had even ever gone on a date yet.

Maybe if they got girlfriends and boyfriends too, it would help, Jo pondered, wondering if she could help hook them up. She could try talking up Hank and Ben, get some of the girls interested in them. Trying to get a boy for Rochelle, well, she still needed one for herself.

"So, who do you have your eye on now, Jo?" one of the girls asked coyly, arching a brow at their admirers, who ogled with various degrees of circumspection. "A footballer or one of the basketball players?"

"It doesn't have tah be someone on a sports team," Jo protested, though not with any heat. To be fair, her interest did usually aim that way.

One girl snorted at the assertion. Another sighed longingly, her gaze lingering on another boy. "Jeff Tate is looking mighty fine, and didn't you two-"

"That was a mighty long time ago." Two years was a long time at their age. "Way back when Ah was shorter than he was."

"There was a Mongol Princess name Khutulun," Bethany offered. She wore thick glasses, but was slim and wiry. She remined Jo of Hannah a bit. She read lots. "She said than if any man wanted to marry her, they had to beat in her in a wrestling match."

"If Ah said somethin' like that, Ah reckon Ah'd never go on another date," Jo said, rolling her eyes in exasperation, then pursed her lips in thought. It was an interesting idea. Maybe not wrestling, but something else...

"I don't think there'd be a shortage of guys trying though," another girl said, smirking up at the huge blonde.

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"No! Well not exactly I have some twists."

 

Like Liam Neeson, Roach had a very specific set of skills. Oh, there was the mechanical stuff she learned from bonding with her dad, and there was her computer skills that was all her own, baby... But her real skill, her REAL CIA spy agency black ops killer instinct, was smelling opportunities to mess with people.

 

Benjamin reeked right now.

 

It was that slight intensity when he asked what 'y'all' think, but had been watching Roach's face like a hawk. The slight widening of his eyes when she called him out on the Stranger Things thing.

 

"Well, I mean...it could be fun," Rochelle said, letting the word 'fun' drag out a little as she leaned back to gaze speculatively at the ceiling. It was an art much more than a science, calculating the exact moment when hope had been allowed to simmer to the point when dashing it would be the most cruel.

 

"Buuuuuuuuut...you're kind of assuming we're not going to the dance, aren't you? What if..." And now Roach propped herself up on her elbows to look at Ben again. "...I have a date?"

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Jo snorted down at the other blonde's comment, though not in disbelief. She had an Instagram, @georgiagiant. She started it after her first tryout for the Crossfit games, because it seemed like every crossfitter had one. It had been mainly pics and short vids of her dog, a Kangal Shepherd named Banner and her workouts, WODs (Workout of the Day), and various attempts of athletic endeavors, serious and just plain fun both. Now, it was mostly the same, along with pics when she was out on her runs and shots of her in sportswear since earning an endorsement with Bombshellsportswear - which helped, since she had to get most of her clothing tailored or custom made. Mom had grumbled more than once about how fast she'd been outgrowing her clothes.

But some of the comments she got! She blushed so hard, sometimes. Not the ones about how hot she was, how strong looking. The other ones, about what she could and should crush between her thighs, and who. The ones asking to step in or stomp on different kinds of food. And then there were the offers and propositions, private and public, and it didn't seem to matter she was only sixteen, and only for a couple of months, even.

Jo looked back toward her friends, finished her lunch - big enough for two teenaged boys - then nodded down at the blonde, Stacy, stocky, but short, barely coming up to her armpit if they both were standing. She'd lost a boyfriend, or been thrown aside by one, she didn't want to lose the only real friends she had. "Gotta go. Gotta talk with some..."

She trailed off and stood up, friendly teammates assuring her they'd talk later, senior girls pretending not to notice the eyes turning the enormous girl's way. White shirt tight enough to show the outline of her bra, short enough to reveal her navel piercing nestled amidst of plethora of deeply incised abdominals. A checkered flannel knotted below her taut, proud breasts, the sleeves straining against biceps that bulged even at rest. Wearing denim shorts that just barely passed for long enough - and biker shorts and sport leggings not being allowed by the school outside of gym -  leaving her long legs and thickly muscled thighs bare, Jordan Johansson would have attracted attention, even if she wasn't nearly six and a half feet tall. Add a pretty face, deep blue eyes, and lustrous, pale blond hair that almost reached the small of her back, and there stood a true amazonian beauty.

Jo strode over to the other Walsh Road Kids, the crowd parting around imposingly statuesque young woman. The bench creaked as she settled her weight on it next to Ben. "What's up, guys?" Jo asked, her voice deep for a girl, adding to her illusion of age and maturity. Her eyes widened as she caught just the end of what Roach had said. "You have a date, Roach? With who?"

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Hank managed to stifle the chuckle as Roach posed her question.  One never really knew with Roach, she could very well have a date, though Hank would have bet she probably built him, given her areas of expertise.    He was going to say as much, if only to divert her attention from his best friend, then Jo walked up and asked her directly.  He did chuckle at Ben's reaction to Jo sitting next to him, even as he waited for Roach to answer.

He looked at her and smiled,   as if to say  "I gotta hear this."

 

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"Ugh! You're all missing the point," Roach grumbled as everyone else saved Ben's bacon before the existential horror set in. "What IF I had a date? Or! OR! What if I wanted to go to the dance, even without a date?"

 

She pointed a finger at Ben. "Maybe you should go! Expand your circle of friends! Become the alpha you always knew you could be! So many things to think about, other than making another game!"

 

But Roach was nothing if not a realist. The moment was ruined. She mentally waved it a fond farewell, then said, "All that said, and just so we can properly weigh our options...go ahead and tell us about this new idea of yours."

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Ben, who had already started to blush when Jo sat down next to him, now turned beet red, "Uh well...uh, I don't...have my notes."  Luckily however for Ben, It was apparently the day for saving Ben.

 

"I'd take you Rochelle." The voice caught them all off guard and as one the Walsh street kids turned to look at the table behind them and it's lone Occupant.

 

M.C. Blair, their classes resident bad ass, I break the rules bad boy, who just happened to be a girl. She smoked (though no one had ever seen her with a cigarette, but she did carry a old fashioned lighter she was always playing with), she did drugs (everyone had heard stories but again, none of them had witnessed anything of the sort), she... well you get the picture. MC, which stood for Miral Constance, but don't call her that, was a little below average height, built slightly with narrow hips and small breasts, had dirty blond hair which she wore short and messy, piercingly green eyes that sometimes seemed blue, and freckles. She was pretty in a tomboyish way, though she did her utmost to not draw attention to her looks by wearing loose ill fitting clothes that looked like hand me downs but couldn't be since she was an only child. MC had moved to Blairsville during the 5th grade, her parents were sort of weird and were always doing some sort of big community thing. Hanks dad called them hippies. She was 17, a good year older than anyone in their class, and of course everyone said she had been held back a year, which didn't make sense since she got straight A in all of her classes.

 

"I mean come on think of the shit that would stir up." MC glanced over at Hank who was a little wide eyed, "Hell, we could both take Hank and go as a Throuple," she poked the tip of her tongue out and her right hand on her table flicked her lighter open and closed, "It would be wild, a scandal, even. Hell, Ben and Jo could go together. I mean come one first dance of the year, everyone goes. Gotta get the lay of the land ya know," she emphasized the word lay as she flipped the lighter open and closed one more time then slipped it into her jacket pocket.

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Rochelle looked over at MC with mild surprise. People didn't usually break in on the Walsh Street crew. But if anyone was going to, it'd be MC. Roach suspected MC was probably like...ninety-nine percent talk. But she was older, and that was kind of cool. In just one more year she was outta The Pit and...what, maybe college or something? And she did seem to appreciate a good troll, and Rochelle could appreciate that.

 

A slow smile curved her lips.

 

"Okay," Roach said. "But he has to wear the dress. Also, Ben and Jo going is the kind of brilliant I wish I'd thought of, and when historians write it down I will be taking credit for."

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Hank couldn't hide his surprise at that comment, and shook his head.  "Yeah, no, No dress for me.  I'd be interested in seeing the two of you in one though.   Talk about a memory the whole school would never forget.  Dinner'd be my treat."  The two big tomboys of the school in dresses?  Yeah, nobody'd forget that.    Then he looked over to Ben and Jo, and nodded.  "Now the two of you going, that would be something else too.   I think you'd be good together."  His eyes narrowed, he had more to say, but he wasn't going to do it for Ben, if he wanted to go with Jo, he'd have to step up and ask her himself.

 

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If Jo noticed how red Ben's face was, she gave no sign of it. A furrow bloomed between her brows as she frowned faintly at Roach and MC, with a tiny bit leftover for Hank, wondering if they were making fun of her. Roach, Hank, and Ben were her longest time friends, but she hadn't ever looked at them as potential boyfriends - or girlfriend, she supposed, in Roach's case. It would feel kind of like dating one of her brothers - or sister, not that she had one.

On the other hand, it seemed like they were actually interested in going to the dance, which she hadn't expected. She'd gone last year, of course, already with Dex, blinded by the attention and blind to who he really was. It could be different this time, and it would be nice to see her best friends being more social like, while not putting any pressure on herself due to wanting a boyfriend and the expectation that she'd have one.

"No need to be so formal-like, guys. We all can go as a group, have fun together and whatnot. Ah never saw a one of you at dances last year. Gotta make up for it this one."

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Ben was mortified and suddenly the world receded, everything around him shrunk as if rushing away at a hundred miles an hour. He looked down at his lunch tray trying not to be sick.

 

MC shook her head, gave snort of a chuckled and muttered something about "guts". and turned back to her own tray.

 

Ben looked up, he was pale all the blood had rushed somewhere else cause there certainly wasn't any in his face. "Yeah, sure the dance. It will be fun. I have to go to the bathroom I'm not feeling well." Without another word he rose and grabbed up his tray and rushed to the door dumping it in the garbage as he passed.

 

That was the moment.

 

That ill defined instant in time and space, when everything met at a certain junction and the course of events would be bound. Call it fate, destiny, luck or lack there of, but at that precise instant a line was crossed, a border stepped over, a doorway passed through. And only those who actually witnessed it, Jo, Roach, Hank, MC, the kids whom were all watching Ben as he left, would find themselves at the center of the strange events to come. Oh and Ben too of course, poor unfortunate Ben.

 

The bell rang and lunch was over, the kids took their trays and put them up, gathered their books and headed to their classes. Roach had been slow she had government next and was not a fan. as she reached for her lap top it chimed. She had mail. At first she was going to ignore it but she thought the computer had been put to sleep. she better check.

 

She flipped it open and the mail program was open on her desktop. An e-mail was right there at the top the subject just a question mark. Curious she clicked it and it opened there was a single line; 'you don't ask the question'

 

As soon as Roach read the line it faded away and a picture of a girl appeared. About her age long blond hair pretty. she looked familiar, but at the same time Roach couldn't place her.

 

"You had best be getting on to class Rochelle," called Coach Evens on the way out of the dining hall. "Right away, coach," she said with a glance and a wave. When she looked back her computer was sleeping.

 

 

 

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Well shit.

 

Roach quickly flipped to settings and disabled the laptop's wifi reception, then used her shortcut to the system folder to save a copy of the network logs. Later on she'd have to pick it over and see if there was any sign of weird input/output, particularly around the time the email had arrived. She had pretty good security on the computer, but who better than Roach would know that even the best security was just a delaying tactic against a sufficiently motivated intruder?

 

Then she scooped up the computer and broke into a sprint with it down the hall and over to the adjoining building where 'guvment' class was. She managed to beat the bell, but got into class all breathless and it was obvious she'd been running and...blegh. With all of the brittle faux-dignity of a cat that had missed a jump and was just hoping you'd forget you'd seen it, she stalked to her desk and slouched down in the chair as she fished her book out of her pack.

 

Once confident the teacher wasn't paying attention, she snuck a look at her phone under her desk to see if it had received the same email, and if it had the same content on it.

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Roach checked her phone, not once but twice. The mysterious message was not present on the phone, which was odd as hell. She resisted the urge to open the computer knowing full well the rabbit hole that would be, so she tried to put it from her mind. That was very hard, the rest of her day was a series of distractions.

Jo left the lunchroom in a bad mood and it didn’t help that her next class was algebra, her most hated subject, not only that but it was a class she shared with MC. Jo made it to class with a couple of minutes to spare and sat at her desk. She noticed that MC’s desk was empty, “Good,” Jo thought with a wicked inner smile, “hope she misses the bell and gets in trouble.” Alas Jo’s wish wasn’t going to come true just as the bell started to ring the missing student slipped into the door and slither to her seat as the last note sounded. Jo detected the strong scent of air freshener as the older girl went past her desk.

 

Hank settled into his seat in English and looked at the empty desk beside him. He shared English with Ben and that was his desk that sat empty. The bell rang and still no Ben. Mrs Blum started her lesson talking about their reading assignments for the next week, still no Ben. It was totally unlike Ben the nerdiest of them all to miss a class, and Hank knew he was here, simple by the fact that Hank, with a hardship license, was his friends ride to and from school, and both of Ben parents worked out of town so it was unlikely that they had come in to pick him up unless it was a real emergency.

 

**********

Hank waited out front after the final bell. Ben hadn’t come back to English and hadn’t been at his locker between classes. Hank had gone by the office but no sign of him there but he didn’t go in to inquire. Bruno Talbot, an older boy, and a certified bully who was doing his second turn as a junior (some say he failed on purpose just so he could remain in school and terrorize the younger kids) was sitting in the office obviously waiting on a visit with the vice principle, Mrs Vickers. Bruno saw Hank through the glass and stared at him, a sinister grin growing on his face. Hank had hightailed it out of there after that. And now he was waiting to see if Ben showed up, but he couldn’t wait too long, his sisters were already at the truck and he figured they would get impatient soon. Unfortunately, he didn’t see any sign of Ben, but he did see Jo and Roach walking his way which was odd they usually rode the bus.

 

Roach and Jo had been told that their bus had broken down and that it would be at least an hour for a replacement to make it back. They had decided to see if they could catch Jo’s big brother or Hank and hitch a ride in the back of his truck, and even if they missed him that was still the way to head to for the long walk home. They were in luck, while Jo’s brother was no where to be seen, Hank was still there.

 

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"Joooooooo," Roach theatrically whined as the girls approached their rendezvous with Hank, "If we can't get a ride, you have to carry me. You HAVE to! On your shoulders. This is happening...oh hey!"

 

On spotting Hank she waved and shouted, "HEY HANK! HOW WAS SCHOOL AND ALSO WE NEED A RIDE! BUS IS BROKE!"

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"Craig and Keith already left fer work," Jo added grumpily.

She had math homework she didn't want to do and her twin brothers always seemed to dodge her when she might get a ride in their well used Ford F150. It was supposed to be their turn to teach her to drive. Dad had taught Aiden, Aiden taught Ryland, Ryland taught the twins, and the twins - or at least one of them - was supposed to teach her. But they kept ditching her and she'd only managed to coral them a few times to give her a bit of time behind the wheel.

"And Ah ain't givin' Roach a ride on mah shoulders all th'way home." The hulking teen jabbed Roach in the ribs with a pair of fingers, the skinny girl squirming away. Jo gave her a tight grin. "You come and start runnin' with me. 'Fore long, joggin' back home from school won't be so bad, Roach." Jo leaned her forearms on the edge of Hank's trunk, giving him an easy smile. "Can we bum a ride with yah?" 

After a moment, she frowned, squinting against the glare off the glass to peer into the passenger side of the truck, then turned back to Hank. "Where's Ben? Do we have to wait fer 'im?"

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Hank could only chuckle at Roach's antics, and nodded.  "Of course you can ride with me, that invitation's a standing one."   It always had been since he got the truck, though normally it was Ben who rode home with him.   He frowned when he thought of that.  "I don't know.  Ben wasn't in English.  I haven't seen him at all since lunch.   Bruno Talbot was in the office again when i  went by there, and gave me a sinister shit-eating grin.   I left after that, I'd rather not get into another fight, at least not there."

He looked at Roach and Jo, "So have you two seen him?  I mean he could have skipped class and just gone home, but he's never done that before."  

His sisters, Jennifer and Leslie were there as well, and both looked at the older kids with confusion.  "Ben always rides home with us, did something happen?"

Hank sighed.   "Yeah, but nobody knows what.   Ben left after lunch, and didn't come to class.   I can call his house and see if he's there, but if anyone is actually there, then I'll have to explain why I'm calling.  

 

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Jo nodded sharply, giving the side of Hank's truck a rap with her knuckles, then started fishing her phone out of her bag. "Yah call Ben's house then, Hank, and Ah'll call his phone." Mildly dyslexic, Jo called Ben often enough for help with her English classes. Math too. She could convert pounds to kilos and back easy enough, just from experience, but struggled with math otherwise. "If we don't get answers, we can give the school a walk through for him 'fore leavin'. Ah can jog home if y'all need goin' now, though."

Jo tapped Ben's name on her phone, holding it up to her ear as it began to ring. Listening to the tone, her dark blue eyes narrowed as she regarded Roach and Hank, including his sisters in the look, her free hand knotting into a large fist, heavy muscle rippling as huge girl tensed.

"And if Bruno or his like are givin' y'all shit, tell me and Ah'll see they have more shit than they can shovel." 

Jo might have spent more time in other social circles last year, but the Walsh Road Kids were her longest and bestest friends yet. If people messed with them, they messed with her, and she hadn't exactly been a shrinking violet before she'd grown into a giant, not with four rough and tumble older brothers. She had to make that clear more than once, especially on Ben's behalf. If those bullying her friends didn't want to pick on someone their own size, she'd let them see how they liked being picked on by someone even bigger.

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Intuiting that this might take a hot minute, Roach shrugged and set her laptop on the bed of the truck and opened it up. While Jo and Hank chased Ben down, she could do a little maintenance. Time management, beeeeeeeeeeeyitches.

 

She kicked up her anti-malware utility and while it spun away she went to the copy of the system logs she made and scrolled back to the right approximate timestamp and started picking through the endless registries of starting and stopping processes and other computer busywork that end users were mercifully spared awareness of.

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Roach’s fingers flew over the keyboard accomplishing what she wanted, with her supped up laptop high performance operating at peak. There were no viruses, she hadn’t been hacked, and in a few minutes, while the other were talking about Ben, she found the line where the email had originated and with a few more deft key strokes found her way to that site which was buried deep out in the web. Not quite the dark web but pretty dang close.

 

The website was a black page, the address was a bunch of, to her, meaningless letters then @question.lst the lst domain name was unknown to her. She clicked around on the blank page but couldn’t find anything there didn’t appear to be any other pages attached to the address, no links, no e-mail. Nothing.

 

Roach was about to hit escape when suddenly a dot appeared in the center of the page. It rapidly grew in size to a thumbnail picture. The same picture that had been in the e-mail. Suddenly it moved to the upper left corner of the screen and another picture grew in the center, another girl. She also looked familiar to Roach. It too flew to the upper left corner beside the first and there was a third then a fourth. It kept on until the page was full of pictures about the first four or five, like the first, Roach felt she should know them but then the rest were complete strangers, and the pics were odd. They were of both girls and boys and their ages were allover the place. Kids even a baby and old people and every age in between. And the clothes and hair were odd at first they were contemporary, then they started looking out of style. Like they were from the nineties, then the eighties, the seventies, sixties the pictures were black and white now and showed people dressed like the fifties and the forties. At a hundred pictures the screen had gone blank, and it started filling a second page. Then a third and a fourth. The last pictures were of the type you found in history books from the civil war and earlier. The pictures stopped about a quarter of the way to filling the fifth page.

 

“Roach!”

Jo was looking at Roach who was leaning on the hood staring at her computer. “Are you coming or what?”

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"What the fuuuuuuu..."

 

That was seriously weird and dark and...Roach quickly started taking screenshots. At first she wasn't sure if it was all just going to vanish suddenly, so the first page of photos had several screens saved. Then she went screen by screen until the fifth...

 

...and then Jo was calling. What?

 

Roach looked up, feeling a little dazed. "Coming? Uh...oh RIGHT. Yeah!"

 

She made sure to grab the last page of photos, bookmarked the site, and then shut off the laptop and hurried over to the truck's cab.

 

"Guys...you aren't going to believe what I found just now. I thought I might have gotten hacked but the IP led to this weird-ass site that was just creepy photos of kids. I mean, like spooky creepy, not pervy creepy. You have to see this when we get to...Hank's place?" She paused. "Or Jo's place. Either one, I don't care."

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Jo glared at her phone when it went to voicemail. She shared a look with Hank, who shook his head, and frowned, her eyes going back to the school. She didn't really think anything bad had happened to Bed, he was just being ornery for some reason. She still considered going back in to search for him, but he could have ditched out, walking home was a good hike - doable, even for the slight boy - and Hank did have to get his sisters home.

Jo gave a disgruntled huff as she tucked her phone then rolled her eyes at Roach's antics. She didn't understand most of the computer stuff, just sounded Roach was getting all worked up about some weird Instagram or something. She grabbed the side of the the truck, planted a large foot on top of the wheel, then hauled herself up into the bed of the truck with smooth, powerfully athletic prowess.

"Ah still gotta give Banner his afternoon run," Jo said over the roof of the cab. And get my own run and workout too. "And Ah gotta help with supper too, it's Mah turn tonight. How 'bouts we meet up at Hank's after dinner so see what this fuss is all about, Roach?"

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The Walsh Road Kids headed for home. After one quick stop for gas and snacks they arrived at Hanks house where he ushered in the twin girls and took care of his after-school chores.

 

Roach grumbled some but she had things to do and maybe could find out more about this weird website, so she heads home too.

 

Jo and Roach headed across the street where they parted with a wave. Jo saw that  her brothers were home, their truck was parked on the side of the ditch on Walsh Road in its usual spot. She noticed that Ben's mom's car, an older model ford compact, was in their drive a couple of houses down, which was unusual she didn’t usually get home until after six at the earliest.

 

Craig was nowhere to be seen when Jo came into the house from the kitchen door, Keith was already in the living room playing xbox and barely grunted at her when she said hi. Bitching about being left at school wouldn’t do any good so she just went and changed and got Banner for her run.

 

Once outside she turned right and walked Banner on his leash down the length of past Hannah’s empty house with it’s for sale sign and lawn in need of mowing, past Ben’s house, where she thought she saw Ben’s mom through the kitchen window and then past the empty Walsh house an old almost stately home where Silas had lived. That house wasn’t for sale and the lawn and grounds where being kept up by a lawn service from town. Once past the cul de ’sac and the end of the paved road. She picked which trail she would run. She felt the need to burn some energy, so she picked the harder trail and after letting Banner off his leash, started her jog, the loyal dog keeping pace beside her.

 

The trail had started as a game trail long ago but over the years and years of hunters on horse back had widen and become a permanent addition to the back country here in Union County. The trail led back up the mountain and looped back to the south where it came out on the road the full run was about two and a half miles then another two miles back along  Gumlog to Walsh rd. About a mile up the trail, Jo noticed a fallen tree. As she paused to go around it she found a trail she had never seen before and before she could even take a closer look at it banner gave a loud bark and tore off down the new trail.

 

With a curse Jo was after her dog but he easily out paced her, at first, she called after him but soon she stopped to save her breath for running. This trail was narrower, a game trail that had not seen any human foot in a very long time if ever. The trees and foliage were dense and after a fer hundred feet Jo wasn’t certain what direction she was running and she had lost sight of Banner though she could hear him still. It wasn’t like him to act this way he was a well trained and loyal dog, and she had never had trouble when running with him in the past. After another hundred or two hundred feet she could no longer hear Banner running and a sudden panic filled her heart. She slowed to a jog her breath coming in tight gasps her side hurting, now she heard running water. A stream? She couldn’t recall any streams in the area, but then with a look around she wasn’t really sure where she was anyway.

 

Jo crept forward suddenly wary and kind of frightened. The sound of water running over rocks grew louder and she heard panting. Ahead sunlight pierced the tree branches overhead and she caught sight of the glitter of water and there she saw Banner water dripping from his mouth hair bristling on his neck, across the small shallow creek and adult black bear stared at the dog.

 

“Bear is wondering if dog is kin.”

 

The voice was low and close and sweet and seductive, and it scared the shit out of Jo, but a touch on her arm, gentle like the caress of the wind, stilled her from jumping.

 

“Calm yourself or things might go badly. Fear me not.”

 

Jo turned her head and looked into liquid blue eyes big and slightly slanted, set in a face that she wasn’t sure if man or woman, but beautiful all the same.

The touch on her arm pressed and moved up and down, feeling much more like a carees in truth,  “My you are very fit, your arms are like steel.”

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Hank had finished most of his chores and made sure the twins did theirs before  letting them have some TV time, now he was in the kitchen getting ready to fix dinner. Mom would be home from Walmart soon and he at least wanted to get the meal started.

 

He went directly to the counter where his mother usually left instructions for what to fix, and sure enough there they were but there was also a box wrapped in brown paper with his name written on it. There was nothing else no address, no stamps or UPS stickers, no card. Just his name in Printed letters across the top of the box. I wasn’t big about eight inches long and six wide, maybe two, two and a half high. He knew it was a box because he could see where the top bulged out the sides. It wasn’t heave maybe two or three pounds. And it hadn’t been here this morning when he left for school.

 

“Hey,” he called out to his sisters in the living room, “did either of you put a package in here?”

 

“Nooo!” cried Leslie from the other room, “be quiet we’re watching TV.”

 

Hank turned back to the box and curiosity made him itch so he tore the paper off. Sure enough it was a cardboard box, worn and grey with age, with a message written on top in what looked like magic marker.

 

Be Prepared

 

That caused Hank to pause but only for a second, then he took the lid off the box.

 

Nestled in the box was an old book, maybe a diary because it had a clasp like he had seen on diaries at Walmart. The cover was leather, so dark with age as to appear almost black and cracked. Hank lifted it out of the box gently. He expected it to be stiff and brittle from the way it looked but it wasn’t, it was supple, and the leather was actually quite soft. The clasp was a small lock with a tiny keyhole, but there was no key in the box.

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