Anyone in his shoes would have done the same.
That’s what Simon kept telling himself as he trudged through the High Tauern’s snow-coated forest, slogging his way through a worsening winter storm. The choices he’d made, some of which, in hindsight, had been irrefutably poor, hadn’t even really been choices. They’d been opportunities he couldn’t refuse. Opportunities that anyone in his position would have seized. Rebuffing them had never seemed like a real option, although he now definitely wished he had.
Simon looked up into the surging blizzard. Most of the treetops had vanished into the low-hanging clouds and frosty precipitation. The wind, having picked up in intensity during his walk, now stung his eyes. He was tempted to turn around and go home, but continued to trudge on.
The Six were waiting.
Being invited to join their circle had been such a rare opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Granted, Simon had only experienced fourteen years of life, and could mostly remember only events from the last nine. Still, he recognized the significance of being befriended by someone of Hannah Lindner’s superior status. Especially after having been invisible to those in her hemisphere for so long.
There’d been no invitations to birthday parties or weekend snowboarding excursions. No significant interactions during school or via social media. In fact, Simon had once been able to count on a single hand the number of times a member of The Six had acknowledged his existence by speaking to him.
That all changed on the afternoon of October 17th, when Hannah approached him during Miss Moser’s 8th grade biology class and asked for his help. Simon still remembered, quite vividly, the details of their conversation. He remembered the way Hannah playfully twirled her auburn brown ponytail as she spoke, the slight sparkle of her candy cane lip-gloss, and the charge he felt when she excitedly grabbed his knee upon his agreeing to help her deceive one of their classmates. He’d spent so much of the rest of the day grinning that his cheeks ached by the time he went to bed. They ached now too, but that was due to the cold.
Simon was starting to seriously question the group’s decision to meet in such conditions. He knew the matter they needed to discuss was urgent, but the weather had taken a noticeable turn for the worse since morning. The air was thick with heavy flakes that concealed anything beyond fifty or sixty meters. The temperature was falling fast. He pulled his scarf up over his nose and steeled himself against the cold. This was a date he had to keep.
When he reached the meeting point, he was going to tell the others he was done. A few of them weren’t going to be happy. One or two of them were likely to call him a sissy. The others would think he was scared of getting caught. They’d all be wrong.
Simon was done because being done was the only decent thing left to do. As he trekked up one of the many forested slopes that enclosed his hometown of Bad Gastein, he tried to convince himself that at least a few of The Six would feel the same way he did. Hannah surely would.
Simon was certain that’s why she’d scheduled the gathering. Given what had happened, it seemed reasonable to expect that at least a few of the others would be ready to stop too. Please, let them be ready to stop. As he approached the small clearing where he and The Six usually met, Simon heard the familiar voices of his fellow conspirators.
The first words he was able to make out belonged to Noah. “It was an earthquake, plain and simple.”
“But what about the light?” asked the freckle-faced Clara. “Some people said they saw a flash out by the caves. Then there was that boom.”
“It was more like an explosion,” said Felix, “not just an earthquake or an avalanche.”
Simon could see them now, all huddled together in the clearing. They were close enough to each other to be able to whisper but spoke up so as to be heard over the wind.
“At least, that’s what they were saying it was on the news,” Felix continued. He stomped his snow boots as he spoke, in what was seemingly an effort to stay warm. “Some sort of detonation they said. But when the police investigated the area, there wasn’t any sign of a blast.”
“Then what was it?” Mia asked, her words muffled by her scarf.
Felix shrugged. “Nobody knows.”
“Somebody knows,” Lukas stated. He crossed his arms over the parka that encased his beefy frame. “If you ask me, it was some kind of secret military operation.”
Noah scoffed at the theory. “To test what?”
“That’s part of the secret, dummy.”
The fallout from The Six’s tricking and ensuing tormenting of Sophie Schmidt wasn’t the only recent event to shake Bad Gastein. A yet to be explained phenomenon from the night before had rattled the town. Not just emotionally, the way Sophie’s incident had, but literally shook it, setting off car alarms and even triggering a couple of snowslides. Luckily, no one had been hurt.
Hannah interrupted the group’s discussion of the event when she spotted Simon. “Enough about the random rumbling. I want to talk about Sophie. The pranking has gone on for long enough.”
The pranking. The pranking that had gone horribly awry. That had indeed gone on long enough. The pranking that was supposed to have been all in good fun. That’s how the group had sold it to Simon anyway, which had made it easy for him to say yes.
Anyone in his shoes would have done the same.
With a defiant huff, Lukas plodded to a nearby stone fence and leaned against it, again crossing his arms. “I’m not stopping.”
“You are going to stop,” Hannah replied. “All of us are. Starting tonight.”
“Why?” Lukas challenged. “Because you say so?”
Hannah shouted her response, startling Simon a little. “Because we’ve already taken it way too far, you psycho!”
They had, and it had all started with Simon. The Six had recruited him to exploit his knowledge of computers. More specifically, they’d wanted him to help create a fake online identity they could use to strike up a fake friendship with Sophie, who was an ex-member of their clique. They were just going to mess with her a bit. Maybe try to dig up some dirt.
Naturally, Simon had wondered what Sophie had done to deserve the hoax he’d been enlisted to help engineer. As the group’s scheme got underway, he’d also wondered, numerous times, if what they were doing was intensifying a little too quickly from mean-spirited mischief into vicious cyberbullying.
He’d kept these questions to himself, though. The answers weren’t worth upsetting Lukas, Clara, Felix, Mia, Noah, or Hannah. Simon didn’t want them turning on him the way they’d turned on Sophie. So instead, he simply did as they’d asked.
The Six had made a wise choice in recruiting him. Not because he’d been such a pushover, or, not only because of that, but also because he knew how to do what they’d needed done. He knew that a simple, yet effective way to anonymize an IP Address was to use a Tor browser. Doing so allowed them to mask their location and identity by bouncing their signal all over the world. Simon also knew that the best instant messaging software for preserving their anonymity was Kik, because it allowed users to register without providing a telephone number.
He’d set up the account in less than an hour. Hannah and her fiends then spread word across school that Kik was their new messaging app of choice. Thinking it might provide inside access to The Six, most everyone joined the service within a week.
Even after her fallout with the group, Sophie was no exception. She created an account right along with all the other kids in school. And who could blame her? Nobody likes feeling left out. Two days after she registered, she received a message from Jonas, a fourteen-year-old boy from Innsbruck who, like Sophie, had recently suffered a falling out with his closest friends.
His hobbies included watching movies, skateboarding, snowboarding, and meeting new people online. He was clever, caring, and not afraid to chat about weighty, sometimes personal, topics. Jonas was exactly the type of person Sophie had needed and he’d come along at exactly the right time.
Jonas was also completely bogus. He’d been created on a Saturday afternoon in Hannah’s basement, based on an amalgamation of ideas from different members of The Six. He’d been the tool they’d used to extract Sophie’s most embarrassing secrets. The whole thing had come together surprisingly well. On one particularly productive afternoon, Hannah actually hugged Simon after Sophie confessed to wearing an imitation brand of popular skirts. Simon still remembered every detail of that hug, including the way Hannah’s hair had smelled of lavender, and the feeling of her chest pressed against his. It was moments like those that kept him from worrying too much about what they were doing to Sophie.
It was partially the fact that The Six had once been seven that Simon had allowed himself to dream about becoming a permanent member of the group. Allowed himself to fantasize about receiving more hugs from Hannah. Allowed himself to become wholly dedicated to doing his part to ensure the pranking would be successful.
He’d neglected to consider what its success might mean—until it was too late.
Simon was brought back into the current discussion by Noah sharing his thoughts on the matter. “We’ve all gotten our fair share of revenge, and then some.”
“I don’t necessarily agree,” said Clara.
“What about Elias?” Felix asked. “He’s only nine. I don’t understand why someone decided to involve him in this.”
Lukas shrugged. “He’s a Schmidt. Guilty by association.”
Simon had figured Lukas was the one who’d been tormenting Sophie’s brother. The confession didn’t come as a surprise. It was a concern. Lukas wasn’t disciplined enough to take the necessary precautions with his online bullying. If he kept it up, Simon was sure he’d get caught. Then he’d probably turn in the whole group. It was exactly the sort of rotten thing Lukas would do.
“I heard you told him to drink bleach,” Mia said. “Try to one-up his sister. That’s so disturbed.”
“It was a joke,” Lukas said, enjoying a chuckle. His frown returned when no one chuckled along with him. “When did you all become so lame?”
“When did you become such a monster?” Hannah fired back.
Lukas waived away her words. “Fuck off.”
“This ends tonight,” she repeated firmly. “We’re shutting down the accounts. No more online interaction with Sophie or Elias.”
A cocky grin returned to Lukas’s lips. “I’ll stop when I want to stop.”
Simon decided it was time he ceased standing meekly on the sidelines while the others decided what to do. Taking a step forward, he did his best to sound as though he believed his words were as substantial as theirs. “If you don’t quit harassing them, I’ll tell everyone what we did.”
All eyes turned his way and Simon instantly regretted his decision to speak. He wasn’t accustomed to being the center of attention, especially with this group, and it left him in a panic. Stress overtook him. The part of his brain responsible for lucid thought completely shut down. He suddenly felt dizzy.
“Me too,” Felix said, mercifully taking the pressure off.
“You do and I’ll thrash the both of you,” Lukas warned.
It wasn’t an empty threat. Lukas was easily the largest kid in their class, and probably the meanest. He’d hit his growth spurt early and not only grown taller than anyone their age, but much stouter as well. It wasn’t unusual for him to pummel one of their classmates whenever the mood struck him. His combination of size and savagery was another reason why Simon had stayed complicit, even after things had gone too far.
“I’ll tell too,” Hannah said. “Either we all agree that this is over, or I’ll tell my parents everything we did the second I get home.”
“Stop,” Clara shouted. “Everyone, stop saying you’re going to tell your parents what we did. Don’t even joke about that.”
“It wasn’t a joke,” Hannah replied.
Lukas snorted. “You’re all a joke.”
“Shut up, Lukas,” Noah snapped.
“Seriously, none of us can say anything to our parents.” It was Felix this time, voicing his concern.
Hannah shouted in frustration. “Then we stop!”
At that point everyone started chiming in, often talking over one another. Simon started to lose track of who was speaking and struggled to understand what they were saying. It all became a jumbled mess.
“We can’t say anything . . . someone will find out . . . she’s been through enough . . . sissies . . . because you always . . . if you hadn’t . . . that’s why she . . . we never said that we’d . . . stop pretending like you—”
A sudden, startlingly loud, and deeply disturbing caterwaul abruptly cut off the chatter. The angry bellow came from somewhere off to Simon’s left, sounding like a cross between a goat’s bleat and a lion’s roar. It echoed through the nearby slopes, leaving Simon and The Six silent and wide-eyed.
“What the hell was that?” Noah asked, his voice nearly a whisper.
Simon looked toward the mountainsides, anxiously searching for whatever had made the sound. At first, nothing stood out beyond the onslaught of heavy flakes. Then he spotted the source of the blaring cry, perched on a nearby bluff, and his breath caught in his throat.
It was impossible to discern any distinguishable features within the beast’s hulking silhouette, due to the encroaching darkness and intensity of swirling snowflakes. Simon was certain it was a beast though. No human could have made the sound he’d just heard. The figure was also enormous. Far too large to be a person.
After another caterwaul that shook Simon to his core, the creature slowly rose from its crouch. Its already substantial frame doubled in size, or perhaps even tripled. The thing was massive. Far more massive than Simon had initially estimated. He was awestruck by the sight of it, too terrified to do anything more than stare.
No one said a word. They watched. They waited.
The beast leapt from its perch.