Cascade Falls [Arc I]

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a god among men
Original poster
Invitation Status
  1. Look for groups
  2. Looking for partners
Posting Speed
  1. 1-3 posts per week
  2. One post per week
  3. Slow As Molasses
Writing Levels
  1. Adept
  2. Advanced
  3. Prestige
  4. Adaptable
Preferred Character Gender
  1. Male
  2. Female
  3. No Preferences
Slice of Life, Horror, Fandoms, Superheroes, Crime, Drama, Grit, Supernatural, Light Sci-Fi, Modern Era, Dark Themes
The blue glow of the monitor bank made the room feel colder than it was. Inside of the mountain that overlooked the valley, hollowed out and made inhabitable by doctor Olson, one of one many volunteers sat quietly with their eyes focused on the dozens screens. Every so often, the click of a mouse could be heard—flagged recordings of suspicious whispers, footage of a single woman standing with her front door open for a solid hour, a couple disappearing into their closet and limping on their way out. Keeping Cascade Falls safe wasn't just about keeping the monsters out, it was about exposing and ridding the world of the monsters within.

"More of them," the technician spoke to the willowy figure behind him. "Disappearing into their closets for a while...some of them limp when they return."

Removing his glasses, Howard stepped closer to the screens, eyes hawkish as the volunteer played the footage back for him several times. "How many is that now?" he asked, having seen enough of the Richards.

"Six, sir."

Slipping his glasses back on, Howard seemed to accept that. "Six," he repeated with a nod, "minus last night's guest makes five." Next to him, the technician remained silent as Howard stewed in his own contempt for the town's mounting defiance. "Do you have the time?"

"Quarter to nine."

Down in the valley, a rotary phone began to ring. The bell was startling, enough to make Eric Reed flinch over his copy of the Cascade Falls Journal, the infrequent newspaper that had just started showing up on the doorsteps of residents after a month-long absence. Again, the phone rang, and while Eric may have thought to ignore it in his old life, that type of behavior was no longer allowed. Leaving the paper on the island counter, the tall man crossed into the sitting room and picked up the heavy receiver, "hello?"

"Good morning Sheriff Reed," said the inoffensive and artificially pleasant voice of another faceless someone on the other end of the line, "this morning, we would like to inform you of five insurgents who may have removed their tracking devices." Subconsciously, Eric resisted the urge to reach for the back of his thigh and feel the small knot of scar tissue and something attached to his hamstring, but the camera planted in the overhead ceiling fan stopped him—he didn't even look up at it. "The list of names will be on your desk when you arrive to work this morning. Enjoy your day in Cascade Falls!"

After hanging up without either of them saying goodbye, Eric's eyes fell to the old clock that was hanging on the wall. It was getting close to nine and if he didn't want to be late for work at the world's most useless Sheriff's office, he was going to have to get going. Leaving the paper unfurled in the kitchen, Eric walked over to the hallway to put his boots on. It was sometime in the summer, possibly late July or early August, but it was hard to tell when no one was allowed to keep track of the passage of time—either way, it was warm enough that Eric didn't need a coat.

Outside of his large, slate colored Victorian, the sun was just beginning to peek out from behind the mountain and a pine-scented breeze was slowly working its way through every open window and door in town. It was almost perfect, so close to paradise that sometimes Eric told himself that he was happy, that he liked it in Cascade Falls and that it didn't matter that he'd missed the last eight years of his son's life, or had married someone who wasn't the mother of his child. Coping mechanisms were a funny thing and of the nearly four hundred residents in town, Eric had to wonder who else was struggling to survive under the weight of not knowing what was going on in the outside world.

The Cascade Falls Coffee House was usually busy throughout the day, but it the cozy building was packed to the brim with people every morning, each one eager for caffeine to make the day that much easier. On his way in, people greeted him, their politeness was something that Eric had never gotten used to and most had accepted that he was sheriff the minute that he had been given the badge.

Good morning, Sheriff. The usual?

It was hard to imagine Casey Sloan as anything other than cheerful and compliant when only six months ago, she had been frantically wandering the streets of Cascade Falls in only her hospital gown, a trail of blood streaked down her arm where she'd ripped her IV out, and screaming the usual questions at the top of her lungs. Eric still remembered following her into the woods, chasing after her as she made a run for the fence the same way Leah had and the sickening feeling that overtook his stomach when he had given the girl, terrified and confused, back to Norma Spencer. In the future, there were sure to others like Casey, more brave runners and more unlucky victims.

"Yeah," Eric answered, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet, "cream, no sugar." He pulled out a few dollars, always seeming to forget the sensation of plastic-like money, printed from decades ago and smudged in the corners—even an untrained could tell that it wasn't real. Handing the Monopoly-like money over the counter to Casey and stepped aside for the next customer to make their order. In the meantime, he made small talk with others, some friends and others acquaintances, all trying to be as nice and good as possible while cameras and microphones recorded the whole scene.

Behind the counter, Casey came to the end of another pot of coffee just before she could make Eric's order. "It'll be a minute," she said, offering an apologetic smile before she turned to make a fresh pot.
Another beautiful day in Cascade Falls.

Time was not a factor here. The feeling of waking up in a hospital bed completely delirious had long evaporated into the far recesses of his memory, chucked away and stored like a box of old things he no longer needed. He'd been a beaten man then. Beaten, defeated, worn out - reduced to a fraction of the hopeful youth he'd once been, scribbling endlessly into a battered notebook until his hand cramped from effort. Just a little over ten years ago, the bar had become his second home, the bartender his best friend and closest confidante, always ready with a sympathetic smile and shots on the house when things were particularly bad. Wars of words between him and Janet had devolved from logical arguments to a contest of who could yell the loudest, sending little Madeline sprinting into her room where she crawled under the bed with fingers plugging up her ears.

Maddy was probably a teenager now, Joshua thought. A teenager who had better things to do than wonder where her deadbeat old dad had gone. He couldn't lie and say he didn't miss her, but since whoever ran the Falls didn't let him talk about it, he kept silent and kept Maddy in his thoughts, imagining the kind of lively young woman she had become. Smart and independent, most likely. Like her mother. His marriage might have failed, but his ex-wife was an excellent mother and would probably still be, helping their little girl through the trying time of adolescence. And him? Daddy was living a new life now, a life where he drove his truck out every morning to meet the daily delivery requirements, then made sure to check on his animals. And when he found himself with some spare time, he would make his way down to the Cascade Falls Coffee House for a good, strong brew.

Tapping his fingers on the wheel as he put his truck into park, he found himself whistling a tune which sounded familiar, yet not enough that he could recall its name. It'd been a long time - a damn long time. Like most of the residents here, he counted the years through the passing of seasons. He counted them through the days when the sun scorched the earth and through the days when the wind grew frigid and biting. This morning, the sun had climbed to cast a generous glow over the silhouettes of the mountains, golden light spilling down over the sidewalk as he unlatched the driver's side door and made his way towards the cafe's entrance.

The keys to his truck jingled in his work-calloused palm, palms which had once worked better against pen and paper than a butcher's tools. Nevertheless, he'd been raised in a family of farmers and as such didn't find his new occupation all too unfamiliar. Besides, he'd been wanting to go back to the simple life before the accident. Before this. And he could play along with the rules; he followed them, and no harm had come to him. Still, every town had its rumors; and whether or not he played ignorant, he knew that this pristine utopia had an edge which cut down those who didn't stoop to avoid it. Stoop, and submit. Obedience was the ticket to a happy existence in this slice of paradise. There were days where the disillusionment weighed heavier than others, but it had not yet reached the point where he was tempted to shatter the new life he'd so carefully built.

The scent of coffee was a blessing to the senses, and as he approached the counter he saw that Eric was already there, waiting patiently for Casey Sloan - one of the town's newer arrivals - to prepare a fresh pot. Pulling his own wallet from his pocket, Josh slid his fingers through the mass of obviously fake money - but money he was used to - and pulled out just enough for his usual. Then he cleared his throat, a mild smile dangling from his mouth as he moved to greet one of his oldest friends here. "Morning, sheriff." He passed his attention to the counter for a brief moment to make his order - black, no cream no sugar - then rubbed a hand casually across the slant of his jaw to stifle an upcoming yawn. "Sleep well last night?" So maybe he wasn't the best at small talk, but it was a little difficult to be a good conversationalist when you had to tread carefully around certain subjects. You never knew who was listening in.
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She left the lilac curtains in her bedroom window opened just so. This was so that when the sun reached a certain point in the sky it shone on her face, a gentle kiss of warmth to wake to instead of the old-fashioned, enameled alarm clock that she appreciated more on an aesthetic level than for function. Jean wound the clock faithfully and set it every night. She then took great satisfaction in reaching her hand out from underneath her quilted covers (made with the same fabric as the curtains and bed-skirt) to turn it off each morning before it even sounded. It had been so long since she'd heard the alarm that it was like a distant echo from the past, almost as faded as the sound of Alex's voice. Small bits of control in her life like that helped to focus her and keep her, arguably, sane.

This morning was no different than any of the others. Her brown eyes opened, blinking from the sun's kiss and for a second she lay in peace and drowsy softness before the tick of the clock reminded her of the discord to come. Her hand made its well-worn path through the air, slender fingers finding the switch with ease. She lay in bed for exactly another three heart beats and then forced herself to sit up. The cool air in her room—a holdover from the night—wasn't cool enough to make her skin prickle, yet prickle it did. With eyes straight in front of her, her face a careful mask and a slight tremor to her hands Jean made her way to the bathroom to begin her morning ablutions.

Five years and she still felt the eyes on her. She would have guessed that it would have faded by now, but it hadn't. By the end of the day she would be almost used to the sensation of being watched. The prickle would fade and she would move in and out of moments of forgetting that she was not alone, ever. But each and every morning it was a fresh trauma she had to work through with the same careful, choreographed ritual of turning off the alarm. The shower ran, she set her slightly damp hair in big rollers and then sat in front of the mirror to do her makeup.

It was not a quick process but she found comfort and serenity in the process. Pots and powders, brushes and sponges all doing their work as they put polish onto her that functioned as much like armor as it did aesthetics. She tilted her head from side to side, looking at herself critically before beginning her hair. Beside her mirror in front of her vanity (also skirted in the same lilac fabric) hung two deeper purple ribbons topped with silk clusters of lilacs. On each ribbon were a collection of bobby pins, one held twelve, the other thirty one. She reached forward and from the first ribbon pulled a pin from near the lower half, leaving a slight, gap. She pulled one from the other ribbon, her fingers quick and casual in their choice for all that her selection was deliberate. As she pinned them into her hair her eyes lingered on the ribbon, slipping from empty spot to empty spot as if demarking it.

Hair done, makeup done she slipped quickly into a chocolate brown polka dotted dress with a full skirt that swished with pleasing satisfaction around her legs as she walked. It had a Peter Pan collar and big white buttons to match. This too was armor of a sort. She strapped on her low-heeled Mary Janes an spent a few peaceful minutes eating a buttery scone dotted with the blackberries she'd found ringing the graveyard on one of her long evening walks that sometimes helped prevent her insomnia from requiring walks in the dead of night—sometimes.

Gathering up her books, her latest knitting project and purse she slipped them all into a basket, then she set off for work, leaving behind her cream and lilac painted Victorian house with its well-tended bushes for the quaint and lovely streets of her prison. The Library of Cascade Falls was not well utilized. It was small and the books were limited and dated. Yet she went every day and kept the place spotless and well organized. She opened the windows when weather permitted, swept the floor, dusted the corners and then read and knit the day away in the musty, cool gloom of an old building. It wasn't a bad life, but it wasn't the one she would have chosen.

Part of her routine, she wasn't even certain when she'd added it, was stopping by the Coffee shop for a cup of coffee she could well have made at home. However, coffee wasn't what she was purchasing when she walked in the door of the shop, not really. What she was purchasing was a moment of connection, of socialization, of pretending that things were normal. Pretending that they were a community by choice. It was a small daily slice of what drove her to throw her parties. Those too were armor of a sort.

She smiled to people as she passed them, lifting a hand in greeting and feeling the prickle on her skin that was the understanding that each and every move was being recorded. She wondered if anyone else felt the prickle or if their realization of the cameras manifested as something else. The door to the Café opened and the scent of coffee perked her up even more than the taste of it would.

"Good morning," she said in a general greeting to all. She looked around and nodded to the individuals as she lined up to wait her turn.

"Sherriff Reed, Mr. Duke, how are you this morning?"
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There was a certain undeniable beauty in pastry-making, a delight to be found in the perfect ratio of flour to egg, butter to sugar and baking powder. Pure mathematical precision was alive and well right alongside the very real possibility of human foibles and the inevitable recurrence of the Butterfly Effect. An oven overheated by a mere five degrees, or a phone call received at just the wrong moment in the rising process, could still lay waste to the most promising of experiments. It was an endlessly fascinating and exacting art, with just the right amount of folding or kneading or layering to achieve the precise softness, or crunch, or even a delectably buttery mouth feel that could make a grown man's eyes roll up in the back of his head, groaning as his toes curled in his shoes with the euphoric intensity of that single delicious bite.

And that was why Lee did what he did, right there. That was why he hadn't hung himself with his belt in the privacy of his bedroom closet years ago, and bade farewell to the hell that was Cascade Falls. He might have found another hell, or maybe heaven, or maybe nothing at all on the other side of a jerry-rigged noose. But no matter where his theoretical soul found itself, no matter he met the Devil or God or a vast endless nothingness, at least he'd finally have an answer to the question that had haunted his every waking moment for the past nine years: why am I here?

But so long as he lived, so long as he continued to practice the alchemical wizardry of baking and running the only coffee shop in Cascade Falls, Lee could make the lives of even a few people honestly better, at least for a few brief moments. As a physicist he'd been contented to wander the abstract realms of existence that only mathematics was fully capable of describing. He'd happily lost himself to the enormous questions of the nature of matter, and the make-up of this universe – and perhaps even those lying just behind the reality humans could know. But here in this little slice of hell on earth, there was no escape from the unnerving 'now' of the Orwellian charade they were all forced to embrace with pained smiles and blank, dead eyes.

Lee's food changed that. He couldn't take away the cameras he knew damn well littered his coffee house and his home like malevolent alien eyeballs, but he could give the men and women and children who came to his shop a moment of genuine joy, and sometimes even a wistful moment of peace. No one could say his pies reminded them of their grandmother's Christmas dishes, or that his cookies took them back to a childhood where a plateful of Mom's very best was set out for little hands to grab before they ran outside, but Lee didn't need to hear the words. He knew. He saw it in their eyes, the genuine happiness, the very real smiles on their faces, the occasionally authentic contentment of the people who arrived to be right where they were, with others who knew and understood their small joys and great agonies like no one else on this good Earth ever could.

This was Lee's own rebellion. This was why, he was sure, his coffee shop was so damned popular. This was all that kept him alive after nine soul-killing years. And this was how he stuck his flour-covered finger in the eyeball of whatever sadistic, amoral bastards had caged them all here in Cascade Falls.

"Have a scone while you wait, Sheriff," Lee said as he backed out of the kitchen, a tray of freshly-made vanilla almond and chocolate spice scones in both hands. He didn't think twice that they'd run out of freshly-made coffee – it happened all the time, what with the popularity of the coffee house and the regulars who arrived all the time. He winked at Casey with a grin, chasing away the apology on her face with his own good and unfeigned cheer while he began to unload the tray into the displays behind the glass case. He didn't know how or why Casey had wound up working in his coffee shop, but he wasn't sorry about it, even a little. She was a good kid, just confused and scared – and she had every damned right to be. But he'd protect her while he could, give her what measure of security was his to provide by example at the very least.

"Or a cinnamon roll – extra buttery today. How about you Josh?" Lee didn't intend to interrupt the man's small talk with the Sheriff, and so his gaze traveled easily to Jean. She was beautiful. She was fun, and she threw a hell of a party. She was probably supposed to be his competition, but in all honestly no small part of him thought of her as a rather strange and unexpected co-conspirator, each of them secretly sticking it to the malevolent masters of Cascade Falls in their own quietly seditious ways.

"Hey Jean," Lee said with a mischievous lift of his brows. "Got an apple pie going in the back." And with that, the gauntlet was thrown.
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"Happy anniversary, Riley!" a woman looking in her early twenties said as she hugged him the moment he walked into the bar. Her name was Vicky. She had been working at the bar as a waitress nearly since its inception and her charm helped keep people coming in ever since. Today (give or take a few days) was the bar's anniversary. Without calendars, having official holidays is difficult, but the need for celebration persevered and with the bar's anniversary always arriving in the middle of the summer, it became the perfect occasion to take a break from the heat, party and have an ice cold beer. The prices on the entire menu would be cut in half for the day, there'd be an acoustic guitar player in the back playing original music and an entirely new beer would be unveiled, which will be on house after its official announcement.

"Well, this is awkward. I didn't know we were an item," Riley replied with a smirk as he hugged her back. She pulled away and shook her head, ruffling his already messy brown hair. "You say the weirdest things," she said, returning to prepping the bar for the big day. The bar doesn't usually open until around the middle of the afternoon, but it's not unlike them to let their most frequent customers inside before official opening, just to hang out. There were six tables scattered around the space to dine four people each, with plenty of space in between to walk and stand around when there wasn't anywhere to sit. Drinks are served at the very center of the space on a rectangular counter, which is able to sit ten people on the long ends. A small stage sits in the back for when there's live music and the staff only area is off to the side through double doors, leading to the kitchen. Most of the décor was wooden.

Riley walked up to a forty five year old man at one of the tables, who stopped what he was doing to greet him. "Good to see you," he said, shaking his hand before giving him a brief hug. His name was Peter and he was the mastermind behind the bar, from its creation to its management. He's a very hands-on kind of owner. He's often seen assisting in the bartending or waiting on tables if there's a lot of business, and is also responsible for the creation of every one of the beers on the menu. The business brews their own beer on a location closer to the farm, which his son manages. His son, David, was around Riley's age and was prepping some of the newer employees for the night. Riley nodded to him in acknowledgment when they made eye contact. "Let's talk in private for a moment, before you get started," Peter said with his hand on Riley's shoulder before he began walking to the staff only section.

"Of course," Riley replied with a small chuckle, having an idea of what was to come. Although very ambitious, Peter also had a warm and sentimental side that made sure everything done in the business was a labor of love, right down to its treatment of its employees. They both entered his office. Peter sat at his desk and Riley sat in a chair a bit in front of it.

"I just wanted to thank you personally for all that you've done here," Peter began. "You've been here barely two years, but you've really made it your home. I know that's not easy to do here. I remember when you first came in here wanting a job, one of the first things you did was criticize how there weren't any women in here and that it was because of the menu." Riley smiled a little and scratched the back of his head nervously. "And, well, first of all, I was thinking: who the hell does this guy think he is?" Riley chuckled. "But you were confident in your experience and knowledge and I knew you were right… I just didn't know what to do about it. The changes we've made to the menu and the two beers we released since were very much inspired by your suggestions and, as you've probably noticed, the crowd as much more diverse now. Thanks to you."

"You're way too kind. I'm just glad you didn't tell me to fuck off that day," Riley replied with a laugh. "I had just gotten here at the time and I was alone and had nothing to lose…, but you've been very welcoming and so has our customers, so I'm very grateful for that."

"I'm glad," Peter replied with a nod. "I also wanted to show you the new beer," he added, opening the mini-fridge that sat beside where he was sitting and pulling out a 750 ml bottle. Whenever they released a new beer, they made twenty 750 ml bottles to give out to friends, family and special customers. The beer's artwork and design was made by Peter and it was etched into the glass itself, unlike the usual stickers on the smaller bottles. The bottle was sealed with a cork. He handed the bottle to him to inspect. The beer was called 'The Bad Townie' and it depicted a man in a fedora and a suit, eyes obscured and wearing a sinister grin. There were houses, trees and the mountain that overlooked the town behind him. The use of black and white colors gave it a film noir feel.

"This looks great," Riley said, running his thumb along the etched glass. "You out-do yourself every time with these." He gave him back the bottle. Peter took it and poured a bit of it into a plastic cup and handed it to him.

"What do you think?"

Riley took a decent sized gulp and raised his eyebrows as he swallowed. "Damn, that's tough," he commented, scanning the bottle for the ABV.

"This is our first India Pale Ale styled beer. It's ABV is 9.5, which will make it our strongest beer on the menu yet," Peter explained.

"No holding back, huh? It's mad good, Peter. I can't wait for tonight."

"This one's yours," Peter said, handing him an unopened bottled with the etched glass. He placed another one next to it. "And I'll assume you'll get this one to Josh. Add to his collection of our other limited edition bottles. He doesn't get to see me as much as he used to, with my getting my son up to speed so he can run things on his own. I'm grateful you've gotten close to him in such a short amount of time. He's been a regular for a long time."

"Anyone that can keep up with my drinking is alright in my book."

Peter chuckled. "Is there anyone else you want to give these bottles to before I hand them out?"

"I think Vicky has one or two by my work space, but…," Riley's eyes shifted to the right in thought. "I want to make sure Casey gets one too." He could tell by Peter's expression that he didn't recall who that was. "She's relatively new. Not really a regular either, but she's been here a few of times…"

"Oh, I see. You want to use my hard work to woo the new girl," Peter teased.

"No, no," Riley quickly retorted with a chuckle. "I've just… I've heard some things about her. I don't know if it's true, but it doesn't surprise me. She's gotten into some trouble. I don't know the details. I can just tell, though, when she's here, that she's having a rough time breaking the town in. And…, I think most of us can relate to that. She just needs to feel welcomed, maybe. I think it would mean something to her." Peter was silent. Riley shrugged. "Or not, maybe she'll just see it as nothing more than a beer bottle and chug it and vomit in the bathroom or something, which might actually be funny, so I think it's a win-win."

Peter started laughing. "You're a bastard. Alright. Do what you will," he replied, getting a beer bottle carrier and placing the three bottles in it before handing it to him. Riley nodded and smiled to him as he left his office.
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The water streamed down her face, masking the tears that just didn't stop flowing. Five years. Five years and still every morning Alison cried in the shower. She didn't whimper, she didn't even sniffle. She knew the microphone in the air vent was recording and the camera pointed at the shower was still watching. The shower was the only place where she could really let out the despair that wanted to overtake her very soul. It was the only placed where she could look at her body without any repercussions. Every time she showered she felt that thing in the back of her thigh although she didn't dare examine it too much. Every time she showered she looked upon the tattoo on her wrist. The one she had done before her journalism career really took off, the one that told her she loved to write. Again...she didn't dare look at it for too long. Still, the shower was the only place were Alison knew Cascade Falls was a nightmare that she couldn't wake up from and that she didn't belong.

Turning off the water and grabbing her towel off the rack, Alison began to dry herself. She stopped caring about the cameras watching her get dressed and undressed. There was no place in the house where the camera's eye didn't follow. She threw on a regular pair of blue jeans, a black t-shirt and her flats before quickly twisting her hair in a messy bun. It was going to be a long day at the store today and there was really no reason for her to get gussied up. She would save that time and energy for the next time Jean threw a party. She loved Jean's party. It made her have some sense of normalcy. It made her feel like she hadn't lost herself completely.

Alison grabbed her bag and proceeded out the door. She wanted to stop at grocery store first before she grabbed her usual morning coffee. The day was beautiful and if she didn't find herself a prisoner in this small town, she would have thought it was the perfect place to be. The sun shun brightly and rays kissed her cheeks as she walked over to the town grocery store, her home away from "home". Alison unlocked the door, the small bell above the door greeting her as she entered. She turned the lights on and set her bag down behind the counter. She had received a new shipment the night before and needed to restock the shelves before she was open for business.

She was glad for the summer months. The shelves were stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and various types of bread and even candy. The summer was a pleasant time, so unlike the winter months. The winter months saw the store packed with canned foods, boxed potatoes and other prepackaged meal that humans were never meant to survive on. Alison did her best to bring life to the store but there was only but so much she could do. She opened the boxes that had arrived and stocked the shelves properly. Everything was lined up perfectly. Nothing was out of order and the store had a homey feel to it, at least that was what she was going for anyway. When she had finished unpacking the items, Alison grabbed her keys and headed out the door. Before she left she noticed an orange out of its place. She grabbed it quickly and placed it carefully on the top of the pile where it belonged. It was the little things, Alison told herself. The little things.

The bell above the door rang again as Alison opened and closed the door behind herself. The coffee shop wasn't too far away and Lee always make her feel better with his warmth every time she came in in the morning. When she entered inside she was greeted by the scent of freshly brewed coffee and baked desserts. It was always a pleasant scent in the mornings. The coffee shop was bustling already and there were a few of her favorite people already in line. Alison locked eyes with Lee and smiled. "Morning. Usual iced coffee and I'll take a muffin if they're ready."

Alison nodded towards the sheriff and Josh who were having a conversation then tapped Jean on the shoulder to get her attention. "Hey girl. How you doing?" she said with a soft smile. It was the little things she told herself once more. The little things that kept her going and kept her from wanting to walk right into the fence and just end it all. It was the small relationships, the cordial smiles and social events that made her time in Cascade Falls tolerable. It's the only thing that makes me feel normal.
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Morning. The same routine, every day: up, stretch, shower, dress, leave with keys and a wallet. Go to work, come home, find something to entertain herself, feed herself, go to sleep. Perhaps her students were lucky, in that regard; they had the same monotony, but they had homework to fill their spare time. Homework, each other, and... Whatever entertainment was in the isolated village. Some board games, original to Cascade Falls, and some games that were played on the street, arguments and fights with friends. It wasn't dissimilar to her own childhood in Ireland- but that was the past. That was a gone life. Rhonwen did not relate to her students, because she couldn't, because she had no childhood. She had only ever been 25 in Cascade Falls, she had only been a teacher. That was her life.

The biggest advantage to having a local, nonstandardized school was that it was at the whims of the teachers- and the Overseer, naturally- as far as the rules were concerned. Sure, they had to come to school every day- this was toughest on the students who hadn't been born in town- but they started fairly late in the day, at 9:30. In fact, the whole education had been improved, as far as Rhonwen was concerned. No long lectures, no busy work; it was interactive. A discussion. A way to make kids feel like they mattered. They did. They were the most important ones in the small society. And because there were only a few dozen students, each was individually groomed- no, individually cared for- to make sure that they would be model citizens. They would grow up without the rebellious urges of their parents. They would grow up and have many children. They would grow up content in their lives. They would grow up and be happy. There were issues with society from before that Rhonwen could fix, shaping their little minds like this. Remnants of hatred- gone with one generation. Miraculous. Once all of the first generation residents of Cascade Falls had passed, why, it would be a utopia.

She got up and started to hum. The nice thing about songs was that it was hard to tell if she had just made it up, or if it was something she knew from Before. It didn't matter if it was- she hummed alone. Even if the microphones could hear her, no one else would ask. Not to mention the importance of teachers, guidance for the young; there was Rhonwen, and there was one more. She wasn't irreplaceable, but she cold push the boundaries with a little song. It was a bit different every few days, anyways- and in the three years that it had been, Rhonwen had forgotten where it came from. Perhaps it was damage from the car accident. The brain was fragile, after all. Treatment for trauma was difficult, too. The doctors were good, but they only knew so much. Being cut off from the rest of the world was something like the burning of the Library of Alexandria-

No. That was from Before. They had a good life, in Cascade Falls. They did. Nip those thoughts now, or there would be trouble later. There was another thing that children were useful for: there had been a few times where children had come in, confessed to Rhonwen that they just couldn't understand why Mommy was crying and babbling about her family, or was Daddy talked about these strange things with her. These were red flags. But it was always good to know that the children knew to trust her. They were all good kids, and they made the right decision when their family was acting inappropriately. Some evenings, when she'd had too much to drink, Rhonwen wondered about that. Hadn't she read something in a similar vein, in the Before? Yes, Orwell, 1984- but that was different. The book was fiction. About a government trying to control mindless puppet people. Cascade Falls was trying to keep its mindful real people safe.

That was all.

Similar thoughts dictated most mornings, until she walked out of the house. Then, then she was ideal. Well, close to. She still hummed on her walks, but there was no questioning, no considering of anything important, just a thought of whether or not she should grab a drink before work. Most mornings she did. This would be no exception. While she and the other shared most of the day, he got there earlier and dealt with the first few kids who trickled in. Rhonwen, on the other hand, got there later and stayed until everyone was gone. It was a casual system, and it worked well for the two of them. In fact, he was probably already there, greeting the early students. She, on the other hand, beelined for the cafe.

It was crowded, as it was most mornings. Everyone enjoyed a chance to socialize. They'd done it Before, and they did it After. Such was human nature, probably. Rhonwen couldn't complain. She arrived, and ordered: a coffee for the other teacher, a tea for her- a tribute to Emma, perhaps? No, that was Before, she just liked tea- and payed with the strange money that they used. It wasn't dissimilar to what they'd used Before, but it was different enough that it just drew attention to the isolation of the city. With a few minutes to wait to get through the backlog of orders, Rhonwen disappeared into the crowd, and found one selection of it to say good morning to. "Sheriff, Josh," she greeted, nodding at the two men respectively. Jean and Alison were beside them, but seemed to have drawn off into their own conversation.
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Every step was agony.

Even the smallest muscle movement brought on a new wave of pain, radiating from the back of her leg and shooting up her spine like a bullet, and it took everything that Casey inside of her to not break down, crumple to the floor and cry. If it hadn't been for Elizabeth Richards, if the young blonde hadn't run into the older woman at the grocery store the afternoon before, then she never would have found herself held up in her closet with a kitchen knife, a tube of superglue and a roll of duct tape. Removing her chip had taken close to an hour—thirty of which had been spent trying to work up the nerve to purposefully cut into her own flesh, followed by another twenty minutes worth of digging around her shredded hamstring for the chip while trying not to scream and the last ten trying to glue the wound shut and stop the bleeding. It was one of the most painful things that she had ever experienced, but in the end, so very worth it.

Nothing good ever came easily and Casey continued to tell herself that as she grit her teeth and forced smile after smile during the morning rush at the Cascade Falls Coffee House. Normally, work was an amazing distraction from the overwhelming urge to destroy herself, find that fence at the edge of town and throw herself on its electrified bars, but something else was motivating the blonde as she poured coffee and handed out Lee's delicious confections in exchange for that obviously fake money. All Casey wanted was a walk; a chance to be by totally alone for the first time since arriving in town and in just a few hours, she could take out the tape-wrapped chip, leave it on her dresser and wander the streets for as long as she liked.

The understanding smile on Lee's face made her secret that much more bittersweet, and as Casey waited for the next pot of coffee to drip full, she beat back the violent urge to tell not only Lee about what was hiding in their muscles, but the entire coffee house. So many people looked happy and the caffeine-scented atmosphere was warm and inviting despite the constant eavesdropping from every corner of the cafe. No one seemed to know what they were missing or that there was a way to fight back against whatever psychopath had put this insane town together. Stacking out a row of cups to fill when the coffee was done, Casey continued to do her job, blanking her mind of her own excitement and fear as she went and snagged a muffin in some wax paper for Alison.

The morning rush was always the worst, but Casey managed well enough. A small group of people had gathered around Sheriff Reed and Jean, their usual morning greetings congealing into one dull roar as Lee's scones were praised left and right and people made small talk about safe things. Casey hung back until someone new approached the counter, another order for coffee but it came with a request for tea. "Coffee's going to be a few minutes," she said as she grabbed one of the black teabags and plunked into an empty cup before setting it on the counter in front of Rhonwen. "Do you want anything with that?" she asked as she filled the cup with hot water and smiled through the pain in her leg, "sugar, lemon, honey? Lee just made scones."

"They're really good," Eric chimed in, as if to sway the teacher on having something besides liquids for breakfast. He wasn't going to take her answer personally one way or another, but keeping the pleasant air alive inside Cascade Falls was just another part of his job. It was a forced friendliness that had gotten easier over the last eight years and Eric had found that it was much easier to cut throats and hold fêtes when people liked him, and when they weren't going to personally blame him for the deaths of their friends. Still, Eric wished that more people followed the rules, accept that they were trapped like everyone else and try not to make too much commotion. He would have given anything for sheriff to only be a title, as meaningless as everything else in Cascade Falls.

The wait for the coffee was something that Eric didn't mind, and he was content to eat his free scone, flavored with vanilla and almond, while he wasted some time with the others. Josh was a good friend, and Eric was happy to have run into him that morning. "You owe me a rematch, by the way," he said to the other man after confirming that he'd slept just fine. "There's no way you're that good at horseshoes and I want my twenty bucks back."

Somewhere in the background, the coffee pot dinged and soon enough, Casey was sliding fresh cups to everyone who had been waiting. Eric turned to her when she handed his off and noticed the smallest trip in her step, and the faintest sign of pain furrowing her brow. He hadn't gone into the station to check the list of names yet, but he prayed that the girl's name wasn't on there—after two previous escape attempts, there wasn't much that Eric could do to protect her anymore. "You alright, Casey?" he asked, blowing away the steam that had wafted up from his cup.

"Fine. Just busy," she answered, not a single beat missed. "You have a good day, Sheriff."

The grin wasn't convincing, but Eric was willing to leave well enough alone for the time being. He turned from her, back to Jean and Josh, Lee and Alison. "What was that about a pie?"

"Apple Pie?" she asked, her sculpted brow lifting, her eyes gleaming with delight at the first foray in what she was sure would be a mutually satisfying verbal spar. "Isn't it a little early in the season for apples?"

She smiled up at the big man whose fingers were, possibly, more skilled at baking than hers. Not that she would ever say as much to him or to anyone. This silence was less a matter of pride and more a matter of an honest enjoyment of encounters like these. It was a safe, comfortable way to banter and play at sparks in a town where everything was flammable.

"Oh, I suppose you are using up the rest of last year's canning." Just a touch of teasing twisted her lips into a pretty smirk. "I'll come back and have some for lunch perhaps. I've been mostly baking with the in-season blackberries. I have a nice batch of jam set up and I made a blackberry crumble last night. Why don't you come by after dinner for some?"

A tap on her shoulder had her looking away from the engaging grin of Lee into the softly smiling face of Allison.

"Good Morning Ali," Jean said warmly to the shorter woman who'd been a resident of the town just as long as she. "I was just inviting Lee over for some blackberry crumble tonight after dinner. You in?"

Looking past Allison to the others gathered nearby she smiled to include them all, though she swallowed hard before continuing.

"You all are welcome to come, Sheriff, Joshua, Casey, Rhonwen. I can't be held responsible for the whole of the crumble. Help a girl out, will you?"

She hoped they would all come, truly. It was easier to ignore the ever-present eyes on her if there were actual eyes upon her. Eyes, voices and warm bodies to remind her that there were good things still to be had in the live she was living. Her eyes lingered on the Sheriff a little before sliding back to Alison and Lee.

Sheriff Reed was a good man, she thought. Always polite and welcome at her home. It was just hard for her to reconcile the man standing among them all, as much a neighbor as any of the others, with the office he held. If he, Eric Reed, didn't do the work, then surely they would get someone else. Would that someone be any better? Hate the office, not the man was something she endeavored to keep in the fore when dealing with him.

He was there when things went bad. He was the one who stood before the town and saw the law carried out at the Fête's. She swallowed hard again and pushed away the horrible memories of being pushed along in the crowds of citizens, some of whom saw the Fête as an honest reason to celebrate. Those were the ones she feared the most, the ones who had fully bought into things. Accepting what was, was vastly different than buying into things, in her mind. In the past five years she'd struggled so hard to find the balance of seeming to go along with the way of things and not actually participating. While she was never in the front row when the justice was enacted, she was always there because to not be there was to be suspect. She watched everything, unflinching so that she would remember that this was wrong. However she was never seen at the parties that followed after a successful Fête. That was one thing she could not and would not do. In their way her own parties were her reminder to the town of the way things should be.

"Please say you'll come," She asked them all again, hopeful and honestly pleased to be able to invite each of them.

Like a critically-acclaimed production of some warped play, everyone kept to their roles, spoke their lines, and pretended they didn't exist solely as subjects of entertainment to whatever twisted deity oversaw their suffering. Josh had long eased into the act; though as the years trickled by, the line between acting and reality had become all but indecipherable. The battered truck he constantly drove seemed as much part of him as a limb, and he needed only to lay his hands upon that time-worn wheel to feel assured of his importance in helping Cascade Falls function at its best. Occasionally he would sit at home in absolute silence, recalling the fervent scratching of a pen against paper, the distant voice of a woman whose face haunted his mind like a ghost refusing to be exorcized. And sometimes, he would extend his arms in an effort to catch that girl with eyes like starlight, bounding towards her father with a grin of careless abandon, only to have that image vanish soon as her lips formed the word daddy.

Sweet Maddie would be fine without him, he thought again. It was a recurrent thought, a cold form of reassurance, but one that kept him sane. Otherwise, he was content to lose count of the days, to continue believing that this was an opportunity for redemption, for rebirth. He saw many faces as he made the morning deliveries; some residents wore cordial smiles like the painted lips of marionettes, though their eyes spoke of fear rooted deep, silent cries for deliverance going unheeded. Those smiles unsettled him sometimes, reminding him that behind the town's perfection lay a great evil. But it was an evil without a face, and there was nothing man feared more than that which was unknown.

But, in the meantime, he could continue in his practiced performance, purposefully ignorant of the negatives. "Tell you what; I'll give you the rematch, plus forty bucks if you win." A faint, but confident grin played companion to his answer; game time with the sheriff was always more than welcome. More people had begun arriving for their morning brew, including faces he was already acquainted with. "Good morning, Jean. I'm fine, thank you kindly for asking." He acknowledged the librarian who always seemed to have a flair for fashion. She presented herself always impeccably, and Josh himself would visit the library on occasion if only to relive his love for the written word. A nod and friendly smile was offered in response to Alison's arrival, the coffee house quickly becoming a hive of activity which served to pull the minds of its occupants from grimmer things. "Rhonwen." He greeted next the slender blonde, the words "cinnamon roll" quick to catch his attention.

"Can't say no to a cinnamon roll." Josh looked to Lee with the grin still present. The man had a godlike talent for making good pastries, and just biting into that piece of buttery goodness sent an explosion of remarkable flavor across his tongue. Those things were addictive, and another reason why he dropped by the coffee house whenever he had the chance. But, soon enough, the coffee was ready, the cup warming his palm as he received it.

Nothing was better than a cup of steaming coffee, particularly so when there was little else to look forward to these days. He'd never enjoyed the fetes; rather, he'd always seen them merely as a necessity, a ritual to keep the peace. The first time, he'd found himself hunched over the sink in his small bathroom, his traitorous stomach churning in revulsion as he'd stared with red eyes up at his reflection, features drowned in incredulity. A sip of coffee, and the bitter liquid brought him back to the present. It was a strange sort of solace he found in the depths of that rich liquid, but he'd come to rely on it as much as he relied on whatever friendships he could maintain. And then, there was his need for solitude. Silence. Space to think, to reflect. And the more he reflected, the more things here didn't sit right with him.

He was taking another generous gulp when Jean invited them all over for blackberry crumble. While the thought was tempting, Josh had never been too good with the small talk. The larger the group, the more often he found himself lapsing into an awkward sort of silence, his thoughts traveling different roads to other things. And he'd never been a good liar, either, which meant any excuse would come off as exactly what it was. That wasn't to say he disliked any of these people; on the contrary, they were great people unfortunately involved in the same struggle he was. But the dark doubt had begun to seep into even his valued "me time", and he didn't like it. Which led to the decision of trying to step out of his comfort zone, for once.

"Yeah, I'll come." Josh managed, a part of him regretting his decision not a minute after he'd said it. But he wasn't one to change an agreement, and so settled instead for another mouthful of coffee. It won't be so bad. They're good folk. And at least it wouldn't be too big a group.
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Within moments, the social bustle had happily included her. Offers of food filled in around her- scones and crumbles, plays at normalcy in their small little world. It was homey. Of course; it was home. Home involved food. Home involved sharing food with one's neighbors, kindness until brutality arrived, playing at old lives until they broke and ran away. The teacher turned towards Casey. "A lemon would be fantastic, thanks," she said, and grinned at the sheriff's recommendation of the scones. "Ah, what the hell. Sure, a scone, too," she added, and reached into her wallet to count out the money, the colorful imitations. Now there was a good question: why this imitation currency? They'd all had real money upon crashing, but it seemed to be thrown out. Secluded as they were, their little town would be hard pressed to influence outer inflation or deflation. Even if they didn't receive much from the outside, there was still the money that people had on them when they arrived.

It was a mystery, one of the many that they'd grown to accept. this, too, smoothed over in her mind (particularly with the sheriff right next to her), as something that simply was. There was likely a good reason behind their gaudy money. Rhonwen was just not one of those who knew what it was. That was alright. There wasn't anything wrong with their money, after all. It was perfectly fine. Maybe even better than the bland green bills they'd used before. It was fine, it was fine, it was fine.

The hum of conversation had continued while Rhonwen brought out the money, but she tuned back in to hear Eric ask, "You alright, Casey?" to which the girl responded that yes, she was, just busy. The teacher turned and looked at her- she seemed fine. Was there a strain to her voice, to her gait...? No, it was just managing the crowds, just every day life. The young woman was well enough, so she returned her attention to the crowd that she had joined. An invitation to split a blackberry crumble. Josh agreed soon enough, adhering to the social regulations of staying together. Separation left room for secrets. Secrets begot suspicion, suspicion begot fêtes.

"You'll hardly have any to share if you leave the invitation that open," the teacher teased. "I'll be there early to have a slice that isn't minuscule," she added, confirming her place at the gathering. Jean was a particularly skilled baker; it was practically foolish to turn down her foods. And the activity was always a nice way to spend the evenings. It was more than welcome to the teacher: even staying at home grading meant being alone with her thoughts, and that was dangerous. She may have had three years to master that skill so far, but even that was something she found hard. As long as she didn't tempt herself with thoughts from Before, everything was alright. She wouldn't consider leaving. Well, she wouldn't consider leaving either way. It was a hopeless endeavor.

"What time?" she remembered. They didn't keep track of the days, but they did watch the clock- civilized society couldn't run on gut feelings of when to start, when to stop. The days ran into each other, but the numbers on the clock were consistent. Probably. Enough so that seven o'clock was the same for everyone, enough so that work had a given start time, end time, that life functioned. Another play at normalcy. Perhaps it was just what people needed in order to survive, and that was all. Rhonwen picked up her tea, and took a sip, then recalled that it hadn't been doctored to her liking yet. Wrinkling her nose, she set it down. In high school, in a story, she would have analyzed the moment for a connection to the bitter passage of time in their society: in the here and now, she refused to consider the irony of it, and instead swallowed the tea, then looked to Jean for an answer.
"Apple pie, Sheriff," Lee said amiably, his eyes narrowed with a playful pique as he glanced at Jean. It seemed she'd not only picked up the gauntlet, but decided to smack him upside the head with it too. That was just fine with Lee - . It'd keep up the facade of normalcy that was as vital to survival in this little slice of hell as the air they all breathed. "Fresh apple pie, mind you. With freshly opened canned apples," he said pointedly, giving Jean a smirk that was very nearly the mirror image of her own.

"Anyone can make something good with fresh fruit. Takes real genius to make something magical with canned – but, that doesn't mean I won't be there tonight Jean." Lee grinned and winked with genuine affection for his silent co-conspirator, the woman who singlehandedly reminded the citizens of Cascade Falls there were once gatherings in all their lives, parties and reunions and holidays that had nothing to do with state-sanctioned murder. A gathering at Jean's house was one of the only truly magical things left in this town – no one with even half a human soul left in his body would refuse her invitation.

And Lee was glad to see he wasn't the only one who thought that way – more or less. One eyebrow cocked curiously for a moment as he looked to Joshua. The reticent delivery man was pretty much the last person in the whole place he'd expected to accept Jean's invitation, but not only did he accept (no matter how reluctantly) - he was the first to do so. Lee slipped one of the cinnamon buns on a plate, setting it before Joshua with an approving nod, turning back to Casey before the Cascade Falls milkman could offer up any payment.

Lee liked the Sheriff. He liked the Sheriff just fine, but he'd also seen the man run a blade over an exposed throat to the cheers and approving screams of a bloody-minded, violence-maddened mob. Sure, it was all well and good to come back into this coffee shop the next day, looking for a cup of coffee like anyone else here, as if you hadn't just murdered people you may have known for years, your neighbors and friends, the night before. This was life in Cascade Falls, and if you couldn't deal with it somehow, some way? If you couldn't pretend what you witnessed on the very darkest of nights, the hunts and the drunken revelry and celebration over weeping, begging and screaming human prey wasn't all just a hellish nightmare? Anyone with even half a conscience would go mad. Truth was, not a few already had and wound up prey themselves one dark Fete night, or throwing themselves into the oblivion of the fence – just like the Sheriff's wife.

So the Sheriff was who he was, and did what he did, and suffered in his own way – a widower who was occasionally called to murder desperate people just like the woman he lost. Lee could understand that, if not respect it – none of them were the people they might have been before the 'accident' that brought them to Cascade Falls. What Lee definitely didn't like right now, was the extra special attention the Sheriff was paying to Casey. He caught… Questions. Nothing definitive, nothing he could put a finger on. It wasn't like he could hover over them inconspicuously and eavesdrop – no one his height did ANYTHING inconspicuously. But having the extra special attention of the Cascade Falls Sheriff never boded anything good for anyone here, ever.

Lee turned to Casey, eyes narrowing for a split second as he regarded the young woman thoughtfully, wondering what it was that had captured the Sheriff's attentions. She looked just fine to him, blessedly good considering where she'd been before – hell, maybe even a little better than her usual today at that. His tongue worked the inside of his cheek for a moment, trusting his instincts that something somewhere was 'off,' but just as unable to work out the puzzle of what that could be...

He forced that smile onto his lips though, and spoke to the young woman without missing a beat. "If you'll come with me, I'll close up shop a little early today. We could both go to Jean's if you're up for it? I hear your boss is a serious marshmallow, I think he'll totally cave if you'd want to go."

'And not let you out of my sight… '

Jean's invitation was like a breath of fresh air. The woman always threw wonderful gatherings. It was what Ali looked forward to. "Absolutely. You can count me in," Alison replied with a wide grin. As Jean began to address the other occupants of the coffee shop, Alison's mind wandered to old fond memories. Social events, it was what she lived for before Cascade Falls. Alison could always be found at whatever get togethers her coworkers, friends or family members threw. She was always the life of the party, often having a group around her at all times. It was different here though. Even at Jean's parties the people were a little awkward with one another, Ali included. It was like no one knew how to act around each other anymore or perhaps it was the constantly running cameras and the ever present microphones that made everyone apprehensive.

Still, she couldn't allow her mind to wander too far. She didn't want to be caught lost in her thoughts. Looking over at the Sheriff brought memories of the prior year's fete and the blood, that if you looked closely, could still be seen on the streets in some places. Again, another thought she didn't want to dwell on. The anniversary of the fete was fast approaching which meant more blood was to be spilled and soon. She didn't want to see the Sheriff in a different light. She didn't want to see him as some murderer. He was only playing his part just like everyone else in this town.

Alison quickly returned to the present and smiled again as the others began to accept Jean's invitation. She needed to pretend like everything was normal. This was normal. This life was normal. This was her life and this was how things were supposed to be. If she did that then she wouldn't have to worry about the fete. She would only be forced to watch the mayhem.... but then again.... that was what the bar was for. It was always full right after the fetes. Always. Frankly with the way Alison was feeling lately, she may just have to pay Riley a visit before then.

The coffee pot pinged and Casey handed Alison her iced coffee and a muffin wrapped in wax paper. She left the items on the counter as she rummaged through her bag for some cash. She held the bills in her hand for a moment, they felt different than real money. They could've at least made it feel like real money. She took it out of her bag and smiled again towards Lee and Casey as she waited her turn to pay. Keep up appearances Alison. It's been five years. You should be used to this by now.

Rhonwen asked for the time of the gathering and Alison looked to Jean for a response. "Yes, what time Jean? I want to make sure I close the store early enough today." She turned towards the coffee shop then, addressing those present, "The store is fully stocked by the way. I just received a new shipment last night. Thanks Josh by the way," she said with a wink towards the town delivery man. "So make sure you guys come on by."

It gets very lonely in there. I hate it in there.

Jean was about to murmur something conciliatory to Josh in anticipation of his turning down her invitation when he said something she had not expected. As a result of that surprise, she was momentarily without words when he, against all expectations, agreed to come. It was only a moment before she regained her composure, her surest armor of all and her expression of incredulity turned into one of honest delight. Her smile was pleased and her eyes danced a little as she tried to meet his gaze to let him know how genuinely happy she was he was coming. He was too often alone, too often quiet in her opinion and the few times she'd seen him in the library the still, quiet air of the place had seemed to discourage chatting. But he was coming and she simply couldn't wait to feed him.

Lee pulled her attention next, his eyes narrowed as he tossed her a quip as good as he got. Jean straightened up, mock brisling at his insinuation that she'd taken the easy way out though with her fresh fruit. The laughter sparkling in her deep brown eyes gave lie to the indignation she was trying to channel. She felt almost normal, almost free when she could chat and banter with this big man and his unexpected gift with baking.

"Well then, if you like you can bring me a jar of your apples tonight and I'll take you blackberry picking. Then when we've each baked with both, we'll compare. Even footing for all then." She tossed the words out like a gauntlet before turning to Ronwhen and Allison.

They were such sweet, wholesome girls with the same smudge of sadness in their eyes that Jean was certain all the citizens of Cascade falls bore. She hated to see it even though each and every morning when she sat before her mirror putting on her armor she stared into it. Seeing it in the faces of the women before her pulled her just the tiniest bit out of the small window of fun she'd been sharing with Lee. She wasn't going to let it go, not fully but her smile when she answered their question was just a hair more brittle than it had been before.

"Seven should work fine for everyone, I think. No one will have to rush through their dinners and it will be light out enough to sit on my porch and watch the sunset. I'll make some iced tea too."

She turned back to Lee and saw him speaking softly with Casey with an expression she couldn't quite decipher. She felt stirrings of unease and her mouth twitched into a slight frown.

"Is that time acceptable for you all?" she asked almost absently as she shifted her basket against her hip and smoothed out her skirts.

"Oh - you're welcome."

Josh blinked as Alison addressed him, lips curving to a slightly awkward - albeit genuine - smile. Most who weren't familiar with the man assumed he was the kind of surly, brooding bastard no one needed - or wanted - to be around, but small connections forged were connections nonetheless. There was a solace to be found in the shifting of goods, the weight of the crates he hauled reminding him that he existed still on this physical plane. As of late, the temptation to depart for that other realm, to embrace the cold void death offered, had pulled particularly insistently on his mind, imprisoning his thoughts in a dark place he'd long thought banished. Having lived here for so long, he thought he'd come to terms with it by now. But, as it turned out, he was merely playing the avoidance game, pretending that he enjoyed it when really it was as oppressive - or even more so - than the alcohol-fueled hell he'd once dwelt in. Even staring at the clocks, those infuriating ticking hands, tested the limits of his sanity on his worse days.

That he had become close with the sheriff was a surprise. He'd honestly not expected it, since he'd more than once seen the man personally dispatch the wayward and disobedient to the hoots and hollers of the thronging crowd. Bearing witness to that alone should've kept him clear of Eric. Yet, something had drawn him to befriend the man. Something which told him that the sheriff had as little choice as the rest of them, damned to walk this purgatory with the expectation of death before freedom. And, having gotten to know him, he found the widower to be quite the good soul, if not concealing that common pain behind his eyes. It was a communion of silence, for no one needed words or actions to convey their thoughts: that this was a trap in which they were all ensnared. Josh had just settled into it a little better than most. Had. Now, as he wondered what Maddie was doing, and whether or not she still thought of her absent father, he ached to leave. He needed to leave. He'd been submissive all this while, playing by their rules.

Guinea pigs, that's what the townsfolk were.

He didn't touch the implant in his thigh; he hadn't touched it in a long time. Even just accidentally brushing his fingers across it sent a nauseating discomfort shooting up his gut, reminding him that he was very much a slave to the whims of whatever overseer watched them, listened to them...played them like characters in a game. Sure, escape had seemed all too brilliant an idea at first. But a decade was a long time. Even the books had slowly lessened in their ability to keep him interested. He'd sometimes read the same novel twice, recalling his favorite lines, imagining himself elsewhere. Perhaps in the world the book described, or perhaps with Maddie again, reunited at last with his little girl. He was sure Jean had seen the faraway look in his eyes more than once, for she saw him sometimes at the library - occasionally thumbing through pages, and occasionally staring blankly at a nearby shelf as if he could discern a deeper meaning from a piece of furniture.

But her gaze told him she was genuinely appreciative of his agreement, something which made him feel slightly better at having acquiesced to her request. He had always liked making others happy; it was a way to dispel his own demons, to know that he could - at the very least - bring a bit of joy into someone else's day even if his own was on a path downhill. He did that always for Maddie, delighting in every laugh and excited shriek, carrying her around on his shoulders until he tired. He would've gone to the very edge of the world for her; and try as he might, he couldn't forget his daughter. But this illusion of normalcy was enough to push old recollections away, even if the distraction was temporary.

"Seven sounds good to me."
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Although Casey hadn't been a reluctant resident of Cascade Falls for very long, she had gathered rather quickly that having the complete and undivided attention of the sheriff wasn't a very good thing. It could have just been coincidence that Sheriff Reed asked about her current state, if he was checking up just to be a nice guy and maintain appearances, or if he knew something that the others around her didn't. Under his gaze, Casey felt the wound at the back of her thigh began to burn again, held together with adhesives and rubbing against the inside of her jeans—everything was uncomfortable. Whether or not he smile was convincing enough remained to be seen but the sheriff had turned back to the others without more questions.

Breathing a quiet sigh, Casey had been ready to decline Jean's invitation for the evening. She was younger than most of the adults in town, less established with her tiny apartment and meager job, and she lacked the same kind of experience that the group currently congregating in front of the counter had. The bottom line was that Casey didn't feel like she fit in with any of them and had planned on wasting her evening at the bar if Riley was going to be around. However, Lee's offer sweetened the deal a bit and since both Rhonwen and Josh had agreed, peer pressure said that she should too.

"Alright," she caved, hardly eager to fake it through another gathering with so many different eyes on her. "Me and this marshmallow are in." Giving Lee and grateful smile, she moved past him to deposit Alison's share of plastic money into the till and fetch a lemon wedge and a scone from Rhonwen. Casey slid the wax-paper-wrapped confection across the counter and offered the teacher a friendly glance. "Have a good day at the school," she said, always a little curious about what really went on behind those doors.

Taking a drink from the hot cup in his hand, Eric inwardly hoped that none of the people who had just agreed to come to Jean's were on the list that was surely on his desk by now. He didn't want to think of any of these people as problems. Despite having cut many throats over the years and being forced to stand idly by while the town converged in bloodlust, if a fête were called for any of these people, Eric was going to have a hard time. He swallowed his discomfort with another sip of coffee, the liquid still too warm but not enough to burn his tongue.

"Seven works for me too," he said, happy to hear that Josh had decided to come. The two men were good friends, as close as people could be in a town that was constantly being monitored, but Josh wasn't the most social person around and it usually involved some arm-twisting to get him to go anywhere that wasn't the bar for a drink or two.

Nearly ready to head out to the station, Eric paused when Alison mentioned that her store had been fully restocked. There was a hidden bit of longing to her voice, a sadness that most people in Cascade Falls had where they longed for social interaction throughout the day. Eric knew people who sat at a desk for eight hours and then went home to do more sitting without ever seeing another person or talking about anything of substance. The town was the worst kind of depression, something that everyone had to live with every day and it managed to suck the joy out of everything just by existing. Eric may have put his head down and done his job with little fuss, but he hated it just the same.

"Maybe I'll have to stop in," he nodded to Alison, "and if you want, you can walk over with Josh and me later." Eric backed up from the group, finally ready to raise his hand in a lazy wave and excuse himself for the day.

"Walk with you two where?" Norma Spencer asked, her face twisted into a measured smile as she approached the counter. "More parties?" she continued to question, her nurses uniform white enough to blind. "What's it for this time—a sunny day?"

Aside from the accident, the nurse was the one thing that everyone in town had in common. After waking up, Norma was always there with hushed reassurances under the guise of care, ready to lead people to the conclusion that they were dead as she tended to injuries of all kinds with careful hands. Vaguely, Eric remembered making a big scene when he had come to, shouting questions at the woman, demanding to see a real doctor or be transferred to a more reputable hospital but Norma hadn't complied and had even gone as far as twisting a finger in one of his wounds before sedating him. It was the last time he complained, but it was only an introduction to what the pretty nurse was capable of—one reminder of that was standing behind the counter.

"I need to head out," Eric said, letting the others diffuse the situation. "Thanks for the scone, Lee. I'll see you all later." He gave Josh a pat on the shoulder before making his way back through the crowd.

Jean was of the opinion that in this artificial, choreographed town they were imprisoned in that someone should have gotten around to setting something up so that when Nurse Spencer walked into a place she was accompanied by a chill wind. It would be entirely too hard to pipe in a sense of crawling dread so chill would have to suffice. The good nurse's presence always had that effect, regardless of what she said, so it would only be fair to give the people she encountered a fair and tangible warning of her immanent presence. But then what in Cascade falls was fair? Nothing so far as Jean could tell.

Jean's warm delight that people were coming over to her impromptu reminder that they were all human, all civilized, was dashed the moment the cold woman with her aggressive uniform barely containing her aggressive décolletage spoke up. Her back was to Nurse Spencer and so she would not see the way Jean's eyes closed or the way her lips pressed into a tight line as dread lined her features for a split second. Composure was Jean's armor, something she'd been shoring up since the moment she woke, afraid, in pain and staring into the eyes of this monster who walked among them. Jean would never forget nor forgive the pain and discomfort that had been her birth into this new town thanks to this hardened woman, but that did not mean Jean would shy away either. Jean, for all her polish was made of sterner stuff.

Turning away from the marshmallow and the newest citizen of Cascade Falls, Jean's face was a smooth mask of politeness when she faced the nurse. She shifted as she turned so that she stood between Nurse Norma and Lee, offering what protection and distraction she could as the Sheriff took the wise way out and fled. That it was only his position as Sheriff that afforded him the luxury of such a retreat was not lost on Jean as she stood her ground, her hand on her basket handle tightening as the only remaining sign of her tension.

"No, not a sunny day but the work of a great many. The blackberries are ripe and so we are getting together to eat them."

She shrugged casually but did not extend the invitation to the woman nor offer details of the gathering as she normally would. With a smile and a sigh that was as casual as she could manage she flicked her eyes to the clock on the wall of the café.

"Goodness, I'd best get going, almost time to open the Library." That the library saw little patronage didn't matter in the least.

Shifting her basket up to the crook of her elbow, unconsciously holding it between her and the good nurse she began to make her way towards the door and what little freedom the day had to offer.
Jessica was bustling around her home, trying to make sure she had everything for work. Lyle, her new foster son, was watching her as she bustled. He still wasn't used to everything yet, she knew that. She just wished he would talk to her more. Once she was certain she had everything she looked over at Lyle with a smile.
"Would you like to come with me to the cafe for breakfast this morning or are you going to fend for yourself again?" She asked, like she had asked every morning since he started living with her. Normally Lyle would immediately tell her that he'd be fine on his own, and he'd see her after work, but this time, he paused. Lyle contemplated for a bit before saying.
"I think I'll come with you today....." Jessica felt her heart swell with joy. Her smile brightened.
"Alright then. Make sure you have everything for school and we'll be on our way." She said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. Lyle picked up his back back and flung it on his back.
"Ready." Jessica gestured for Lyle to follow her.
"Lets go then." She walked out the door and held it open for Lyle. She locked the door behind them and started walking towards the cafe. Luckily, her house was quite close to all of the shops and buildings so she never really used the car that was sitting in her driveway. She smiled and looked up at Lyle. Although he was only 16, the boy was about 6 feet tall and Jessica was only 4 foot 10. "Do you know how to drive yet?" She asked. Lyle shook his head.
"No, my mom was-" Jessica quickly put her finger to Lyle's lips and said
"Shhhh......Be careful Lyle...." She said. Lyle then remembered the rules. He nodded
"Right....." He said. He paused for a moment, thinking of what to say. He decided on, "No, I have not learned how to drive yet...." He looked down at his feet. Jessica gave him a soft, comforting smile.
"Would you like to learn? I can teach you." Lyle looked down at Jessica. He enjoyed her smile. It made things a little easier in this place. He nodded to her.
"Yeah......that sounds cool...." Jessica smiled brightly.
"Good. We'll start tomorrow."

They arrived at the cafe and smiled smiled and waved to everyone.
"Good Morning All!" She said cheerfully. She gestured to Lyle. "Everyone, this is Lyle. He's my new foster son." Lyle gave a small wave. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. He knew that coming into town and seeing all the new people would be weird, but He didn't know just how awkward it would make him feel. Jessica gave his hand a reassuring squeeze before going to the counter. She smiled at Casey. "Hey Casey. Just a caramel frappe and blueberry scone for me." She looked up at Lyle. "And you bud?"
"Umm..." Lyle said, looking up at the menu. "I'll just get a regular coffee, two sugar, three cream."
"You don't want a breakfast sandwich or anything?" Jessica asked. Lyle shook his head. She shrugged and turned back to Casey. "That's it then."
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Much like everything else in town, the sheriff's station was located right along main street. It made for an easy walk every day, even though someone, somewhere, had provided him with a Jeep to drive around in. The black car did little more than occupy space in driveway most days, and Eric only ever took it out when someone from the mountain called and told him to drive around town for a while. It was important that Cascade Falls look busy, even though no one had anywhere to be. That fact was still something that Eric couldn't quite figure out, but after eight years of wondering if this was real life, or if he was just dead and stuck in limbo somewhere, Eric had stopped trying to figure things out.

The lobby of the sheriff's station was rustic-looking, the walls made from the same pine that had built every house and business in town, the same wood that came from the large forest that loomed inside and outside the fence. It smelled like it always did, earthy and sharp, a little dusty and it looked the way it did every day—untouched as if no one was ever there. "Morning," he greeted the secretary with a nod, the woman in her late thirties always looked so bored with her chin in her hand and her eyes on the clock.

"Morning, Sheriff," she smiled, barely perked at his presence. "There's something on your desk for you, just came in a little bit ago."

"Thanks," he replied, returning her smile before knocking his knuckled against the top of her desk. He disappeared down the hallway after, past the office door that had his name painted on the glass underneath a star and some kind of makeshift seal for Cascade Falls. It was all so campy, so over the top with forced attempts at normalcy that it almost felt wrong to find fault with the town.

Shaking his head, Eric sat down at his desk and eyed the manilla folder in front of him. It was thick with information, clearly more than just the names of five suspects who may have removed their microchips. Armed with the knowledge that he was still being watched, Eric forced away his hesitation and opened the folder, read over the names and landed on Elizabeth and John Richards. The couple had been trapped there longer than he had, married for the last five years with no children. Briefly, Eric wondered if they were being targeted simply for their refusal to start a family; something that Eric couldn't blame them for.

The kids born and raised in town were strange; secretive little freaks.

At the bottom of the list sat a few more, these two written in ink instead of printed out and Eric furrowed his brow and swore under his breath. Jean Belmont had been flagged as a wanderer, something that Eric had known of for quite some time, but refused to handle. Her chip was still implanted, that much was revealed by the printout of her recent activities, page after page of where her chip had pinged off of the cameras, where her nightly walks took her. It wasn't his problem. The other name listed belonged to Casey, the confused girl with two escape attempts, the same one he would have to see later that evening. Her chip read-out was similar to Jean's, showing that it was still with her, still (hopefully) stuck to her hamstring where it belonged, but her disappearance into her closet the night before was cause for concern.

Back inside the mountain, Howard continued to hover. While the slender man very well could have monitored the town from his plush office, his favorite place to be was down on the floor with the technicians, ordering them to pull up information on whatever resident crossed his mind. Cascade Falls was the operation of a lifetime, an arc of his own creation and those people down in the valley didn't know how good they had it. Until recently, defiance had been kept to a minimum, most people too frightened of the fête to put more than a toe or two out of line but some were more resistant than others, more brave in the face adversity and ready to put up a fight against his quest to choke the rebellion out of them.

Some days, Howard loathed them all.

"Sir, number fifty-two just picked off another one," said a technician seated on the opposite side of the cavernous room.

Slowly, Howard turned around. "A pack?" he asked, taking quick strides to another bank of monitors. There were cameras everywhere around Cascade Falls, many of the outdoor ones had been outfitted for the fence, monitoring the outside of it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They were helpful, often catching things that the snipers missed and exposed any weaknesses in the structure of the town. Even one mutation crossing into the town put the lives of everyone in the valley in grave danger.

"Just one," the man answered, bringing up the camera feed.

A man dressed in all black with an M24 strapped to his person stood over the small, bony corpse of a mutation. He waved at the camera and picked the monster up by its limp neck; a hunter showing off his trophy. The small mutation had been shot through the head, marked by the bullet hole that penetrated its skull and the trail of deep, red blood that was slowly oozing its way down its translucent-looking neck and dripping onto its spurred chest.

"How close did it come?" Howard asked.

"Twenty yards," followed by, "would you like me to call the sheriff?"

Sighing, Howard stepped away from the screen without an answer.

Days tended to go by faster when people had something to look forward to and be excited by, but even the thought of blackberry crumble couldn't stop the hours from dragging. After the morning rush, the cafe was mostly silent until lunch time, and another big lull came once everyone was back at work, bored stiff and probably wishing for death. Casey hated they couldn't even complain about it to one another, couldn't point out how lifeless and lonely the entire town looked despite whoever's best attempts to guild the place. At the very least, there was Lee and baking, or learning how to, passed enough time.

As the sun finally began to set, part of it already behind the mountain and casting a portion of the town in shadow, Casey turned to Lee with an expectant look. "How early is too early to close?" she asked, wiping her hands off after she had finished cleaning the windows.

Outside, Casey caught a glimpse of the sheriff walking by, probably already on his way to Jean's, or Josh's so that the two could head over together. The blonde turned back to her boss, a grin on her face. "See?" she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder and toward the street, "you're going to make us late for crumble and then we're not going to get any."

Not that Casey was eager to mingle, but the sooner that the day concluded, the sooner she could take a walk in complete privacy.
Josh had gone straight home after Nurse Norma's appearance at the cafe. That the woman unnerved him was a grievous understatement, and he'd never forget that tight, controlled smile as long as he remained in Cascade Falls. Part of him was convinced that should those painted lips part, that there would be the brazen flash of pointed teeth and a forked serpent's tongue that slithered its way between them. He recalled her features all too well from the day he'd woken, even if that day had been ten years behind him. He'd been gripped by a panic he'd not experienced since complications during Maddie's birth, though in the end things had gone smoothly enough and had resulted in a beautiful daughter he would likely never see again. Not unless he was shipped out in a box. He'd agreed to walk over to Jean's with the sheriff, and couldn't think of a worse way to go than to flagrantly disregard the town rules and end up having his best friend open his yielding throat.

Definitely not a pleasant mode of departure.

The dairy farmer's home was a sparse one, and very different from the place in which he housed his animals. Interior decoration was hardly his area of expertise, and most certainly not something he was too concerned with. Altogether the place exuded a sense of loneliness, and it was clear enough to most that the residence belonged to a man, and one who lived by himself. He quite favored his darker shades, dull tones which didn't catch the eye and drew little attention. The solitary, battered couch sitting in his living room was a shade of taupe. The artwork on the walls were of his own hand, abstract sketches that depicted things from the scenery outside his window to concepts drawn from his own mind. The shadow of a man, standing at the mouth of an alleyway. Horses thundering across a wide plain. All as monochrome as practically everything else. But, for all intents and purposes, he still kept journals in which he would write. Sometimes the writing trailed off into random slashes of his pen, lines crossing other lines until the entire page was swallowed in angry dashes of ink.

He opened one of those journals to a new page, chewing on the top of his pen until inspiration came to him. He made it a point to write something down every day, even if that something was as mundane as describing the coffee he'd had for breakfast. Sometimes he'd even sketch the cup with brisk, mindless strokes, the action distracting enough that he'd forget the silence around him. He knew they were watching; but after so long, that knowledge had become nothing more than a lingering understanding lurking at the back of his brain. He'd consigned himself to their monitoring, having made peace with the fact that there was no true privacy as long as he lived here. Today, he wrote nothing and drew geometric patterns, reaching the edge of his page before he tossed the pen aside and slammed the journal shut, knowing the camera mounted above his head had a full view of his study table. The mere scratching of pen on paper was enough to keep him sane at this point.

He would feed his animals tomorrow, he thought. Ordinarily, his evenings were spent with them, making sure they lived their lives in blissful ignorance. He wished sometimes he could be like them. But tonight, he had made an agreement to be at Jean's and, despite feeling a muted sense of dread, knew that he'd feel incredibly guilty if he remotely considered backing out. Besides, Eric would be there, and that in itself was a reassuring fact. Shoving his writing supplies back into the desk drawer, he stretched himself out on that taupe couch, forming a pillow with his hands as the ceiling yawned overhead, utterly featureless. Still, its effect was undeniably hypnotic, for he soon found his eyelids growing heavy with the need for a nap - caffeine had long lost its hold on him, especially since his nights were all too often plagued by dreams of the family he'd left behind. A nap was a perfect way to pass the time; Lord knew he had plenty of that here.

And a nap - sleep, in general - was also the closest thing to death. A temporary death.

He assumed Eric would knock once he got here; Josh had always been a light sleeper and a decade of residence here had only served to solidify that attribute. And if he woke before the man's arrival, then all the better. He greatly preferred dusk to dawn besides.
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