Chapter Three: Sweet Home

Molly glowered out the window as another pasture went by.

Angry music pumped through her headphones, drowning out the mellow bluegrass that her dad insisted was the perfect driving soundtrack.

The pasture gave way to hilly forest, and they rode through ten more minutes of nothingness, while Molly let the electric guitar fuel her pointless sulking. They passed a hand-painted sign that read:

You are entering:

Laurence Lake, Alabama

Population 5,262

And my life, she thought, is officially over.

With a sigh, she slipped the buds from her ears and dropped them into her lap.

“We’re almost there,” Dad said.

“Hurray.” Molly slumped in her seat and spent a minute pushing the window button up and down.

“You know why we have to do this,” he said for the five-hundredth time.

“Yeah, I know,” Molly said. “We don’t have to rehash it every ten minutes.”

He nodded, and they both fell quiet as they rode into the main part of town.

It wasn’t as bad as she’d imagined. Clarissa would probably describe it as “picturesque.” It was small, but it wasn’t rural. It was more like a suburb that had been cut off from the city and left to float untethered in the middle of farmland. Which it kind of was, Molly thought.

She’d done the research. It was a tiny town, forty-five minutes from a decent city. Besides the lake, there was nothing of note but some kind of hi-tech lab on the border of town. Dad went on at length about some kind of super efficient hydroelectric dam. Molly pointed out that it was a less than stellar place to start a bakery, and her Dad’s cool response was that even scientists have to eat.

They drove past a strip of shops and offices, a church, the city hall and a wide park overlooking the lake. Dad took a detour to drive by the high school—which for some reason was supposed to excite her—and another to look at some retail space he was thinking of renting—and finally turned out of town down a winding road that ran parallel to the lake.

“Please tell me it’s not on a farm,” Molly said as they pulled onto a cracked, pitted one-lane road.

“It’s not a farm,” Dad said, laughing. “You’ll remember it when you see it.” He turned onto a gravel driveway that rolled downhill toward a single, solitary red house on the edge of the lake.

Molly recognized it immediately.

She sat up and blinked, watching the red house grow nearer until the car pulled to a stop. Molly felt weirdly detached as she stepped out of the car. It was like walking into her childhood, unearthing memories she didn’t know she had.

…Running toward the house holding her mother’s hand. Drinking lemonade on the swing under the oak tree. Jumping off the pier into the lake. Grandpa’s strong hands as he taught her how to swim…

The lawn was overgrown, and one rusted chain of the swing had snapped. Half the pier had rotted into the lake. But the house looked exactly the same.

Molly stopped at the pier and looked out across the narrow cove. It was still, unruffled except for the slight breeze rippling across the calm water. Perfect for swimming, she thought.

“Come on, M!” Dad called. “I’m not carrying all this on my own!”

She met him halfway as he hauled both their suitcases across the lawn. She pulled hers up the porch stairs while he fumbled through his key ring, and set it heavily on the doorstep. “Go on in,” Dad said, opening the door. “I’ve had all the major problems looked at,” he said. “We’ll fix up the rest as we go.”

She felt a stirring of nostalgia and reluctance: she remembered the house full of her grandfather’s vigor, and she didn’t want to see it broken and empty.

He glanced back, confused by her delay. “Come inside, M&M. You can pick out which room you want.”

“Sure,” she said. “Can’t wait.” Molly forced a smile and followed him inside.

* * * * *

Monday morning came too soon. Molly and her father spent the weekend painting, unpacking, and making lists of about a hundred repairs that needed doing around the house. She’d tried to beg off school for another day, but he’d been adamant.

Now, as she sat watching the school counselor peruse her records, she felt unexpectedly nervous. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. You’ve walked into burning buildings and faced down criminals. How is this any worse? But it was. It was so much worse.

Mrs. Pearce stopped her reading long enough to frown at Molly over her sequined librarian glasses. The effect was somewhat soured by her teal and pink nail polish, and the rainbow-colored posters behind her desk. “You’ve gone through quite a few schools, Miss Young,” she said. “I see a couple of suspensions here as well.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” she said. “I had…some emotional problems after my mother died.” She hated using that excuse.

“Well,” Ms. Pearce said again. Her long nails clicked impatiently over the lacquered desktop. “It does look as if you’ve stayed clean the last few years.”

She makes it sound like I’m a drug addict. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“I should warn you, Miss Young.” She took an extra moment to adjust her glasses, probably for effect. “We are quite different from the…urban…schools you’ve attended in the past. We do not tolerate fighting.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“As long as you behave yourself, we won’t have a problem,” she said, shuffling the papers into order. “Here is your packet. Please read all the rules. Ignorance is not an appropriate excuse. If you have questions or need assistance, please ask.” She handed the stack of papers to Molly, and gave her a dismissive smile. “Class starts in five minutes. Please try not to be late.”

As she left the office, Molly shuffled through the encyclopedia of handouts, trying to find her class schedule. Navigating the maze-like school would have been challenge enough without the press of students crowding the halls. And she had no idea where her first class was.

“Excuse me,” she said, squeezing by a group of girls gossiping in the doorway. None of them paid attention. She dodged a few more groups of kids, and winced as a passing backpack jostled her shoulder.

School map, counseling handout, dress code… The color-coded printouts weren’t in any order that she could see, and she went through them twice before she found the right one. First period: English. Room 2—

Someone collided with her and sent her sprawling. The packet flew out of her grip. Molly looked up through the scattering papers to see a tall, red-haired boy scowling down at her. Even though it was barely September, he wore a heavy leather jacket over his t-shirt. He bent down, and for a second she thought he was going to help her up. But he only scooped his own notebook and stood again.

0305

“Watch where you’re going,” he said, and stalked off.

Molly glared after him, but her retort tangled up on her tongue. She spotted a spilled soda down the hall from him and pushed the liquid under his feet.

He slipped and fell, hard. The spectacular crash caused a ripple of laughter through the hall. The boy fought to his feet, snatching his book and backpack off the ground again. A tall, black-haired girl with dyed tips helped him up, giggling.

Molly felt a brief surge of satisfaction, followed by a twinge of guilt. That isn’t what your powers are for, she scolded herself. She bent to gather her scattered papers back into a stack.

“Here, let me help you with that.”

She looked up as a different boy–a skinny, black boy with glasses–crouched down and helped her as she hunted the last few handouts between the feet of passing students. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said, standing. “Thanks. I’m Molly.”

“Aaron Lightheart,” he said. “Are you new?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I was trying to find my class.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose and held out a piece of yellow paper. “This your schedule?” he asked.

“Yeah, thanks,” she said.

He peered down at it. “Oh, Ms. Allen’s class. That’s right down the hall.” He handed her the paper with a smile. “Looks like we have bio together. You might want to bring something to read.”

“Why, is it that boring?”

“Oh. Uh, not really,” he said. “Mr. Coldwell likes to throw pop quizzes. You know, sometimes. I’ll show you where your class is, if you like.”

“Okay. Um, thanks,” she said. Molly tucked the loose strands of hair behind her ears and started down the hall, clutching her books to her chest.

Aaron walked beside her. “Where are you from?”

“Um, nowhere really,” she said evasively. “We’ve lived all over. Chicago, St. Louis, L.A—”

“Wow, cool. We’ve lived here since I was small. Are your parents scientists?”

“My dad’s a baker. Why would they be scientists?”

He laughed. “Pretty much no one moves here except to work at Lartech. That’s the research lab,” he explained.

“Oh, yeah, I knew about that,” she said. “So are your parents scientists?”

“Nope. Dad works at Lartech though–security. Mom’s a doctor.”

“My grandfather lived here,” Molly said. “We inherited his house.” It wasn’t much of an explanation, but it would do if he wasn’t too curious. “I don’t think he was a scientist either.”

“Well, I won’t hold that against him,” Aaron said. “Here’s your class. See you around.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Do you—” But he had already vanished into the press of students. Just being polite, she thought. She ran her fingers nervously over the spine of her textbook as she searched the crowd for a glimpse of him. Then she sighed and walked into class alone.

* * * * *

“You’re late,” Aaron whispered as Lucia slid into the seat beside him.

“I had to help Bren calm down,” she said. “He had a bad morning.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” Aaron said. “Did he—”

“Quiet, you two,” Ms. Melroy said from the front of the room. “Working time.”

“Yes, Ma’am” they chorused, and bent down over their math workbooks. Aaron worked through the problems more easily than usual: Lucia’s power had eased most of his headache and he actually felt normal for once. He glanced aside and saw her slouched over her book, doodling spirals into the columns instead of doing the math. Her eyes were halfway closed, and her skin looked pale.

“Hey, are you all right?” he asked.

“Hmm? Yeah,” she said dispiritedly. “Just thinking how pointless this is.”

Aaron glanced at the math problem. “Percentages?”

“Shut up,” she said, scrunching her eyes together in annoyance. “You are such a huge nerd.”

Aaron sighed, and bent down to reach into his backpack. He rummaged for a minute, and found the chocolate almonds he’d been saving for lunch. “Here,” he said, handing it to Lucia.

She blinked at it. “Is this your way of telling me I’m being a b—”

“It’s for this morning,” he said. “I’m paying you back.”

For a moment, it looked like she would argue, but she shook her head, as if humoring him, and took the packet. “It wasn’t just you, you know,” she said, opening the bag under her desk. She risked a glance at Ms. Melroy’s desk and snuck a couple of them into her mouth. “I guess I shouldn’t have let Carter eat the rest of the muffins,” she said. “Oh, and thanks.”

“Yeah.” Aaron turned back to his workbook, scribbling answers into the tiny spaces between questions. Lucia worked through hers more lazily, stealing doses of almonds in between problems. After a few minutes, the color had risen in her cheeks. A little sugar and protein and she was back to normal. As normal as Lucia got, anyway. Side effects are so much fun, Aaron thought, tapping the end of his pencil against his workbook. “Do you think the others are like us?” he asked her, in a quieter whisper than usual.

“Other what?” She frowned at a number she’d scribbled down, and erased it vigorously.

“You know,” he said, lowering his voice even more. “Others.”

She spared him a sardonic smile. “You still think there are others? Really, Aaron, you need to let go of that.”

“Well, statistically speaking—”

“Statistically speaking, there wouldn’t be a few of us in one place, all the same age, if there weren’t already hundreds of us all over. If we were some kind of mutation or natural phenomenon, we’d have heard about others.”

“So what about those news stories? That earthquake guy in San Francisco—”

“A city known for its earthquakes.”

“Or the healer in Arkansas—”

“You mean the con man? Obviously running a very transparent scam on gullible, desperate people?”

“Or Azure,” Aaron said. “Plenty of witnesses have seen Azure do things.”

“And no one can agree on what it is. Some people say she has super strength. Some people say she can control wind. Some people say she turns invisible. No one even knows if it’s all the same person doing it. It’s an urban legend, Aaron. Not real. I’m really over your obsession with Azure.” Lucia thrust the half-empty almond bag into his hand. “Whether we’re freaks or genetic experiments, I don’t think we’re going to find anyone else with powers. It’s just us.”

Aaron sighed and stuffed the almonds into his backpack. He didn’t agree, but he was tired of arguing the point. “Sure, probably.”

“At least we’ve got each other,” Lucia said. “Imagine what it would be like dealing with this alone.”

* * * * *

Molly sighed as she surveyed the lunch room, wondering where she should sit. Meeting Aaron had been the only bright spot in her morning. Classes were a repetition of embarrassing introductions, lectures she could barely follow, and exercises with unfamiliar textbooks. No one was rude, exactly, but they gazed over her, filing her under “cute” or “nice.” Keywords for “not all that interesting.”

She spotted Aaron a headed for his table until she saw who’d joined him: the red-haired boy who’d collided with her in the hall.

Her heart sank. So much for that, she thought.

Finally she found an isolated corner to curl up in, brooding as she ate Dad’s gourmet chicken sandwich—her favorite, and she barely tasted it—and watched all the normal kids. She was picking through her strawberries when someone slid into the seat opposite her. Molly looked up in surprise.

“Hey,” the girl said, leaning on one elbow. “Molly, right?”

Molly studied her: smooth, coppery skin, long hair with the kind of wind-tossed, effortless curls she’d always envied. Pink lipstick.

“Uh, yeah,” Molly said.

“I’m Selena Marquez,” she said, flipping her hair back with a smile. “We had math together this morning.”

“Oh,” Molly said. “Right. Nice to meet you.”

“I heard about what happened with Brennan. He is such a jerk,” she said, casting a scornful glance toward his table. “Don’t let him push you around, okay?”

“It was an accident,” Molly said.

“Sure it was,” Selena said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, you should come sit with us. He won’t mess with you then.” She gestured toward a group a few tables away, full of kids wearing sports shirts and designer tops.

Molly spared a brief glance toward Aaron, and saw the red-haired boy glaring back at her. “Sure,” she said. She gathered up her lunch and followed Selena as she glided down the aisle.

“So, where are you from?”

“Oh, uh… we’ve lived a lot of places,” she said. “We were in Chicago for a while, St. Louis. We spent a year in L.A.— ”

“L.A.? I’m completely jealous,” Selena said. “I’ve never lived anywhere interesting. I guess smallsville is seriously boring after that.”

“It’s not that bad,” Molly said.

“Yeah, right,” Selena said with a smirk. “Here we are. Hey guys, this is Molly. She’s from L.A.”

“I’m not from— ” she began in a small voice, but no one seemed to be listening. A few of them gave her dismissive welcomes and went back to their conversation. Selena all but pushed her into an unoccupied seat.

And across the table from her was an absolutely gorgeous guy. Tall, dark and built like a runner, with an easy smile and fine, tightly curled hair that fell just right across his forehead.

“Hi Molly,” he said. “I’m Carter.”

“Hi,” she managed, and averted the urge to stare by fumbling at her lunch bag.

Selena introduced the rest of the table: a whirlwind of names out of which she caught Kylie, Mackenzie and Steve. Molly picked through her food, feeling self-conscious as the rest of them returned to their conversation, about someone named Matt and his girlfriend.

She only half-listened to what they were saying, until Carter said, “what do you think, Molly?

“Um, sorry, what?” she asked, feeling a blush rise in her cheeks.

“We’re going down to the pier tomorrow to swim. You want to come?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I love swimming.”

* * * * *

“There is something off about that girl,” Lucia said.

“What girl?” Aaron asked, following her gaze around the cafeteria.

“The new one. The blond girl Brennan knocked down.”

He spotted Molly in the corner by the door, picking through her lunch without much enthusiasm.

“I didn’t knock her down,” Brennan said, attacking his taco salad with a vengeance.

“You kind of did,” Aaron said.

“You totally did,” Lucia said. “You barreled right into her.” She flicked a grain of rice at him. “Poor little thing didn’t have a chance. She probably weighs about as much as a cocker spaniel.”

Brennan rolled his eyes. “Sure, it’s my fault. Everything is my fault.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, glowering at both of them.

“Are you smoldering?” Lucia asked. “You are, aren’t you? I’ve never seen anyone actually smolder before.” She held her hand above his shoulder. “I think I can feel heat coming off of you.”

“You ran into each other,” Aaron said diplomatically. “But you were kind of rude to her afterward. You could just apologize to her. She’s nice, and she looks kind of lonely.”

“She’s out of your league,” Brennan commented.

“And you shouldn’t go for it anyway, Aaron, because she’s hiding something.”

“Everyone’s got secrets, Lu,” Aaron reminded her.

“Well…yeah…but not like this. I had English with her, and she—”

“She’s just shy,” Aaron said. “And she’s nice. I talked to her this morning, after Brennan clothes-lined her.”

“If you don’t shut up about it, I’m going to go eat with Ivy.”

“Oh, that’ll be great for your image,” Lucia said. “Go have lunch with your little sister.” Brennan grabbed his tray like he was going to follow through on his threat.

“Don’t,” Lucia said. She touched the back of his hand lightly, rubbing over the skin of his knuckles. “Please don’t get mad, Bren. We’re only kidding. I’m sorry, okay?”

Brennan sat down heavily and brushed her hand away. “Fine. I’m fine. Can we just forget about the girl? She doesn’t belong with us, anyway. Look, Selena’s got her claws in her already.”

Aaron glanced back. Molly wasn’t alone anymore: she’d been drafted into Selena’s gang. He saw Carter flash her a smile.

“There’s more than one kind of person you can like,” Aaron said, fighting a sudden surge of jealousy. “You don’t have to poison the well for everyone.” Molly turned her head, her blond ponytail flipping around her head as she smiled at something someone had said.

He caught her eye across the room, just for a second, and it was like a spike going through his brain.

A rush of images and sensation flew past, so fast and intense he didn’t have time to process it before it was over.

0304

He blinked as his vision cleared, and then closed his eyes until the ringing in his ears subsided. He felt Lucia’s hand on his, and pushed it aside.

“It’s okay,” he said, opening his eyes. “I’m fine.” He took a deep breath.

“I have some painkillers in my locker,” Brennan offered. Aaron nodded without speaking.

“Rule-breaker,” Lucia teased.

“I know. I’m so badass,” he said, pushing back his chair. “I’ll be right back.” He shoved both hands in his jacket and walked toward the hall.

After a moment, Lucia ventured: “That’s the second one today. I thought you didn’t have them that often.”

“Not usually,” Aaron said. “But I used my power too much this morning. It makes me more vulnerable to them. I’ll be okay.”

“What did you see?”

Aaron thought about it. The images had come too fast to really see, but as usual his brain had been busy resorting them while he recovered. “Water,” he said at last. “Lots and lots of water. And…devastation. Like a hurricane, or a flood.” He looked down at his half-eaten lunch and decided he couldn’t finish it. “I don’t know what it was,” he said. “But I really hope it doesn’t happen.”

* * * * *

Molly put the last of her books in her locker and sighed with relief. There was very little she hated more than the first day at a new school.  Still, apart from the incident this morning, it hadn’t been that bad. She might even have friends by the end of the week.

Most of their conversation had been about people and things she knew nothing about, but Carter, at least, had tried to include her. She felt a smile sneak across her face at the thought. She was pretty sure it was still there when she shut her locker, and saw the tall, dark-haired girl from the cafeteria staring her down. What was her name? Stacy? Lucy? Lucia. That was it.

0305“Hi there, Barbie,” she said. “We need to talk.”

Molly hoisted her backpack on her shoulder. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything to say to each other.” She started to move past the other girl, but Lucia stepped in her path, hands on her hips.

“Oh, we do,” she said.

“Is this about your boyfriend? Look, he ran into me—”

“This is so not about your little klutz attack.” She took a step closer, her shoulders hunched forward, her head bent down. Aggressive.

Molly’s whole body tensed as she came within striking distance, and she had to fight to restrain herself. She exhaled, leaning back on her heels and forcing her arms to relax at her sides. “If you have something to say, go ahead.”

“I know a liar when I see one,” Lucia said. “You can act sweet and innocent, but you’re hiding something.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Molly demanded. “I don’t have any secrets.”

“Sure, deny it. Whatever,” Lucia said, crossing her arms. “I don’t really care. Just leave my friends out of it. I promise you can’t play well enough to manipulate me. And that goes for Carter too. Hurt them, and I will seriously mess you up.” She gave Molly a sharp little shove, and walked off.

A dozen angry responses flooded through her mind, and she felt her fists balling up with anger. Stop it, she told herself. Don’t lose control. She took a few deep controlled breaths, and slowly uncurled her fists. Lucia didn’t matter, any more than Brennan did. They were two people. Even in a school of two hundred, it didn’t amount to much. Besides, she’d have to live with it, Molly thought, adjusting the straps of her backpack over her shoulders. This was home now.

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