What Carter had called called “the pier” was bigger than Molly expected: a park next to a large marina, with a swimming pier and a large, grassy lawn equipped with picnic tables and a covered pavilion. About thirty people were there, scattered out on towels, swimming, and loading up in boats. Molly wandered toward the water, clutching her towel to her chest like a kindergartner going to her first birthday party.
Carter Lightheart met her halfway across the lawn, a pair of life jackets slung over one shoulder.
“Hey glad you made it,” he said, and grinned like he meant it. “Over here.” He showed her the spot where his friends had camped out. The girls—and Steve—were laid out on towels, their tanned skin glistening in the heat. Kylie scrutinized Molly over her sunglasses. Her expression was somewhere between welcoming and condescending. “Hi, Molly,” she said, in a tone that did nothing to clear up the confusion.
Carter brushed cookie crumbs from his fingers. “I was about to take the waverunner out,” he told Molly. “Want to come?”
“Uh, sure. I don’t have to drive, do I?”
“No,” he said, handing her one of the jackets. “You can ride behind me.”
Molly felt that embarrassing blush again, and hid it by shucking off her flip-flops. “Sure,” she said. She buckled the jacket as she followed him down the docks, past moored and idling boats. Carter stopped in front of a sleek black waverunner and swung into the seat. When she hesitated, he frowned. “You sure you want to come?” he asked, and as if it just occurred to him, added, “Uh, you can swim okay, can’t you?”
She couldn’t help it. She laughed.
“I can swim fine,” she said. “But I’ve never ridden one of these before.”
“Just sit behind me and hold on,” he said, offering her his hand. Molly took it and stepped on, settling on the hot leather behind him. She debated about where to put her hands for a minute, and settled on the straps of his life jacket, gripping them as he started the engine and idled away from the pier.
He smiled back at her. “Here we go.” Molly gripped the back of his life jacket with both hands, and they sped out onto the lake.
After a few seconds at speed, Molly was in love. Water drenched her as they turned circles, sometimes in a mist, sometimes as a sudden splash. The thrum of the engine resonated through her whole body, and wind whipped her ponytail around her neck. She stretched out with her power, reveling in the chaos of the waves and the slick speed of the machine.
She forgot about Carter, about her awkwardness, about everything except the rush of wind and water flooding her senses. I have to learn to drive one of these.
They stopped sooner than she liked. Molly exhaled with a short laugh, forcing her fingers out of their death grip on Carter’s jacket. “Why’d we stop?” she asked.
“The dam.” Carter pointed over the water. “Over there.”
She followed the gesture, and saw a concrete wall rising out of the lake, no higher than ten feet. She guessed it was about half a mile in length. “Oh,” she said. “I expected something…taller?”
“The reservoir’s almost full right now, and you’re seeing it from the top. It looks cooler from the other side, especially when the spillway’s open. But if you want to see something impressive—” He pointed again, this time toward the shore.
A cluster of buildings rose over the trees. The largest part was an enormous dome that seemed to glow faintly green, although that may have been the reflection of the surrounding trees on the glass. “Is that the research lab? Um…Lan-something? Aaron was telling me about it yesterday.”
“Lartech,” Carter said. “The Laurence Robotics and Biotech Laboratory, if you want the long name. Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is kind of a weird place for a lab, though. A town in the middle of nowhere?”
“Nowhere, huh? Thanks,” he said.
“I just meant it’s a big place, for a small town.”
“It’s why the town’s here,” Carter said. “You didn’t know that?”
Molly shrugged. “Dad printed off some stuff for me, but I didn’t really read it.” She looked back at the lab. She didn’t know why, but the sight of it spooked her. Maybe because she had so much to hide. “What kind of things do they do there?”
“No idea,” Carter answered. “Robotics and biotech, I guess, but a lot of it’s super classified. They definitely have a couple of government contracts—my Dad used to be Air Force, and that’s how he ended up working there. But he can’t talk about what goes on inside. We only hear the weird rumors about alien research and nuclear super-tanks.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Yeah, it’s probably all rumor,” he said. “Oh, except for the mutant genetic experiments living in the sewers.”
“Yeah, right,” Molly laughed. “I’m not that gullible.”
They were interrupted by the sound of a motor over the calm lake. Molly glanced toward it to see another waverunner speeding toward them. Selena drove it, her ponytail whipping behind her in the wind. For all her movie-star glamor, there was nothing delicate about the way she handled the machine. It didn’t slow as it reached them, but spun around in tight circles, throwing the lake into a riot and spraying both of them with water.
She came to a stop, laughing. “Hey, Molly,” she said. “Having a look at the big wall?”
“The lab,” Carter said. “She hadn’t seen it yet.”
Selena grinned. “Did you tell her about the mutants in the sewers?”
Molly rolled her eyes. “I didn’t believe him, and I don’t believe you either.”
She only grinned wider and laughed. “Just be careful around storm drains,” she said, and revved the engine. “Race you back?”
“No way,” Carter said. “You always win.”
“Come on,” Molly said. The idea appealed to her more than it should have. “We can take her.”
Selena revved the engine again, in a taunt, and Carter shook his head. “You asked for it. Hang on.” Molly gripped his waist, her shyness gone, and held on tight.
Even boosted by Molly’s power—just a little bit—Selena somehow managed to stay ahead of them, right up until they reached the buoys outside the pier and slowed to an idle. She was laughing as they drew level with her, looking as exhilarated as Molly felt.
“Wow! That was close,” she said. “How did you manage to keep up with me?”
Carter shrugged. “No idea,” he said. “It was kind of terrifying, to be honest.”
“Must be Molly’s doing,” Selena said. Molly felt a thrill of alarm, but the other girl was grinning. “Lucky charm?” she said, winking at Carter.
“Maybe,” he agreed with an easy grin. “Want to go again?”
Molly did. Drenched in lake water and adrenaline, she could barely stand being still. Warning signs, she thought, and took a deep breath. “Actually I think I’ll go for a swim,” she said. “Maybe later?”
“Sure,” he said, offering her a hand again so she could step back to the dock. “Save me some of those cookies.”
Molly watched until they were out of view. The adrenaline had faded enough to leave her feeling drained, and more than a little anxious. She pulled loose her ponytail and raked her hands through her hair. A drink, she thought. That’ll calm me down. She headed back to Kylie and her gang, searching for the water bottle she’d left bundled with her towel.
“Have a nice ride?” Allison said slyly.
Molly ignored the innuendo. “Yeah,” she said. “It was fun.”
“It’s a lost cause, you know,” Kylie said lazily. “He never dates anyone. Not seriously. The closest thing he’s ever had to a girlfriend is Selena, and that’s never lasted more than a week.”
“Omigosh, look,” Mackenzie said, nudging Kylie with an elbow. Molly followed her gaze and saw Aaron, Brennan and Lucia settling around a picnic table, deep in conversation.
Brennan wore a black sweatshirt, even though it was about ninety degrees outside. Lucia, on the other hand, looked kind of awesome. She wore a bright green swimsuit decorated with red and gold dragons, cut in a diagonal across her stomach. Her hair had been done in some kind of complicated braided bun, and magenta strands flared out of it like plumage. Despite her dislike of the girl, Molly felt a pang of envy. Next to them, Aaron looked depressingly average. His glasses were slightly askew, and his clothes a little too baggy on his lanky frame.
“They are so weird,” Kylie said. “I mean, who wears a sweatshirt to the lake in the middle of summer?”
“You know September is technically not summer anymore,” Molly said.
“That doesn’t make it any less weird,” Alisson said. “I mean, Aaron’s okay. He’s Carter’s brother, after all.”
“Except that he’s a mental case,” Kylie said. “Always having weird breakdowns and seizures.”
The snide tone made Molly’s temper flare.
“Yeah, except for that.” Alisson said. “But if you want to talk about mental, Lucia—”
“I’d really rather not,” Molly said. “It’s kind of sad that you don’t have anything to do but talk about other people.” She shoved herself to her feet and tossed her water bottle to the ground. “Have fun irradiating. I’m going to go swim.”
As soon as her feet hit the pier, she started running, and vaulted off the end in a swimmer’s dive.
Cool water rushed over her head, bubbling around her as she dove deeper. She stayed under for longer than she should have, letting the strange mix of calm and energy flood through her as she swam through the murky green-brown water.
She surfaced with a gasp, blinking away the lake water until she could see.
“Didn’t think you were going to come back up for a minute,” someone said above her. Molly looked up sharply.
Brennan Haley sat on the edge of the pier, leaning back on his arms. He’d taken off his sweatshirt, but he still wore a black t-shirt over his shorts. His bare feet dangled in the water.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Aaron said I should apologize,” he said. “For what happened yesterday. Pretty sure he has a crush on you.”
Molly treaded closer to the pier. “So are you going to?” she asked, wrapping a hand around the ladder to anchor herself.
“Going to what?”
“I thought I just did.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then you need to work on your people skills,” she said. She ran her hands over her head as she stood, slicking her loose hair away from her face. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, taking a step backward so that he had to twist around to look up at her. “We’re even, anyway.”
“Even?” His brows creased in confusion.
“Yep,” she said. She put her foot against his back and shoved him hard into the water. A moment later, he came up sputtering. “Even,” she said, and turned on her heel to walk away. Behind her, she heard the thrum of an engine and Carter saying, “What happened?” while Selena laughed.
* * * * *
Aaron grimaced at the cards in his hand, and threw one down at random.
“You’re kidding, right?” Lucia said. “That’s a kind of suicidal move.” When he nodded, she shrugged and played three cards in quick succession. “I win.”
“Whatever. I was losing anyway.”
She gathered all the cards together and started shuffling them. “What’s up with you today? You’re never this bad at games. I mean, I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve beaten you at this.”
“I’m distracted,” he said.
“By Molly?” she asked with a teasing grin. “That sweet girl-next-door thing gets to you, doesn’t it? All cute and innocent. Too bad it’s an act.”
“Not by Molly,” he said, glowering at her. “Would you leave her alone already?”
“Stay away from her, Aaron,” Lucia said. “I’m not kidding. I went to talk to her after school yesterday.”
Something in her voice told him what kind of conversation that had been. He sighed. “Really, Lu? Why would you—”
“Because she was giving off some seriously disturbing vibes. I wanted to see what would happen if I pushed her a bit.” She dealt them both a new hand. “And you don’t want to get involved with her.”
With that, she fell silent, and went back to looking at her cards. Aaron knew she was baiting him, but after a short, tense silence, he couldn’t resist asking.
“Why? What did you sense?”
Lucia glanced at him. “She has anger issues,” she said, slipping a card from her hand to consider it. “Violent impulses. She wanted to hit me.”
“I’ve seen how you act when you’re trying to start an argument. It makes most people want to hit you.”
Lucia rolled her eyes. “Forget it.” She tossed the card on the table. “So what’s got you so distracted, if it’s not your secret crush?”
He ignored the barb, and leaned forward to brood over his drink. “I’ve been thinking about that vision I had.”
“If that’s what it was.”
“No more since then?”
“Not today. Kind of a mercy, really. Slept well last night, took a test without fighting off a migraine. Good day.” He leaned his head against one hand. “But I keep thinking about it. How violent and terrifying it was. And I can’t do anything about it. I don’t know where it is, or when it will happen. It could be a hurricane on the coast, a tsunami halfway around the world. And what could I do about if it was? And what if it happens here?”
“Even if it did,” Lucia said, “how do you stop a hurricane?”
Aaron ran his finger around the edge of the can. “You don’t I, guess,” he said. “You just hide and wait for the storm to pass.”
“Speaking of passing storms,” Lucia said in a secretive whisper, “here comes your lady love.”
“Hey, Aaron,” Molly said from behind him.
His elbow hit his drink as he whirled around, and he fumbled to catch it. Lucia snickered. “Hey,” he said, setting the can carefully upright. “What’s up?”
Her eyes flickered over Lucia with the ghost of a frown. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” he said. “Be right back, Lu.” Molly was quiet for a minute as they walked off. She fidgeted, running the pads of her thumbs over her fingernails while she stared at her feet.
“Did you ask Brennan to apologize to me?” she asked eventually.
Caught off guard, Aaron just blinked at her. “Uh, maybe,” he said. “Did he actually do it?”
Molly rolled her eyes. “Not really. Kind of.” She sighed. “Look, Aaron…You’re a nice guy. And I wanted to thank you for helping me out yesterday.” She hesitated.
“But?” he prompted.
“But your friends don’t like me,” she said. “And I don’t really see a good reason to try and change that.” She stuck her thumbs in her shorts pockets and shrugged. “Can you just let it go?”
Aaron started to argue, to tell her that Bren and Lucia just took some getting used to, but then he saw the expression on her face. Even without Lucia’s empathy, it was pretty clear that didn’t feel much for him except pity.
“I’m sorry if Brennan bothered you,” he said instead. “I’ll tell him to leave you alone. And I don’t blame you. You fit in better with my brother’s friends.”
She must have heard some of the bitterness in his voice. “You don’t get along?” she asked, frowning. “You and Carter?”
“No, we do,” Aaron said. “Actually, we’re really close. But it’s…hard not to be jealous sometimes, when your twin brother is perfect.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” she responded.
Yeah, well tell that to my parents, he thought, and said: “Carter comes close.”
That got a half a smile from Molly. “You’re not so bad,” she said, and he couldn’t think of a response. After an awkward silence, she said: “I’ll let you get back to your game.”
Brennan had come back to the table—soaking wet for some reason—and was busy trading his drenched t-shirt for his sweatshirt. Lucia was caught somewhere between sympathy and amusement, fighting a smile that seemed to be winning.
“Did you go swimming?” Aaron asked, incredulous.
“Not on purpose,” he said, with a glare at Molly. She smiled sweetly back at him.
“I’m going to see if I have another shirt in the car,” Brennan said. “Since this one is wet.” He tossed it at Molly and she caught it deftly, dropping it on the bench with a smirk.
Lucia watched as he stalked off, and raised a brow. “Well done, Mary Sue,” she said, with a note of veiled sarcasm. “Is that how you make friends in L.A.?”
“I’m not from—” Molly started, when someone shouted.
They both turned at the same time. A group of people stood at the edge of the lawn, pointing at something over the trees. Aaron blinked toward it, and saw a column of smoke rising over a faint orange glow.
“Call the fire department,” Aaron said.
Lucia already had her phone out, and was dialing.
“That’s not in town,” Molly said. “It’s the other direction. What’s out there?”
“Not much. The Henderson’s, maybe?” Aaron said. “It’s a farm, about a half a mile that way.”
“How long will it take them to get there?” Molly asked.
“That far out? At least fifteen minutes,” Aaron said, staring at the distant blaze. “The closest station is all the way back in town.” He tore his eyes away from the plume of smoke. “Why don’t you—” He stopped mid-sentence.
Molly was gone.
“Where’d she go?” Aaron asked.
“Didn’t see, I was on the phone,” Lucia said, slipping it into her pocket. “They said ten minutes. Do you think you could…you know?”
He shook his head. “Too far,” he said. “I’d get halfway, maybe, and then I’d be too sick to move. Come one. Let’s run up there together and see if there’s anything we can do.” Aaron glanced around the park one more time as they headed toward the trees. “Where’s Brennan when you need him?”
* * * * *
Molly wished she’d had time to put on some clothes. She’d snatched two water bottles and Brennan’s wet shirt before she’d dashed off, but besides that and her swimsuit, all she had was pair of cut-off shorts and her flip-flops. As she ran, she pulled the overlarge shirt over her head. The wet fabric slapped against her thighs, draining rivulets of water down her skin. She screwed the cap off one water bottle and poured it over her head, soaking her hair and face.
She broke free of the trees onto a large swath of cleared land. An blue and white farmhouse sat at the end of a long, pitted road. The entire first story was on fire, and the flames already crept up the second. Two cars were parked out front: an old truck and an SUV. Chances were someone was home.
Molly headed for the back door, pulling the wet shirt over her nose and mouth. If she could get to the kitchen sink, she could pull water through the tap to use. She halted on the porch to open the second bottle, sucked in as much clean air as she could, and plunged into the house.
The fire hadn’t reached the kitchen, but the smoke had. Molly did a quick survey: it was neat, old-fashioned. A few dirty dishes in the sink. Spices in the window. Ceramic jars on a shelf over the stove, labeled “sugar” and “flour.” Could be dangerous once the flames spread in here, but nothing immediate.
Smoke stung her eyes as she ran toward the sink. The water on her skin evaporated in the heat, even as she doused herself in more.
Molly grabbed the tap with both hands and wrenched them open. Water. She drew it into her hands and shaped it with her power, forming a thin shield over her exposed skin. Protected, she drew more water, and aimed it toward the living room. The water doused enough of the fire for her to run through the archway, trailing a stream of steaming water behind her.
The heat was unbelievable.
Everything was in flames, and Molly could barely see through the smoke. “Is anyone in here?” she shouted. The shirt over her mouth muffled her voice. No one answered. Molly pulled the water around herself, drenching her body again. I can’t fight my way through this, she realized, and retreated toward the kitchen. She could douse more of the fire, maybe buy time for the firefighters to arrive.
As she backed toward the kitchen doorway, pooling water behind her, she heard an ominous creak from above. Molly looked up, just as the ceiling above her collapsed.
Someone grabbed her arm and yanked her aside. Molly shrieked as her bare skin rolled over the blistering hardwood floor. Rubble crashed behind her, throwing plaster in the air. She staggered to her feet, and peered through the haze of smoke and dust.
It was Brennan.
“What are you doing in here?” he shouted. “Are you insane?”
He’d pulled his hood over his head and wrapped some kind of scarf around his face, but he wore the same orange swim trunks and black sandals. A shock of red hair stuck out from under his hood. Tucked into one arm was the ugliest terrier Molly had ever seen. He came back for the dog. You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Anyone left?” she asked, coughing. She’d breathed in too much smoke. And the water on her skin had evaporated.
“They’re out,” he said. “Come on! This whole place is coming down.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the kitchen. His eyes narrowed. “Are you wearing my shirt?”
“You’re asking me that now?”
The kitchen sink was still running, and it took all of Molly’s self control not to reach for it. He can’t see that, she thought. Just keep walking. Behind them, something else collapsed, throwing a tremor through the floor. They stumbled over the tile, and Brennan slipped on the thin layer of water across the floor. She reached down to help him, and heard a crash behind him. They both turned to see the ceramic flour jar fall after the sugar, and shatter as it hit the edge of the counter. Flour puffed into the air around them.
There was no time to think. Molly shoved Brennan behind her and wrenched at the open tap so hard the faucet broke loose. She flung water up around them just as the cloud of flour ignited.
Fire billowed across the room, catching all the floating particles in a chain explosion. Molly’s water shielded them from the sudden blast. The heat steamed the water away, but she kept pouring more and more into it, saving just enough precious space from the explosion.
Somehow, she managed to keep the shield intact, even though the effort left her trembling.
Finally, the explosion died down.
Water rained over them as Molly released her power. She sagged to her knees in exhaustion. Dimly, she was aware of Brennan’s arm around her waist. He half-carried her the last few steps out of the house.
Molly collapsed onto the porch, breathing deep gulps of fresh, humid air.
In the distance, Molly heard sirens. The firefighters, she remembered. Got to get away. She grabbed onto the porch railing and hauled herself to her feet. Then she remembered Brennan, and whirled around. He’d pulled the scarf away from his face, and was staring at her in amazement.
She stared back at him, her heart hammering. He saw me. He saw me. Dad is going to kill me.
“Molly—” he started.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” she said. Her voice was raw from the smoke. She swallowed against it. “Please don’t.” She turned and ran down the stairs before he said anything else, and fled into the woods.
* * * * *
By the time Aaron and Lucia reached the burning house, the whole thing was in flames. Mrs. Henderson and her two-year old son had made it outside, and they huddled together in the lawn, coughing smoke and crying. Lucia ran to them, sliding to her knees and putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. Aaron followed, crouching a little further away.
“Is anyone else inside?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said breathlessly. “I don’t know. There…there was a man…” Whatever else she was going to say drowned in a sudden racking cough.
Lucia glanced at Aaron and mouthed, “I’ll take care of it.”
He nodded and walked toward the side of the house, watching the flames crawl up the siding. A shape moved across the yard, and Aaron glanced sharply toward it. It was Brennan, looking a little singed, but okay. He stopped long enough to nod at Aaron, and then headed into the trees.
“Shh,” he heard Lucia say. “The fire department is on the way,” she said. “I’ll stay with you until they get here, okay? Just listen to my voice.”
Aaron felt spectacularly useless.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the fire. If he’d been able to get here, could he have made a difference? What if he had seen this, instead of some disaster he couldn’t prevent? He closed his eyes. Brennan had saved the family from the fire, and by the time the fire trucks arrived, the woman might not even remember him. Everything had worked out, and everyone was fine.
But he still felt completely, utterly useless.