Chapter Six: Chain Reaction

“Dad!” Molly shouted as she burst through the door, her eyes hunting wildly for her parents. The cafe was a mess. All the boxes they’d stacked that morning had tumbled to the floor, along with most of the chairs. A broken light flickered over the debris. “Dad! Clarissa!”

“Back here!” Clarissa’s voice.

Heart leaping, Molly had to climb through the room—over boxes, broken glass, and overturned chairs, and past the counter—before she found her dad, lying on the floor with one bloody leg stretched in front of him. Clarissa knelt beside him, her skirt and heels smeared red. A ladder lay crookedly between them, one rung dented where it had hit the counter hard.

Molly jolted to a halt, her stomach in her throat.

“Is…is he…”

“He’s okay!” Clarissa said quickly, shaking his shoulder. “Toby, Molly’s here.”

He grunted and pushed his way to his elbows, blinking a few times before opening his eyes.

“Dad!” She ducked under the ladder and skidded to his side, burying her head into his shoulder.

“I’m okay, M,” he said, hugging her tight. “I’m okay.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Clarissa said. “I was just cleaning it before I bandage it.” She unrolled a long strip of gauze and began to wrap it around the wound.

“What happened?” Brennan asked. He had stopped on the other side of the ladder, and was inspecting it critically.

“He was on the ladder when the shaking started.”

“Trying to fix that bulb,” Dad said with a grimace. “Ladder fell, and I fell with it.”

“I think the bone may be broken,” Clarissa said. “But he’s not in any danger.”

Molly pulled away to glare at him. “You didn’t answer your phone!” she said. “You always yell at me for that! How could you not answer!”

“We tried calling you, honey,” Clarissa said. “The lines are all down.” She took a moment to give both of them a look full of consternation. “You should have stayed put. It’s dangerous, running around in an earthquake.”

“I—” Molly glanced back at Brennan. “I had to make sure you were okay,” she said.

Clarissa’s glare softened. “Well, at least you made it here safely.” She started to gather up the scattered first aid kit. “I’m going to clean this up,” she said, tossing the bloodied towel on top. “Don’t let him up.”

As she disappeared into the back room, Dad sighed. “Well, now that you’re here—”

“Wait,” Brennan said. He tilted his head to the side, sniffing the air. “Do you have a gas stove in here?”

“No,” Dad said, but his look of bewilderment only lasted a second. “But there is a gas line hooked up. Behind the oven—” He tried to stand, but Molly pushed down on her shoulders.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “You stay put.”

“Molly, this isn’t like a leaky faucet. If that line is broken—”

“Don’t worry. Brennan can help me. He’s a boy; I’m sure he knows all about broken gas lines.”

“This isn’t the time for jokes about gender equality, M.”

“Actually,” Brennan said, with a self-conscious wince, “My grandfather taught me a lot about—”

“This isn’t a game!”

“I know,” Molly said. “A gas explosion will take out more than just this shop. All I have to do is shut it off, right? We can handle it.”

“I’m not going to stop you this time, am I?” Dad said wearily, and Molly shook her head. “Be careful.”

“Always am,” Molly said. Before he could utter another protest, she had ducked back under the ladder and dragged Brennan into the back room. They found Clarissa by the door, sniffing the air with a grimace of distaste. “Do you smell that?” she asked. “Is that—”

“We’re on it,” Molly said, grabbing Brennan’s arm. “Brennan here’s going to shut it off. He’s handy, you know, the way boys are.”

Clarissa frowned a second, like she’d caught the sarcasm and was trying to figure out if Molly was mocking her. But she glanced at Brennan, who smiled innocently, and then just gathered the towels she’d stacked together into her arms.

“See if you can get Dad out of the building,” she said. “It’s not a good thing to be breathing in.” She pulled the scarf back over her mouth and headed toward the oven. She started to pull it back when Brennan grabbed her arm.

“Careful,” Brennan said. “One spark and all this nice air we’re breathing turns into a fireball.”

Molly hesitated. “Can you do anything to control it?” she said. “Keep it from igniting?”

“I can keep it cold, but I can’t control every stray spark. I’d have to have a reaction time under a millisecond once something caught, and even I can’t take that much heat at once. We’d both be toast.”

“So no sudden movements,” she said, peering at the narrow space between the wall and the oven. It was enough space to see the lines, but probably not enough to reach past them. So should they try to move it? Or try to reach behind it?

“We’ll have to move it at least a few inches,” Brennan said. “Kind of makes you wish Carter was here.”

“You mean Gladius,” Molly said, taking a station at one end of the stove.

Brennan set his hands on the other corner, but paused. “Hey M,” he said.

“Yeah.” She hoped he didn’t hear the tremor in her voice.

“You remember that first fire we were in? You made that shield when the flour exploded. Can you do that again?”

Molly glanced toward the front of the shop. “Yeah,” she said. “I just need an open tap. ”

He reached over to the utility sink and turned on the faucet. Molly took a deep breath, pushing everything out of her mind except the task at hand. She pulled the water through the tap as fast as it would come, weaving the stream of water around them like a string. It was a more complex creation than she’d done before—the shield had been an act of instinct and self-preservation. Reactionary and intense. This time she made more of a cocoon, layering thick bands of water around both of them.

“Nice,” Brennan said, running a hand through the spinning water. “Okay. On my mark, lift. One, two, three, mark.” Together, they hoisted the oven off the floor, staggered three steps backward, and lowered it very, very slowly.

Brennan’s side came down suddenly, hard enough that Molly winced at the clang of metal hitting tile. But after a second of not bursting into flames, she sighed with relief. Brennan rubbed at his side. “Sorry,” he said. “That was heavier than I expected.” he frowned, pressing his fingers over his stomach as if to check for blood.

“It’s fine,” he said, before she could ask. “Just tweaked something. Move over, and let me look at that line.”

Molly decided they could argue when things were less dangerous. By this point the fumes had her feeling so lightheaded she had to hold her breath against it.

“Okay, I think this is it,” he said, following a slender black pipe toward the red valve near the floor. He crouched, peering at the steel pipes attached to the wall. “It looks like this fitting came loose during the quake. So if I shut it off here…” As he spoke, he twisted the valve. It closed with a squeak, and the sound of hissing gas dissipated. He sighed. “That will stop the leak,” he said, “but there’s still a lot in the air, so we should get out. Before we, you know, explode.”

“I’ll keep the shield up until we reach the door,” Molly said. “But I’ve got to turn the tap off. Dad would kill me over the water bill.”

* * * * *

Clarissa had managed to help Dad outside, and gotten him settled in the passenger’s seat of her pixie-blue sedan. “Gas line’s off,” she said, and Dad sighed with relief.

“Thank goodness,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you go in there.”

“I told you we’d handle it. Where’s Clarissa?”

“She went to find a working phone,” Dad said, “as unlikely as that is. I’m not sure if she’s more worried about the gas or my leg, but she’s going frantic not doing anything.” He grimaced as he readjusted his leg. “You two might as well get comfortable. It will probably be a while until EMS gets to us. I imagine we’re pretty far down on the priority list.”

For a moment, Molly froze. She hadn’t thought about how she’d get away again once she found them. She glanced back at Brennan, who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, You got us into this.

“I…I can’t. I have to go out there,” she said. “I have to help if I can.”

Dad’s eyes widened with fear. “Molly—”

“You know I can help,” she said. “There are fires all over the city, and at least one of the water mains has ruptured. The fire department isn’t equipped to handle it.”

“But—” His eyes roved over Brennan, who started under the sudden attention. There was more than a little suspicion in that gaze.

“It’s okay,” Molly said, giving Brennan an apologetic wince. “He, um. He knows.”

His gaze flashed back to Molly, panic flushing out the suspicion.

Molly!” They both said at the same time.

She threw Brennan a quick glare to say shut up. He looked furious, but he clamped his mouth shut and shrugged as if to say, go ahead. Molly turned back to her father.

“It was an accident,” she said. “But he’s kept my secret for a while now. He’s solid. And now I’ve got someone to watch my back.”

“Molly—”

“We can argue about it later. You can ground me, you can take away my phone, whatever you want. But I’ve got to go. I have to help.”

“Of course you aren’t going anywhere.” Clarissa said suddenly, coming up behind her. Molly wasn’t sure how much of their conversation she’d heard, but she looked livid. “Tell her she can’t, Toby. She needs to stay here and let the police and firefighters handle this. This is a job for trained professionals; she’s a child—”

“No, she’s not,” Brennan said. He flushed as they all looked at him. “Well, she isn’t.”

“No, of course she’s not,” Dad said. All the air seemed to go out of him; he deflated against his seat with a long sigh. “And of course she’s right. If I weren’t hurt, I’d be out there too.”

“This is different!”

“She’s pretty capable, really, Clarissa,” he said. “And I don’t think you or I can stop her.”

“You can punish me later if you want,” Molly said. “But I have to help.”

Dad took a long look at her, and then turned it to Brennan. “Are you going, too?”

“I won’t leave her alone,” Brennan said. “I’ll watch her back.”

“You had better.” Despite the fact that he was laid out with a broken leg and pale from pain and blood loss, the threat was very, very real. “Be careful, M. I don’t want to see you on the news this time.”

She squeezed his hand. “Promise,” she said and turned to Brennan. “Let’s go put out some fires.”

* * * * *

Aaron dodged through the frozen crowd, his gaze fixed on the spot where the girl had been. A dozen questions flashed through his mind, but it was hard to focus on any of them when it felt like his lungs were being squeezed.

He set a mental timer in his head, counting as he weaved his way across the street. She’d only had a couple of seconds to get a head start, but he had to be careful not to jostle anyone by accident. A bumped shoulder from his perspective could end up a broken arm from theirs. Or worse.

Eight, nine ten…

Most important was figuring out which way she’d run. It had been too quick a glimpse to be certain, and as useful as his power was for moving quickly, he couldn’t hold it forever. His record was three minutes—under perfect conditions—and that left him utterly drained afterward. Right now he was already tired and stressed, not to mention breathless from inhaling smoke. He reckoned he could risk thirty seconds, maybe forty, without suffering too much from the side effects.

Sixteen, seventeen..

He climbed over the crumpled hood of a sedan—it had veered into the left lane and smashed into another car, probably when the quake had split the sidewalk. The driver held a bloody cloth against his head, and the cluster of people around him should be distracted enough they wouldn’t notice him, except as a blur moving across the edges of their vision.

Twenty-one, twenty-two…

Vertigo hit him as he reached the sidewalk, and he stumbled over the curb. He paused to catch his breath, leaning against the reassuringly solid bulk of a sidewalk mailbox. His power was getting harder to hold. He steadied himself, reorienting toward the shadowed alley between the high school and the gym. If she’d gone right, she could have broke into the school to hide. Or she could have gone around the gym, down to the field… No, she wouldn’t have had time for that.

Then again, she didn’t know what he could do.

Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two…

He let his power go with a gasp, and hung onto the mailbox, panting.

As time reverted, he was met with a godawful shriek in his ear, like microphone feedback dialed up to twelve. It resolved into five angry voices shouting his name. Aaron shifted again, before they could manage to spot him, or finish cussing him out. Time slowed again, and this time it felt like breathing through wool. Wincing, he dug the earbud out of his ear and shoved it into his pocket.

He’d get hell for it later, but right now, he needed to concentrate. Selena would still be able to track him as long as he kept the device on him, and the others could catch up at their own pace. He could probably keep it up longer if he took it in shorter bursts. Without the crowd, that would be a lot easier. He ran into the alley between the school and the gym, ducked behind a dumpster, and dropped his power long enough to gulp a few breaths of air.

Then he started moving again. There was only one door into the school on this side, and when he tried it, he found it locked. But a few feet down, he found a window cracked open. The lock looked damaged. He glanced into the classroom on the other side, but didn’t see any trace of her. If she’d gone in through the window, she’d already made it to the hallway.

He glanced back toward the street where he’d left Lucia and Carter. It would take them too long to catch up. He couldn’t wait.

Aaron shoved the window open, took a last, deep breath, and twisted. As time slowed around him, he climbed through the window and ran across the room. His lungs felt ready to collapse, but he clung to his power until he was through the door.

She was in the hallway. Barely a dozen steps down, running full out past the rows of lockers toward the cafeteria. Aaron didn’t reach her before he lost control of his power. Time came flooding back like a punch to the chest.

He skidded to a halt before he overbalanced, and called, “Stop!” with as much breath as he had left.

To his surprise, she did, in a graceful kind of twist that left her facing him in a defensive crouch. Her scarf had fallen; he could see now that she was about his own age, even though the fear in her eyes made her look younger. Wiry brown curls framed her face, wild and unevenly cut.

She didn’t speak.

Drenched in sweat and out of breath, he knew he didn’t look the least bit threatening. He adjusted his glasses and said, “Who are you? Did you cause these earthquakes? Did someone send you?”

She still didn’t speak, just backed up very slowly.

Aaron took a few steps toward her.

Suddenly, she cried out—a sudden, pained shriek, and clapped a hand to one ear. “Don’t!” she screamed. “Stay back!”

There was an odd quality to her voice. A kind of echo that shook through him to the bone. “Who are you?” he asked, taking another, slower step.

She shook her head, and thrust one hand out at him, still cringing. “You,” she said, “are too loud.”

“What?” He swallowed, and spoke in a whisper. “My voice? Are you—” How did he ask about powers, without sounding crazy? Without giving himself away? “Look, I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to—”

“Shut up!” she yelled, slamming her fist against the row of lockers.

It echoed.

20612

She flattened her hand against the locker, pushing against it with an aggressive snarl. A shiver ran through the metal, rippling the surface like liquid waves. Aaron felt the vibration—through his feet, then the air, combined with a noise like an army of air rifles popping all around his ears. It took a second to fully realize what was happening, and by then the floor was rumbling under his feet.

Get out. It was the only thought that could materialize through the chaos, and he acted on it. He held his breath, pushed everything he had left into his power, and ran.

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