Town was creepy at night.
It was always a little weird, since everything shut down around nine and the only two stop lights in town switched to a single blinking yellow light. But with the addition of blown-out windows and the abandoned cars, it looked more like a set from the zombie apocalypse. Lucia kept expecting someone to lurch out of one of the dark storefronts and moan at them.
“I wonder if my power could sense zombies,” she said.
“Huh? What’s that?” Aaron said, rising out of whatever daydream he’d been caught in.
“Nothing. Which shop did you say it was?”
“Walker’s Drugstore,” Aaron said, waving his flashlight down the sidewalk. “The white building on the end of the street. Did you say you could sense someone?”
“Nah, it’s pretty much empty. I think there are some squirrels or cats or something running around.”
As they reached the pharmacy, they slowed. Lucia pulled her senses in, focusing her attention on the white-brick building on the corner of the road. One of the windows had been boarded up, and a closed sign hung crookedly on the door. As they got closer, something flickered on the edge of her perception that definitely was not a cat. Or a zombie. It radiated tension and fear.
“There’s definitely someone there,” she whispered, drawing level with the door. “Don’t know if it’s your girl.”
“Try the door.”
To her surprise, it opened easily. She edged it open, training her senses on the presence inside the store in case whoever it belonged to bolted or attacked. When the door was far enough open, she slipped inside, holding the door for Aaron to come behind her.
The inside of the store was dark. The only light came from the streetlights outside, which cast a beam of silvery light through the plexiglass window in the door. “In the back,” she whispered to Aaron, pointing toward the furthest corner. A dim light flickered through the cracks around the storeroom.
Together, they made their way through the dark store, carefully picking over spilled makeup, pill bottles, and past broken shelves.
“Don’t startle her,” Aaron said as they came close. “I don’t want to start another earthquake.”
“Yeah, thanks for the tip, Captain Obvious,” Lucia said.
“Let me go first. She might recognize me.”
“Sure that’s a good thing?”
“Not really,” he said under his breath, but he stepped past her anyway, and pushed the door open.
The girl was waiting for him.
She must have heard them coming. Aaron spotted her shadow behind the supply pallet, a box knife in one hand. Her other trembled where it lay against the concrete floor.
“Wait!” Aaron said. We’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl stayed crouched in that defensive position, hands half-curled in front of her like she was trying to decide whether to punch someone or run.
“You,” she said. It wasn’t a threat, exactly, but it wasn’t benign either. “What do you want? Are you with them?”
“With who?” Aaron said, but Lucia had taken a step past him, radiating as much calm as she could muster.
“Hey, can we just talk a second?” she said. “I’m Lucia.” She held out her hand, keeping her elbow bent and loose and her body as relaxed as possible.
The girl stared at it like a snake.
After a long, long few seconds, she said, “Tara.” But she didn’t take the hand.
Lucia dropped it, and tucked both hands into her pockets. “Where are you from, Tara?”
The girl’s mouth twitched. “Somewhere else.”
“Are you hungry? I brought some bread with me.” Lucia pulled a plastic bag out of her purse. Tara’s eyes widened. Her nostrils flared at the faint scent of buttery cinnamon escaping from the bag. She started to reach a hand toward it, but snatched it back quickly.
“What do you want?” she asked again.
“We want to help you,” Lucia said. “We’re like you. Let me show you.” She offered her hand again, palm up.
Tara glanced toward the door, her wild hair shadowing her face while she considered flight. Then, hesitantly, she turned back to Lucia and slowly reached out a hand. Her fingers brushed against Lucia’s skin.
The fear almost overwhelmed her. Lucia staggered as it hit her—terror mixed with pain, loneliness and gut-wrenching hunger. A second later, the girl broke contact. With a snarl, she hurled the knife at Lucia. Just as quick, Aaron blurred between them, snatching the knife out of the air.
Tara screamed. “Stop it!” she shouted at him. “Stop doing that!”
The ground trembled underneath them.
“Don’t!” Aaron said. “We’re not going to—”
The girl screamed again, then turned and held her hand out toward the back door. The rumbling shifted, growing in pitch. Concrete shattered in front of her hand toward the wall, and the door flew off its hinges with a shriek. Tara bolted through the hole.
“Wait!” Aaron started, but Lucia held him back.
“We can’t risk another quake!” she shouted.
Tara only glanced back once, fear and suspicion rolling off her, before sprinting around the corner and out of sight.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Lucia said.
Aaron nodded dumbly, staring at the hole. Then he sighed. “How am I supposed to find her now?”
* * * * *
“I’m glad you could help out today,” Mom said, handing Brennan a bag of dog food off the top shelf. “Be careful lifting that. Just set it down on the floor.”
“It’s fine, Mom. It’s not that heavy,” Brennan said, laying the bag with the others on the handcart. “Do you need any more down?”
“No, I think this should be enough.” She climbed off the stepladder and dusted her hands. “Whew, that’s been in storage for a minute,” she said. “I can’t believe how fast we’re going through this. No, let me,” she said as Brennan started to push the heavy cart.
“I’m not going to break,” he said. “I can push a cart without hurting myself.”
“I know,” she said. “But orders are to take it easy, so I will push the cart.”
Brennan rolled his eyes, but did as she said, shoving his hands in his pockets and following her out of storage.
The animal rescue was a small place—a mostly volunteer nonprofit that tried to save as many animals as possible from going to the county shelter. In between musical performances, Tori Haley worked here as a vet technician. Since the earthquake, she’d been here pretty much nonstop.
“She’s so good with those puppies,” Mom said, gazing out the window into the play yard. Lucia sat in the grassy middle, surrounded by a litter of tiny puppies all vying for her attention.
“Yeah,” he said. He couldn’t help the smile. “She loves animals.” Brennan knew she could sense animals to an extent, but it was much dimmer than her sense of people, and less chaotic.
“Does she want one?”
“One of the puppies,” Mom said, nodding toward her again. “Hank Jenkins found them last night under an abandoned car. No one’s claimed them and by the state of them, I don’t think anyone will.”
“Where’s the mother?”
“Don’t know,” she said. “Hank said that he watched for a while to see if she’d turn up, but she never did.” She must have caught Brennan’s troubled expression because she smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll get them healthy and adopted out in no time. Puppies are the easy ones.”
Adopted out. The casual way she said it caused a pang in his chest. “Right,” Brennan said, still staring at the window.
When he didn’t follow her, she turned back. “Bren? What is it?”
“Nothing. I just—” He stopped, frowning. He wasn’t sure how to articulate what he was feeling. He leaned on the windowsill, watching the puppies clamber over Lucia’s knees. “I’ve just been…thinking. About where I came from. About my, you know, biological parents. Not that I—you know—it’s just… I wouldn’t want anything to be different. But sometimes I wonder what they were like.” If they were like me. “Why they didn’t want us.”
“Brennan, there are lots of things that could have happened.”
“I know. I know all that,” he said. But I don’t know what those things were. And what would have happened to us, if you hadn’t—”
“But we did.” She left the cart to lay both hands on his shoulders. “And we didn’t adopt you and Ivy because we felt sorry for you. We wanted you. And nothing that happened was your fault. Okay?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry for how you feel.” She gave him a brief hug. “You can tell me anything, Brennan.”
“Right,” Brennan said. But her reassurances only dredged up a new guilt. After everything they’d done for him, he’d lied and put his life in danger, and put Ivy in danger, and then lied again to cover it up.
“Why don’t you go out with Lucia and help her get those pups cleaned up?” Mom said. “Nothing’s going to cheer you up like taking care of a puppy.”
* * * * *
Lucia’s grin faded when Brennan came out in the courtyard. Great, what did I do now?
“Hey,” he said, sitting on the grass beside her.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Lucia said, holding up a puppy. “Want a snuggle?”
“Sure.” He tucked the puppy in the crook of his arm and stroked its soft ears. Immediately, two of its siblings tried to climb their way up his arm. He did his best to make room for all of them. “Should we name them?” Brennan said, holding up one that was black except for two white smudges on his front feet.
“Not you,” Lucia said, taking the puppy back. “You suck at names. You named your dog Rocket.”
“Rocket’s a good name for a dog!” Brennan insisted.
“Only for a six-year-old.”
“I was six when we named her. Anyway, I’d like to see you do better.”
“Fine then,” Lucia said. She grabbed a random puppy and looked him in the eyes. “You look like a lump of peanut butter brittle,” she told it. “I’m gonna call you Marzipan. That white one can be Sugarcane and the black one over there is Midnight Fudge.”
“That’s better than Rocket?” Brennan asked incredulously. “Or are you having a blood sugar episode?”
“Oh, sure, blame everything on my blood sugar!” Despite the sarcasm, Brennan caught a hint of real annoyance in her voice.
Brennan took the puppy and set it on the grass. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Her false effusiveness vanished. She sighed. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice for a little longer.” She wrinkled her nose. “Promise you won’t be mad when I tell you?”
“Should I be?”
She grimaced. “Aaron and I… went for a little walk last night.”
“Lucia!” he groaned.
“We didn’t do anything dangerous!” she insisted. “Aaron thought he had an idea where earthquake girl was hiding out.”
“And you went to confront her? Without telling anyone else?”
“‘Confront’ is kind of a strong word…but yes.” Lucia shrugged. “Aaron didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He wasn’t even sure she’d be there, and he didn’t want to scare her if she was.”
“That’s not an excuse!”
“Would you rather me let him go alone?”
“That’s not the point!”
Both of them stared at each other for a minute, brimming with anger, until Lucia sighed. “Can we not fight, for once?” she said. “I’m sorry, okay? You’re right. We should have let you know. But I didn’t think it would be dangerous.”
“Was it what?”
Lucia dropped her gaze toward the grass. That was answer enough, but he managed to swallow back the lecture. It wouldn’t do anything except make her angrier.
“Did you find her?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lucia said. “But she startled and ran off.”
“I managed to touch her first.” Lucia pursed her lips, stroking the puppy in her arms. “She’s scared. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. It was all fear.”
Before Brennan could come up with a response, the door to the courtyard opened and Molly stormed in. Her short hair was wild and frazzled and her cheeks were red from the wind. The grumpy expression on her face melted when she saw the puppies. “Oh my god, they’re adorable!” she said, kneeling in the grass beside them. She scooped one of the dogs into her arms and rubbed his ears with delight. “Look at the little fuzzball!” “Aw! Midnight Fudge likes you!” Lucia said as the puppy nibbled her hand.
“That’s not going to be his name,” Brennan said. “We’re not naming the whole bunch of them after your sugar craving.”
“Well, this one’s still Marzipan.” Lucia held the brown puppy protectively in her hands. “And she’s mine!”
“I’m okay with naming them after sweets,” said Molly. “But he looks more like a piece of black licorice. Or an Oreo. His underside is all white like cream filling.”
Brennan gave up. “I can’t believe I’m outnumbered,” he muttered. But it was without much real annoyance. He had a couple of the puppies clambering into his lap now, and he found it a very effective form of therapy.
“So,” Lucia said, “turning to Molly with a look of expectation. “What’s wrong?
Molly’s hand stilled against the puppy’s fur, and her brief elation evaporated. With a dark glower at the grass, she said. “I had a visit last night….from my grandmother.”
Fear jolted through him, so intense it felt almost physical.
“What?” he said, at the same time Lucia said, “You mean Avalon?” On the outside, she seemed calm, almost like they were talking about an unexpected substitute teacher. He wondered if she felt as panicked as he did. The sideways glances she kept giving him meant she know how well he was handling things. Damn her empathy. He swallowed and focused on slowing his breathing.
Molly stroked the puppy absently a few times, seemingly unaware that it had started to gnaw at her knuckles. “She was waiting for me when I got home.”
“Are you okay?” Brennan asked, licking his lips against sudden dryness. “Did she hurt you? Threaten you?”
“No,” Molly said. “No, she just wanted to talk. She even tried to apologize. But she sucks at it.”
“Did she bring pie?” Lucia asked. “I would have brought pie. That’s the best way to apologize. ‘Sorry I tried to kill your friends and blow up the whole town. Have a pie.’”
“No pie,” Molly said. “Just lots of ‘I didn’t intend’ and ‘only I can help you’ and so on.”
“Why didn’t you call the rest of us?” Brennan asked. Why does nobody ever call?
“She just showed up. I didn’t have time.”
“What did she want?” Lucia asked.
“She wants to use us,” Molly said. “She wants us to help her break into Lartech for her.”
Lucia snorted. “Why would we help her after everything she did?”
“She seems to think we can get over that. Mutual interests or something. I told her to get lost,” Molly added defensively, maybe noticing the growing anger on both their faces. “But I have a feeling she’s not going to let it go that easily.”
“Well, your granny can eat dirt,” Lucia said. “Making an apology visit with no baked goods is just rude.”
This elicited a brief smile from Molly, but it faded quickly. “I wasn’t sure if it was safe to call you. She said she’s been watching me, and after what she’s done, I wouldn’t put it past her to have my phones hacked, or to be following me today.”
“I’d say you were paranoid,” Brennan said. “But I kind of agree with you.”
“Besides, I wasn’t sure what to think. By now, I kind of hoped she’d decided to leave us alone. Her showing up was…unexpected” She leaned back on her arms and closed her eyes.
“This is not good,” Lucia said.
“No, I mean it’s really not good,” Lucia said. “I was telling Brennan about…um…well, you see..-Aaron and I ran into our friend Earthshaker.”
“That’s not what we’re calling her, is it?” Molly said doubtfully. “I know you guys are into code names, but—”
“Her name’s Tara,” Lucia said. “That’s about all we got before she ran.” Lucia recounted for Molly everything she’d told Brennan. Shaking her head, she added: “When I say she was scared, I mean she was terrified. Desperate beyond reason. She’s living in survival mode, running and hiding…And I got the feeling she was running from someone. Someone specific, I mean.”
“Avalon?” Molly asked.
“Maybe.” Lucia shrugged. “I’d have to actually have a conversation with her, with words and so on. But it makes all this more precarious. If your grandmother is after her, we need to find her first.” She gave Marzipan a squeeze and shifted her feet under her to stand. “Come on, Superpup,” she said. “Time to assemble the team.”