Less Than Heroic: Chapter One

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1

It’s Just Water

 

Her fist hit hard enough to bruise. The heavy bag barely moved, and she punched it again, funneling her frustration into the rhythm of her fists and the solid thwack thwack as each blow connected.

You could show him a little mercy,” Sensei Roberts said. “He can’t fight back, you know.”

Molly ceased her assault and wiped a hand across the beaded sweat on her forehead. “When he taps out, I’ll let him go.”

The other students had all quit and were changing, packing up, or just hanging out along the benches of the dojo. Molly glanced toward them with a twinge of jealous regret before giving the bag another halfhearted punch.

Is everything all right?” Sensei asked.

I’m fine,” she said, avoiding his eyes. Lying had become a habit, lately. A necessary one, but she didn’t like doing it. Molly twisted open her water bottle, fingers still tingling from the impact.

Have you given any more thought to the tournament?” he asked. “You still have a few days to sign up.”

She thought about the last time she’d competed. It had been fun. Exciting. And the challenge had driven her, helped her focus–right up until she lost control and almost broken someone’s clavicle. No. Competition wasn’t a good idea. “I don’t think so,” she said.

Let me know if you change your mind,” he said. “Or if you need anything else.” His attention lingered on her for a moment, accompanied by a slight frown. Then he moved on, speaking quietly to another student.

By the time Molly changed clothes, the dojo was almost empty. Marcus and Brianna were idling by the door, and by Marcus’s grin, he’d finally started to win her over. They looked up at her approach.

Hey, Molly,” Brianna said. “We’re gonna head down the street for some frozen yogurt. Want to come?”

She almost said yes. Part of her desperately wanted to. But the person she was and the person she wanted to be…

I’ve got to get home,” she said. “Dad wants me back by nine, so um…” It wasn’t strictly a lie. He expected her home immediately, but he would be fine—ecstatic, probably—if she chose to do something social instead of getting in trouble again. “Maybe next time?”

Yeah, definitely,” Marcus said, opening the door for her. A rush of cool, humid air billowed through the door. “Looks like it’s finally starting to rain.”

Molly stepped up beside him. As they watched, the light drizzle became a downpour, drenching the sidewalk and blowing stray droplets through the door.

Be careful, her father would say. The rain makes you reckless.

Wow,” Brianna said, peering past her. “Do you need a ride, M? It’s coming down pretty hard.”

But Molly smiled, throwing her hood over her head. She stepped into the torrent and resisted the urge to laugh. “It’s just water,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

#

Halfway down the street, her phone went off in her pocket. She fished it out to see a half dozen missed messages. All were from her father: variations on call me and where are you, even though he knew perfectly well class always ran late.

She called back, tucking the phone under the hood of her jacket and pressing it against her ear to tune out the onslaught of rain.

Where are you?” he asked immediately.

Hi, Dad,” she said. “I’m fine, how are you?”

He ignored the sarcasm. “I’ve been trying to call you,” he said. “Class was over half an hour ago, M.”

It ran late,” she said. “I’m on the way home, okay?”

What’s that noise? Are you…oh, great. It’s raining.”

It’s just water. Don’t tell me you’re worried about me getting wet?”

You know exactly what I’m worried about, Molly Young,” he said. “The rain makes you reckless.” He paused a moment, and let out a long sigh. “Stay out of trouble, okay?”

The station’s right around the corner.”

It’s just…” He hesitated. “The police are out. Looking for Azure.”

Molly looked up, sharply. That explained it. Dad had more cause than most to worry, even when he wasn’t listening to the police scanner. They’d blamed some break-in downtown on Azure, looking for an excuse to waste extra manpower on finding her. And if Dad had been listening to a manhunt and worrying where she was…

Ahead, she could see the subway station, two police cars parked in front of it. Lights off, but at least one officer out of the car. Questioning people. Molly halted from a safe distance, fear tightening her chest. Relax, she told herself. They aren’t here for you. But she turned away, shoving her hands in her pockets and hunching her shoulders to hide herself from view.

Just don’t do anything reckless, M,” her father was saying. “Promise me.”

Sure,” she said. “Promise. See you at home.”

See you at home,” he said.

Molly thrust the phone back into her pocket and stalked down the street, frustrated all over again. It wasn’t as if any of it had been her fault. Except… Dad was right: the rain made her reckless. And she had that secret, the one she wasn’t supposed to talk about, the one she couldn’t show anyone. And it itched at her, built up inside her like a restless wave of energy. Sooner or later she’d give into it.

A police siren sounded behind her. Molly whirled, her hand in a fist, as a cruiser hurtled past, lights flashing. Only after it sped around the corner did she realize she had drawn the rainwater to her hand, and it swirled around her clenched fist in an orb.

Relax, she told herself, releasing the water. It splashed into the gutter. It was fine. They were after Azure, not a teenage girl. They’d never gotten a good look at her. Besides a few vague descriptions and crappy smart phone videos, they didn’t know who they were looking for.

Still, it was better to be cautious.

She started walking again, at a brisker pace. There was another subway station three blocks down. It wouldn’t take long to walk, and it was better to avoid trouble.

#

It only took two blocks before she ran into more.

Molly kept her hood up and her arms huddled across her jacket, so concerned with her anonymity she almost didn’t notice the dark figures skulking by a shuttered convenience store. As they glanced her way, she tensed for a fight, but they weren’t after her. They moved before she reached them, falling in behind one of the few lonely pedestrians hurrying through the rain.

Molly hung back, feeling absurdly disappointed that they hadn’t tried to pick a fight with her. The rain makes you reckless, her father had said, and he was right. This was the kind of thing that got her in trouble.

But something about the way they walked bothered her.

They were young, late high-school or college. Both were tall, but one was lean and muscled and the other was just large. The large one had cut the arms of his jacket, and the frayed edges of a red t-shirt stretched across his bulky arms. Either might have passed for a casual pedestrian, except for the aggressive hunch of their shoulders and their too-fast stride. They flanked the figure in front of them, matching his pace at a distance, like cats stalking a wayward mouse.

So when they followed him around a corner, Molly faltered. She glanced toward the subway station at the end of the block, rain soaking through her jacket as she hesitated. Then, with a sigh and a silent apology to her dad, she turned to follow them.

Their target was a lanky, awkward looking guy, maybe a college student, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a book bag stuffed so full the zipper was tearing free. He must have sensed his pursuers, because he sped up, gripping the straps of his backpack with both hands. The stalkers hurried in response, and soon they were running full speed, chasing the kid down the narrow street.

Redshirt reached him first. He collided with the kid’s shoulder, shoving him bodily toward his partner, who caught his shirt and flung him into the alley. He fell hard on the asphalt, his overfull backpack ripping open. Textbooks spilled across the wet pavement.

Don’t get involved, Molly thought. Call the police. The rain makes you reckless.

Molly edged forward, slipping her fingers into her jacket pocket. The cold edges of her phone pressed against her palm. Just call the police. She’d pulled it halfway out when she drew level with the alleyway.

Redshirt had the boy in a headlock, laughing as the boy tried to break free. His friend rifled through the backpack, throwing aside the contents with a sneer. Notebooks and dog-eared paperbacks scattered the ground, soaking in the rain.

Call the police. The rain makes you reckless.

A surge of anger and adrenaline flooded her, drowning out the litany of restraint and reason. Molly dropped the phone and reached for her power.

She touched the raindrops around her, halted them and dispersed them. A dense fog billowed around her, cloaking her in cold mist. She pulled her hood low over her forehead and tucked her chin down to hide her face as she stepped into the alley.

Is there a reason you’re harassing my friend?” she asked.

Redshirt tightened his grip on the boy and turned, shielding himself with his victim. His friend whirled, clutching the bag with one hand as the other clenched into a fist. When he saw Molly, his aggression melted into a mocking smile. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said. “This loser a friend of yours?”

Yeah,” she said. “And I’m asking you to leave him alone.”

This is between us, okay?” he said. “Keep walking.”

Just let him go,” Molly said. “You’ve messed with him enough.”

Go home, little girl.”

The police are all over tonight,” she said casually. “I already called them. Let the kid go before they get here.”

Redshirt looked worried, but his buddy laughed. He yanked a wallet out of the backpack and started rifling through it. “Yeah, right. Like the police would care about us. They’re too busy chasing Azure.”

Funny you should mention that.” Molly shifted into a fighting stance and reached for the rainwater pooling around her boots. “I’m not asking anymore.”

A brief silence met her demand as the two thugs exchanged an incredulous glance. The big guy shrugged. The smaller guy pocketed the proceeds of his theft, tossed the wallet aside and lunged toward her.

Molly thrust her arm out, flinging a wave of water into his face. He reared back, clawing at his eyes and nose as he choked on it.

With a growl, Redshirt shoved his victim aside and rushed her, with both fists up. He wasn’t holding back, but his wild swing was all power and no precision. She pivoted under his arm, sweeping her leg into his ankle. As he stumbled, she slammed her elbow against his head. He hit the pavement with a wet smack.

Number one had finally expelled the water from his nose. He shook his wet hair like a dog, and drew a switchblade, flicking it open as he came at her. Molly blocked the strike, snaking her arm around his wrist and twisting it to disarm him before thrusting the heel of her hand into his nose. He stumbled backward, tripping over Redshirt’s prone, groaning form.

The victim blinked at her, wide-eyed. “You—you’re—”

Molly was still searching for a reasponse when she heard sirens wailing. She froze, and glanced toward the road to see a cruiser pulling onto the curb. “Don’t tell them what I look like,” she said. “Please.” She turned, threw her hood over her head, and sprinted down the alley.

#

Okay, this was definitely my fault.

Sounds of pursuit followed her, but Molly was a practiced runner. Plus, she didn’t have to worry about her feet slipping on wet pavement.

It was only a mile to the river. She could escape in the water if she didn’t lose them before she reached it.

One mile, she thought. No problem.

She drew on her power again, using it to gather the water drenching the pavement. She sent it rushing down the hill, forming an inch-deep cascade white-capping along the sidewalk. Molly took a leap and coasted on the water, surfing along the concrete like it was a giant water slide.

Wind rushed past her, and despite the constant low throb of terror, the thrill flushed her with adrenaline. She felt unstoppable.

Right before she heard sirens behind her.

Thrill turned to alarm. Her fog still obscured her, but didn’t make her invisible. She pushed harder at the water, crouching low as she reached breakneck speed.

At the corner, she skated into a turn, taking a side street down the hill. Molly zig-zagged through the narrower, darker streets, avoiding as many sightings as she could. Hopefully, the fog and rain would keep any witnesses from noticing she didn’t have a skateboard under her feet.

The river was close: a huge, slow presence about a quarter of a mile away. She risked a detour onto a wider street, one that led directly to the bridge. In this weather, traffic clogged all four lanes. Any cars searching for her would have trouble chasing her through that mess.

Not far ahead, she could see the first arches of the bridge, its silver sheen washed to iron gray in the rain. She dashed across intersections, dodging through gaps in traffic without slowing. Sirens sounded all around her, and red light flashed through the mist ahead.

They’d barricaded the bridge.

Molly ignored the resistance in her legs, and pushed for one last burst of speed. She careened across the last intersection just ahead of the squad car. She glanced back as it veered around the corner to pursue her. Another cruiser approached from the opposite side of the bridge, swerving across both lanes to block her. Molly skid to a halt, so suddenly her ankle twisted out from under her. She fell hard, scraping her palms on the asphalt. The sudden pain jolted her out of her adrenaline high. Terror washed over her.

Molly, what have you done?! the voice screamed in her ear. She realized suddenly that it was her father’s.

You’re right, Dad, she told it, backing toward the edge of the bridge. The rain makes me reckless.

The cold railing pressed against her back. Far beneath her, the river surged. She climbed over the rail and turned to face it. The water was very, very far down. Molly took a deep breath. Behind her, someone yelled at her to stop.

She jumped.

#

Molly made it home around ten, soaking wet and freezing. By the time she’d climbed from the river, she was too tired to drain the water from her clothes, so she trudged the three miles home drenched and smelling like fish and sewage.

All she wanted to do was take a shower, eat a million slices of pizza, and sleep for five or six days. But when she finally reached the narrow townhouse she shared with her dad, she stopped dead.

Clarissa’s car was parked in the driveway.

Her dad’s fiance was nice enough, but in such an incessantly upbeat way that even a two minute conversation could drive someone to violence. Molly contemplated climbing through a window.

No. Too tired.

She tiptoed up the porch stairs to peek through the door. Clarissa perched on a barstool at the kitchen counter, telling some story while her Dad cut fruit. Her head bounced and bobbed in rhythm with her emphatic hand gestures. It’s like watching a Barbie talk, Molly thought.

Dad glanced up and spotted her, mouth twitching with amusement at her dismay. Shaking his head, he laid the knife down and wiped his hands, saying something inaudible to Clarissa. He gestured to the living room—away from the back door—and she followed him out.

Thank you, Dad! Molly eased the door open and slipped through, dropping her muddy shoes on the tile before hurrying upstairs.

By the time Dad knocked on the door, Molly had showered and changed, and was cleaning the scrapes on her hands. “Come in,” she said.

He frowned as he navigated the piles of dirty clothes toward the bathroom, where he set his hands on his hips and sighed.

Toby Young was a big man, and even though he’d lost some of the muscle from his years on the force, he could lend substantial gravity to a situation just by standing still. “What happened?”

I fell,” she said as she dabbed her thumb with peroxide. “Scraped my hand on the concrete.”

That’s not what I mean, M,” he said. “You were supposed to go to class and come immediately home.”

I know! I did! I meant to! It’s not like I went looking for trouble.”

It’s one block to the subway station. How do you get into trouble in one block?

I—Well– Someone at class said they were looking for Azure, and there were police cars at the station, so I decided to take the long way around. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. And then I ran into these idiots assaulting this guy, and—”

And you should have called the police.”

And I should have called the police,” she agreed, “but I didn’t.” She shoved the peroxide back on the counter and tossed the cottonball into the trash. Her father waited as she stalked back into the bedroom, shoving laundry into piles with agitated energy. “I didn’t think there was time for that, so I took care of it myself. And then the police found us anyway, just after—” She sank to the bed, staring at her knees. Her hands were shaking. “I panicked. I ran. I had to run. There were witnesses.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Did they get a good look at you?” he asked at last.

Molly shook her head. “I don’t think so. It was dark and rainy, and I had my hood up. The victim might have seen my face, but he had rain all over his glasses, so I doubt he can give a good description even if he tries.”

Another long silence. Then he shifted a pile of books from her bed and sat beside her. “You know this means we have to move again.”

It won’t happen again—Dad—”

He raised a hand to silence her. “You can make all the promises you want, but I don’t trust them anymore. You’re reckless, M. You can’t stop yourself.” He let loose a long, weary sigh. “I don’t know what else to do. You know I love you, M&M, but this has gotten so far out of hand. When you were pulling tourists from the river and putting out fires, that was one thing. Now you’re attacking criminals? Running from the police?”

So what do you want me to do?”

Not you. Us. We’re going somewhere different this time. Out of the city, somewhere you’ll be safer.”

What do you mean, somewhere?”

You remember your granddad’s place? The one by the lake?”

Molly frowned as she thought back. “In the town time forgot?”

That’s the one.”

You aren’t serious.”

He left the property to your mother when he died.” Molly started to protest, and he held up both hands to forestall her. “This is my last resort, M&M. We can start over one more time. It this doesn’t work…” He pursed his lips together: she recognized him trying to control the urge to shout at her. “It’s a quiet place, a quiet town. It’s the best chance you’re going to get to start over. Stop looking for trouble. Make friends, be a normal teenager for a while.”

But I’m not normal.”

But you’re going to pretend you are. Otherwise you’re going to get yourself in too much trouble for me to get you out of again. Promise me you can do this.”

What about Clarissa?” she asked. “Her job—”

She’s a blogger, M. She can live anywhere.”

But—”

And until we move, you don’t leave the house alone. I will drive you to school and back, and no going out without a chaperone. Consider yourself grounded for the foreseeable future.” Unexpectedly, he leaned over and put his arm around her shoulder. “This will be good for you,” he said, and squeezed her into a tight hug. “Maybe by the time we moved, you’ll have earned your freedom.”

Earned?”

Yep. Early parole for good behavior. You can start by cleaning your room.”

You never make me clean my room!”

Well, I’m starting. This place is a health hazard.” He made his way across her room, stepping over the mess with exaggerated care. At the door he stopped. “Don’t forget to eat something,” he said. “And do your homework. You’ve still got school in the morning. Night, M.”

Molly groaned and fell backward on the bed. Exhaustion seeped over her like a tide. Just a minute, then I’ll get up. She still had to eat dinner. She closed her eyes. Moments later, she was asleep.

 

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