Villainous, p.4

Villainous, page 4

 

Villainous
 


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  “Hey, it’s no picnic,” said Daniel. “Not Mollie, I mean, but the summer school part is about as much fun as you’d think.”

  “Yeah,” said Eric, “but you two are together, like, almost every day.”

  “What’s your point?” said Daniel.

  Eric shrugged as if there was no point, but of course there was. Or else why bring it up?

  “Eh, I’d get sick of Daniel too,” said Rohan. “I’m already sick of him and I haven’t been here more than a couple of hours.”

  “You should have stayed underwater, then,” suggested Daniel.

  “Better company down there,” said Rohan.

  The boys went on ribbing each other for a while, but through it all, Daniel’s thoughts kept coming back to Mollie. He’d remembered what his dad had suggested, about offering to tutor her, and if he was serious about wanting her to pass history, then she needed his help. But Mollie always made things so difficult, and today was a prime example. They couldn’t even talk about earrings without her flying off angry. Not to mention that if he agreed to do this it would mean devoting an extra hour or two every day after school to the books. It would mean even more summer hours lost.

  Louisa. Mollie. Girls in general gave him a headache these days, and Daniel decided that the best cure would be to clear his mind of them entirely. And luckily he knew something that would work better than aspirin. He could just reach the bridge trellis without having to swim to it. Grabbing hold, he swung his legs over to the bottom rung and began to climb it like a ladder.

  Daniel passed the jump mark, a spot arbitrarily designated by his friends as being a safe but fun place to do a cannonball into the pool below. He kept on climbing until he reached the very top, the diving platform. In reality it was just a few boards nailed to the trellis to provide a place to stand, but it served its purpose. Daniel took a couple of steps back from the edge, breathed in deeply through his nose, and smelled the water, the tang of fresh air, and growing things. And beneath it all, the tar of the road above him. Down at the bottom Eric was lying out on the rocks and Rohan had taken his snorkel back underwater. Daniel would have to be careful not to land on him.

  He was just starting to prepare his dive when he heard a girl laugh behind him.

  “Mollie—” he began, but couldn’t finish, because he was interrupted with a rough push.

  He threw out his arms to get his balance, but when he stepped out to steady himself, there was nothing except air beneath his foot, and he tripped off the high diving platform. Instead of cutting through the surface in a graceful dive, he hit the water flat on his chest.

  It felt like he’d been slammed with a board. Panicked and disoriented by his tumbling fall, Daniel swallowed a mouthful of water as he sank. He tried to swim, to kick himself back to the surface, but he had trouble moving. He wanted to breathe, he needed to breathe, but he didn’t even know which way was up.

  Then someone else was there. An arm wrapped around his middle and he felt someone pulling him. He added his own kicks to theirs, and soon they’d broken the surface together. Daniel took a deep gulp of air. It felt like he’d never breathed before.

  “Swim, Daniel!” someone was shouting into his ear. “I can’t hold you up!”

  Daniel looked over to see Mollie’s sputtering face next to his. Her chin was barely cresting the water.

  Then Eric was there hauling both of them out, his powerful hands grabbing hold of theirs.

  The three landed on the bank in a heap, and for a few minutes no one said anything. Mollie lay on the rocks catching her breath while Daniel coughed up some greenish water. Rohan knelt nearby, and even Michael had returned from the skies. They all looked concerned.

  Daniel peered down at his chest—there was no need to worry about a sunburn today; he was already bright red from where he’d smacked into the water. It hurt simply to breathe.

  “What …,” he said, wincing with the effort of sitting up. “What did you think you were doing? You could’ve killed me, Mollie!”

  Mollie stared at him, her wet hair having come loose from its ponytail and now plastered across her face. It didn’t hide her look of shock, however.

  “Me? I was saving your life! What was that you did anyway, a belly flop?”

  Daniel felt his blood rising. Maybe he’d been less than sensitive about her new fashion statement, but she really could have hurt him. Killed him even.

  He pointed a finger in her face.

  “You pushed me. Don’t deny it, because I heard you.”

  Mollie blinked at him. “I didn’t. I wouldn’t. Not from up there. I’m not homicidal, Daniel.”

  Daniel looked to his friends. They were watching him with stares of outright disbelief. He glanced back toward the bridge, at the diving platform up top. Could he have just lost his balance? Had he mistaken a simple gust of wind for Mollie and missed his footing when he turned to look at her? But today was one of those summer days where the heat and humidity just hang over everything, unmoving. There hadn’t been so much as a breeze across the water all afternoon.

  “It wasn’t me,” said Mollie. “I promise.”

  “I … I heard laughing,” Daniel said. “Before I fell, I mean. There was a strong wind, like someone was flying by me, and then a girl laughed, so I thought you were, you know, goofing around.”

  Mollie shook her head.

  “Did you hear anything, Rohan?” Eric asked.

  “No. I was underwater, though. All I heard were bubbles— Wait.” Rohan had closed his eyes and put his finger over his mouth to signal quiet. He was listening for something.

  “We’re not alone,” he whispered.

  Then they all heard it. A girl’s laughter echoing through the woods somewhere nearby. It was a mocking, ugly laugh.

  “There’s more than one,” said Rohan. “I hear heartbeats.”

  Eric rose off the ground and peered into the woods. “Who’s there?” he asked, but there was no answer.

  “That’s weird,” said Rohan. “I can’t … Huh. They’re gone.”

  “Well, we can still catch them,” said Mollie, and she jumped into the air alongside Eric.

  “Wait!” said Rohan. “They’re not running away. They’re gone.”

  “Gone?” asked Daniel. “As in disappeared?”

  Rohan nodded. “It was the strangest thing. I heard heartbeats beneath that girl’s voice—several sets—and then nothing.… Hey, do you guys smell smoke?”

  They didn’t, but everyone knew better than to doubt Rohan’s senses.

  “I’ll take a look,” said Michael, and flew high into the sky.

  While he was gone, Eric kept his eyes on the trees. “What do you think’s going on?” he whispered to Daniel.

  “I think …,” said Daniel, rubbing his raw chest. That would hurt for days. “I think we need to remember you all aren’t the only Supers in town anymore.”

  “Guys!” called Michael, appearing once again over their heads. “We’ve got trouble!”

  Daniel held on to Eric, and Michael lifted Rohan as they floated up above the trees to get a better look. Michael was pointing to a patch of forest near Mount Noble. A thick, curling tendril of black smoke was rising from the trees.

  “Is that …?” asked Daniel, squinting at the distant smoke.

  “It’s the tree fort,” said Rohan, confirming Daniel’s fears. “The tree fort is on fire.”

  Chapter Four

  Those Kids

  If not for all the recent storms, the fire might have eaten up a good portion of the forest, but luckily the moist undergrowth and low winds slowed the spread of the flames. The fire trucks arrived in time to contain the conflagration to the tree fort and a patch of the surrounding woods.

  The tree fort. Generations of memories in a makeshift museum dedicated to the Supers, its collection made up of crayon drawings and yellowing comics, and it was all gone. Nothing was left but blackened nails and charcoal. The official report would lay the blame on teenagers shooting b
ottle rockets into the woods, but Daniel and his friends had their own suspicions. Someone had pushed Daniel off the Tangle Creek Bridge, and it was an awfully big coincidence that the tree fort should mysteriously catch fire the very same day.

  But who besides the original Supers even knew about the tree fort? And who could have been at the bridge one minute, only to disappear the next? So far the sole clue they had was the laughing girl, and that wasn’t much to go on.

  In the meantime, the Supers began to rebuild, and Daniel became Mollie’s tutor. Every day after school, Daniel would cross the street to her house and the two of them would recap what they’d learned in that day’s lesson, while Mollie’s mom kept them well supplied with snacks. Only this time he’d make sure to go fast enough that Mollie could keep up. It was kind of like reverse logic—he spoke quickly, never explained anything more than once, and never paused for questions. Mollie complained that even this was like watching a movie in slow motion, but at least she managed to sit still long enough to follow what he was saying.

  They fell into a kind of routine, and one that wasn’t altogether terrible despite their summer imprisonment. After about a week or so, Daniel even began to look forward to his study sessions with Mollie. The actual book work would be finished fairly quickly, thanks to Mollie’s knack for speed, and then they’d spend the rest of the time sharing the Mr. Smiley jokes that they hadn’t been able to in class.

  Thanks to Daniel’s afternoon tutelage, Mollie scored a solid C on the midterm, and felt confident that she’d manage to pass the final. Sitting still long enough to complete a final exam was always going to be tough for her, but at least it was doable. And what’s more, she seemed honestly grateful for all of Daniel’s help, and even offered to treat him to a movie one day after school. Mollie loved horror movies, not so much because she liked to be scared, but mostly because she liked to yell at the people in the movie when they did something stupid. This evening’s selection was particularly gruesome, and Daniel had to close his eyes through much of it, but Mollie was happy to fill him in with her own narration:

  “Now Jerk-Face is going up the stairs alone even though Bubble-Gum-Brain Girlfriend begged him not to.” Mollie never bothered to learn the characters’ names. It was more fun to make up her own.

  “And?” Daniel asked, his face safely hidden behind his hands. “Is he going to get it?”

  “Not yet,” she answered. “Stupid Jerk-Face’s flashlight just went out … and now he keeps on walking through the dark instead of turning around. GO CALL THE POLICE, YOU MORON!”

  “Mollie, he can’t hear you.”

  “Oh! Now he got it. Ew, ax to the head. And cut to Bubble-Gum-Brain Girlfriend calling up the stairs. No answer. She’s trying the light switch, but it doesn’t work, so she starts to climb the steps too. God, where do they find these people?”

  “They’re called actors, Mollie.”

  “This movie would be smarter if it starred monkeys.”

  “You chose it.”

  “THIS MOVIE WOULD BE SMARTER IF IT STARRED MONKEYS! Oh, she’s dead now too.”

  Mollie’s narration would usually go on until the credits rolled or they were asked to leave, whichever came first. The theater had been empty this evening except for them, so they’d stuck it out until the very end. By the time they walked out, Daniel felt queasy from all the soda and popcorn he’d ingested, and maybe a little bit from all the blood.

  Outside the theater, they stretched as they peered up at the burnt sky. Late summer sunsets always managed to surprise Daniel. He enjoyed them, though, and the long days felt like such a victory after those dark Pennsylvania winters. He checked his phone—eight o’clock and the sun was just above the trees in the west. Easily an hour’s worth of daylight left.

  “I wonder what the others are doing tonight,” said Daniel.

  “No idea,” answered Mollie.

  “Didn’t they say?”

  “I didn’t talk to them.”

  “Oh?” said Daniel. “I figured they’d want to see the movie too.”

  “I didn’t invite them,” said Mollie.

  “Oh,” said Daniel. Mollie didn’t invite them. He’d just assumed she’d sent them a text or something; it hadn’t occurred to him that she might not even ask them along. Or why.

  Huh.

  Mollie took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Wow, the air feels wonderful tonight, doesn’t it?”

  It did. The hot air still lingered, but as the sun sank lower, it was less oppressive. After they’d sat in the air-conditioned theater for two hours, the heat actually felt good. It made Daniel’s skin tingle.

  “You know,” he said, “I’ve got my bike. So if you want to fly on home, that’s cool. Bet it’s a good evening for a flight.”

  “No, I’d rather walk with you.”

  “Okay.”

  It wasn’t far from the movie theater to their neighborhood, maybe twenty minutes by bike, but if Mollie wanted to walk part of the way, Daniel wasn’t going to argue. It really was turning out to be a nice night, and as long as he was home by his nine o’clock curfew, his parents wouldn’t mind him taking the long way home.

  “Daniel?” Mollie said.

  “Yeah, Mol?”

  “Have you talked to Louisa yet?”

  At the mention of Louisa’s name, Daniel bumped his shin against his bike pedal and nearly tripped. If he could manage not to crash over something every time somebody said Louisa, that would be a good thing.

  “Uh, no. I haven’t talked to her.”

  “She’s been back for a week. Don’t you think you’d better?”

  “I will, I just … Hey, what exactly are we talking about?”

  Mollie stopped walking and stood with her hands on her hips. “C’mon, Daniel, everyone knows what happened between you two last year.”

  Daniel resisted the urge to hop on his bike and flee. It would be useless, though. There was no outrunning Mollie Lee. “Everyone, huh?” he asked.

  “Louisa’s not one for secrets,” said Mollie. “Plus, Rose has been telling everyone that you and Louisa are getting married.”

  “Oh my God!” said Daniel. “Is that what Louisa’s been saying too?”

  “Not exactly,” said Mollie. “But you did kiss her.”

  “She kissed me! I mean, I guess it was more fifty-fifty, but still …”

  “So, are you guys dating or what?”

  “No! I mean, I don’t really know. I guess. I don’t think so.”

  Daniel concentrated on keeping his bike steady as he walked it along the gravel median—it gave him something to focus on. Everyone knew about the kiss, and they’d known for a while now. People were assuming he and Louisa were a couple. Daniel felt a deep flush spreading across his cheeks.

  “So?” Mollie asked again. “What are you going to say to her?”

  “I don’t know!” snapped Daniel. “I honestly was hoping that if I left it alone, she’d forget about it and we could just move on. I mean it was only one kiss, right?”

  “God, Daniel!” said Mollie. “You know, I thought those idiot boys in the movie were bad, but I’m starting to think they didn’t do you all justice. Dumber than monkeys!”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “You need to decide, Daniel, and it’s got to be clear, okay? Are you two just friends, or are you more than that? She needs to know.”

  Mollie stepped in front of him, making him stop. She looked him in the eyes, her face unreadable. “And she’s not the only one,” she said. “So make up your mind, New Kid.”

  Then she was gone. One second there, the next nothing but a scattering of dust and wind blowing by. She didn’t even say goodbye.

  Fine, Daniel thought. If she wanted to fly home, why hadn’t she done so earlier? He’d told her she could go after all.

  But that wasn’t why she’d taken off, and Daniel knew it. There was something else going on here. For some reason his relationship with Louisa was a huge concern for Moll
ie. Louisa was Mollie’s friend, and maybe Mollie was just looking out for her, but Daniel and Louisa had shared their kiss months ago, so why wait until now? What business was it of Mollie’s anyway?

  Boys might be monkeys, but girls were from a different plane of existence, someplace where the rules of logic were backward. Bizarro world.

  Daniel decided to get off the main road and bike through the center of town. He still had plenty of time before dark, and honestly he could use the long ride to clear his head. As he turned his bike onto Main Street, he saw the red flashing lights of a police car up ahead—an unusual sight for Noble’s Green. A small crowd had gathered outside Mr. Lemon’s soda shop. It was a mix of concerned-looking locals and a few tourists snapping pictures of the shop with their cell phones.

  As Daniel pulled up, he saw what they were looking at. Someone had rearranged the neon letters above Happy Hero’s Ice Cream Parlor! to spell HI Poopy!

  Daniel started to laugh until he caught a glimpse of old Mr. Lemon standing off to one side, his face buried in his hands. Daniel biked a little closer and now saw that it wasn’t just the sign that had been damaged. The whole front window of the shop had been shattered, and the street outside was littered with cartons of melting ice cream. Inside, stools were smashed, the counter was broken, and everything that hadn’t been bolted down was overturned. The place looked like it had been torn inside out.

  Daniel slowed to a stop. He thought about asking Mr. Lemon what had happened, but the man was in such a state that Daniel decided it was best not to bother him. Sheriff Simmons was talking to him, trying to get him to calm down.

  “But, I’m telling you, I was only gone for five minutes!” Mr. Lemon was saying, his voice raw and cracking. “I left to deposit the day’s till at the bank, and I heard this crash.”

  “Mr. Lemon,” the sheriff said, in the same tone you might use on a hysterical child. “It had to have been longer than that. The extent of the damage … I mean no one could do that in just five minutes.…”

  “Bet one of those kids could,” someone said.

  “Yeah,” said another. “Who knows what they’re capable of, really? Fly, do all sorts of crazy things.”

 
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