A high school cheerleader discovers there's more to her future than college when a tragic accident pushes her to be the Super she is.
"Mama, tell Anna-"
"Bry, I don't want to hear it."
Bryony Santos heaved a deeply aggrieved sigh in the second row of seats in the family Chevy Suburban. Her little sister Anna stuck out her tongue from the far back seat, have succeeded in giving Bry a wet willie and gloating where Bry could see her in the rearview mirror. Not that she could do anything about it.
Her younger brother Carlos snickered at her side so she punched him in the arm. He promptly punched her back in the arm, only to yelp when Mama slapped him on the side of the head despite her seat on the front passenger side.
"Carlos, I told you no hitting your sisters."
"No, I mean it. All of you, behave or I swear to God I'll tell your father to turn this car around."
"You mean, we'll go back to Butchart Gardens?" Bry asked, her tone deliberately coy. She gave Carlos her most evil grin and he started flailing at her before she even made a move.
"Blessed Madonna, give me the strength to not choke the life out of them all," Mama said with a groan.
Papa just sighed and kept going. They'd spent the day up in Canada, tooling around Vancouver Islands's Butchart Gardens, just over the Washington State border. They were renowned as some of the most beautiful flower gardens in the entire Northwest region.
Now the Santos family was on I-5 heading south through Mount Vernon on the way back to Seattle and the day's fatigue had set in. None of them wanted to be cooped up in the car on a Thursday night after spending a day wandering around.
For Bryony, the ride was torture, knowing what waited for her. Her boyfriend Carl and her best friend Angie were at a rally tonight and she was expected to be there. Bry had even changed into her cheerleader outfit early because she knew the return trip would bring them home late enough that every minute counted.
Besides, this was their senior year in high school. With graduation only weeks away, it was one of the last times she'd be able to strut around in uniform.
She was running out of events to spend with Carl and Angie for that matter. Her boyfriend planned to go to UW of course, having snared a basketball scholarship. Angie planned to follow her twin brother there, though she'd yet to show any interest in a major.
Bryony's grades, her charity work and being president of the senior class had netted her a spot at Yale, though, all the way on the East Coast. They'd talked of course. Neither Carl or her expected to stay together with 3,000 miles between them. Still, three years was a long time to be with a boy. In body, if not in spirit...
"Bry's thinking about Carl!" Her brother yelled suddenly.
"What? Am not."
"You've got that 'oooooh, my boyfriend's dreamy!' look on your face," Carlos said, laughing at her.
She punched him again and looked out the Suburban window. Carl's face should be on her mind but it wasn't him that haunted her dreams and thoughts. Angie, Carl's sister, her fellow cheerleader and best friend in the whole world. Also, the girl she'd been hopelessly in love with since middle school. Dating Carl had started off as a desperate, poorly-thought excuse to be around Angie more. After all these years, Bry ached for the other girl in ways only Kelly Clarkson songs understood.
The thought of seeing Angie at tonight's rally swelled her heart but the following thought of leaving the love of her life behind made that heart fit to burst.
The only reason Bry spotted trouble on the bridge ahead was because she'd been staring out the window, brooding. Suddenly, she saw the superstructure in the distance ahead sway and buckle. Her brows drew together, uncomprehending. Then her horrified gasp joined her parents as they saw the suspension bridge abruptly collapse.
"Ah, Madre de Dios!" Mama cried out.
Papa slammed on the brakes as traffic screeched to a stop. They made it fifty yards shy of the bridge. The Santos' family then watched in choked horror for seconds as sections of the bridge over the Skagit river plunged down into the river below, taking dozens of cars with them. Then, as one, everyone in the car turned to Bryony.
"Mama-" she started to say, only to be silenced with a look.
"God gave you a gift, honey," Mama said.
Papa nodded with his wife. "Bry, you know we love you. Now go save those people."
"Yeah, Bry, you gotta save those people!" Carlos shouted.
Then he unbuckled his seat and hugged her. Anna hugged her a moment later. Tears welled up in the cheerleader's eyes as both of her parents reached out from the front, each claiming a hand and giving it a supportive squeeze.
None of that mattered, of course. Bryony didn't need hugs to feel their love for her. That love surrounded them, burning incandescently, four miniature suns ignited inside the confines of the Chevy Suburban. Their feelings flowed into her, setting her aflame.
Then the eighteen year old cheerleader pulled open the SUV door. Once outside, she crouched to make sure her shoes found a good grip on I-5's asphalt. Her family's love surged through her, body and blood smoldering with the stored up power. And she sprinted forward, moving with impossible speed. One second brought her to the lip of the bridge. Bryony didn't hesitate. The next second saw her plunge off the side to plummet down into the water below.
Eight years ago, when Bryony had been eleven years old, she'd discovered she was a Super, one of the rare people on Earth born with literally superhuman ability. She and her siblings had performed for a talent show and, for reasons she'd never known, Bryony felt the audience's pleasure flow over her.
It was almost physical, like the ocean's tide rolling across her skin. Heady with the potency of it, she'd jogged home after the show only to find she covered two miles in less than a minute.
Since that day, Bryony had pieced together how it worked. Any positive emotion directed at her empowered her, charging her like sunlight on a solar cell. Love, friendship, affection, approval, each had its own taste and all of it made her stronger, faster, tougher.
Of course she'd concealed her power. Everyone knew Supers had to become Heroes. The idea terrified Bryony. Risking beatings, death, and worst of all: papparazzi? No thank you! Instead, she'd studied hard, became a cheerleader and was eventually voted class president, setting the stage for her inevitable future rise to the Senate of the United States. That was perfectly respectable, wasn't it? Who said being a Super meant only one way to serve your country?
Bryony slammed into the water far below, not even feeling the impact. Several cars still floated near the surface. Those could wait.
The cheerleader used her momentum to plunge deep down into the river, her eyes frantically probing for sunken vehicles. Dozens drifted underwater. She could see the passengers beating uselessly at their doors, trying to escape.
Bryony gritted her teeth, swam up and caught the first car. Then she towed it underwater to the shore, where she promptly dragged it above the water line. It felt weird, pulling and feeling the water's resistance clinging to the half ton car. But then, she'd never tried doing anything like this before.
Power pulsed through her muscles as she plunged back into the water to pull out the next car. All these years barely using her power had stored it, concentrating it, and now it came eagerly as she doled it out. Above her, Bryony could still feel her family. Their feelings buoyed her, a never ending trickle to replenish the floodwaters she'd turned loose.
This was why she'd never asked Angie out. In four years, Bryony's best friend had grown to love her...like a sister. The couple of times Bry hinted her feelings were more than that, she'd felt that love in the other girl vanish like smoke, only returning after she feigned laughter, claiming it was a joke.
Love could make Bryony strong enough to lift another car out of the river but it couldn't make Angie love her. Not like that.
Bryony caught a Geo Metro by the bumper and tugged it out of the water with one hand. Rescued drivers and their passengers stood on the bank of the Skagit River, staring in numb shock at their rescuer as they climbed free of water-logged vehicles.
She managed a weary smile. Only flickers of positive energy responded. These traumatized people were too stunned by their submersion to provide any additional power.
Bryony grimaced, then shrugged as she plunged back into the water. It would have to do. Those still in the water had no other hope.
As she plunged into the Skagit river once more, though, she dimly made out a truck down there, pinned under bridge debris, a massive gash in the side of its trailer where the top had somehow struck the top of the bridge and caused its collapse. Bry caught at the front of the truck and pulled...and the huge vehicle barely budged. Fear threatened to drown her more than a lack of air; she wasn't strong enough!
Bryony braced both feet against the river bottom and hauled with all her might. The truck skidded forward a dozen feet before coming to a stop. She tugged again and didn't even manage a foot. She was tired. More than tired, fatigued in a way she'd never been. Whatever power she'd stored up, it was nearly depleted.
She surfaced for another breath of air and plunged back down. This time, she gave up on moving the truck and settled instead for the driver side door. It was locked but the interior was flooded so Bryony's fingers dug in through solid metal, got a grip and tore the whole frame out.
The driver drifted inside, pinned by his seat belt, unmoving. Bryony caught the seat belt and pulled. It wouldn't give. She'd used up the last of her strength getting in. Bryony yanked hard on the restraint but couldn't get it to release.
Panicking, she gripped the heavy set older man and tried to pull him free of the belt. It didn't work. No matter what she did, she couldn't get the man free!
She screamed her hopelessness into the silent uncaring water. The trickle of radiant love from her family above wasn't enough. Far to the south, smoldering like a sunrise behind a mountain, Bryony could feel the affection, admiration and friendship of all her friends, all her classmates, all those she'd volunteered for. That wasn't enough either. Nothing was.
Bryony's lungs squeezed like fists in her chest, struggling as she suffocated beneath the waves, yet she couldn't stop tugging on the seat belt.
Suddenly, powerful arms shot past her. Equally powerful hands tore the seat belt open before pulling the driver, and herself, up and out of the water.
Bewildered by the inexplicable transition, Bryony gasped on the shore, taking in precious breaths of oxygen. Then she saw the driver lying on the shore next to her.
Motionless. Lips tinged blue. Drowned.
A feeling of defeat and despair filled her, crushing her until she abruptly vomited on the grassy knoll rising out of the Skagit River.
Sometime later, Bryony's dulled senses realized someone wanted her attention. Her head seemed far away as she turned it to the intruding source. A heavily muscled Hero crouched there, shirtless except for a pair of jeans, a cowboy hat and a token mask to protect his identity. She didn't recognize him. Must be new.
"He's fine, kiddo. See?"
Bryony followed his finger to the driver, wrapped in towels and shivering as a paramedic checked him out. Only then did she realize the trickle of her family's love had grown closer, stronger...and it was joined by a torrent of relief and thanksgiving from the other survivors, staring down at her from a sidewalk above the shore. A man in a suit caught their attention, apparently giving them instructions.
She looked back at the cowboy. He grinned at her, dashingly handsome and knowing it. "New Super, huh? Gotta say, sugar, that was pretty sweet work there. You pulled, what, fifteen cars to safety? Not even trained neither."
"I couldn't save him," Bryony whispered.
"Nah, don't worry about it," the masked Cowboy said, drawling in a decidedly Southern accent. "You saved enough. You got the ones I couldn't. Only got here after my ride saw this go down. Guess you're too young for HCP but a day like today makes you a hero by my book."
"But I couldn't...I c-couldn't..."
"Kiddo," he said, dropping low beside her. "You can't save them all."
But it was a lie. Bryony looked into that handsome masked face and felt the lie, not from him but from herself. She knew better.
If she'd trained like a Hero should, she could have saved him. If she'd practiced lifting, she might have moved the truck...or at least kept enough energy to rip the belt off before the driver drowned. Instead, she'd idled away her time cheerleading, pretending there was no such thing as the Hero Certification Program.
She'd spent years obsessing about a girl when she should have been training to save these people.
"I should have been able to save him," Bryony said to the cowboy, looking past him to the shivering driver, alive solely by luck and CPR.
"Then apply to the HCP. That's what it's for."
Bryony looked back at the Hero. She felt a familiar warmth from him, sexual attraction and the friendly affection for a cute stranger only boys felt towards girls. The taste wasn't nearly as satisfying as real feeling but it was close, warming, and she almost leaned into it as it scrubbed away at the frozen tide of exhaustion inside her.
"Fine," she said at last. "Sign me up then."