When Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral burned, usually-useful Stella was good for nothing. Absolutely zero help to anyone. Sirens blared. Ashes and charred debris rained. But Stella could only stand with her neighborhood crowd, a safe distance from the fire, and watch in terror and awe as smoke billowed white, then black, then orange. She pictured the cathedral’s interior aglow in hellish light, the altar, organ, paintings, pews, and relics…gone. Firefighters wielding deluge guns scrambled around the conflagration but to no avail. They might have been small boys peeing into an active volcano.
Flames ate the roof, spread upward, and torched the south tower. Soon the spire looked like a blazing finger, an angry fuck-you.
Though she knew her reaction was irrational, Stella, who was used to helping, took the conflagration personally—experienced it like an insult to her great gift of absorbency. With the merest touch, she could dry tears. Sop up spills. Suck a man dry. She could put a damper on a damp day by wicking rain straight out of the air. She could even come in handy on the occasion of a flood.
Fire, though…well, extinguishing fire wasn’t her thing.
When the spire collapsed, Mrs. Herrera cried out and elbowed Stella. “Do something!”
“Like what?” If anything, she’d make matters worse, turn the old timber drier.
The skepticism and disappointment in the woman’s face shook Stella. Mrs. Herrera and Stella weren’t just neighbors. They also happened to be colleagues at the local high school. Only last Thursday at work, Mrs. Herrera had gushed over how nicely Stella had drawn the dew off the grass behind the school so that their students wouldn’t get damp sitting on the lawn during the outdoor awards assembly.
Now, however, Mrs. Herrera was frowning at her.
Stella turned away, stung, only to encounter more accusing glares, looks that said plainly, You’re a superhero, dammit. Help.
As if they expected Stella to be super at everything!
Hugging herself, she stumbled out of the crowd. In her clumsy retreat, she bumped into a fire hydrant, and the hose attached to the valve immediately ran dry.
“What the—?” The firefighter stared dumbly at the limp hose, glanced behind him, and scowled. “Thanks a lot, Stella!”
She winced. “Sorry, Charles.”
The scorn, the suspicion: Oh, God, it was like her childhood all over again. She remembered the birthday pool parties she’d ruined, the neighborhood sprinklers she’d drained, so many mean and mocking glances, plus the name-calling: SpongeBob, Thirsty, Leech, Vampire. The Vaporizer. The Quicker Picker Upper.
Kids were so cruel.
Screams rent the air. Stella glanced over her shoulder and whimpered. The fire had spread to the north tower.
She slogged down the street and began to sob. No one noticed. The fire held everyone’s attention. Folks might not have registered her anguish anyway, since her cheeks soaked up tears upon impact. She loathed how she looked when she cried, like a mime pretend-weeping, her dry face creased in a working grimace.
It was hard being sad and having no way to convincingly show it.
And it was hard being super-absorbent—a power that, quite frankly, wasn’t particularly useful.
Stella walked through the village square, all the way to Sunrise Beach. She gazed at the waves breaking on the shore. Surf caught the light and laced the air over the reef, and seaweed glimmered, decking the rocks like combed hair.
All of that wetness: It tempted her. She’d never dared touch the sea before, afraid of what so much water would do to her. Afraid of what she might do to so much water.
A man suddenly rose out of the sea. “Hey, Stella.”
She yelped, then exhaled an oh. “Deep Defender.” Her gaze flitted over his muscular nakedness. Holy cripes, he was gorgeous. No matter how often they met, that gorgeousness always came as a surprise.
“Asked you last time to call me David.” He shook the water out of his long hair. “How’s work?”
“It’s good. I have a nice group this year.” Except for Timmy Walzer. That tenth grader was a pain in the butt.
“Cool.” David’s gaze veered toward the distant wafting smoke. “Bad news about the old cathedral. Wish I could shoot some sea that far.” Holding up his trident, he admitted, “This thing has a limited range in projectile motion.”
“That’s too bad.” Keep holding up your magical pronged spear, she silently urged him. His bicep bulge was magnificent.
He glanced around nervously. “Maybe don’t mention you saw me?”
Deep Defender sloshed away from the shore, but his gaze lingered on Stella. A wave broke over his broad shoulders.
They stared at each other.
“Someday, Stella,” he murmured.
“Too dangerous,” she said regretfully. A breeze drew her hair across her face. She raised a shaky hand to hold back the strands. “I’m like a dehumidifier. You could die.”
“Might be worth the risk.”
A quiver shot through her. She inched closer to the sea. Moisture, moisture, Deep Defender, moisture: how she craved it. All of it.
She stretched out her foot, tapped the merest edge of ocean. That salty zing, drenching her cells…wow. Groaning, she met his hungry gaze. A surge of power suffused her, and with it, a possibility. “But I might be able to do something about the rising sea level.”
His eyes flashed. “You’re so sexy when you’re being super.”
“I’m just here to help.” She toed the water again and trembled. Helping felt really good.
Melissa Ostrom is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her short stories have appeared in The Florida Review, Wigleaf, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, and Ruminate, among other journals, and been selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019 and The Best Microfiction 2020. She teaches English at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York. Learn more at www.melissaostrom.com and find her on Twitter at @melostrom.