Apparent Power Chapter 1

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The electricity flew from her fingers to the shower door handle. Valerie Russell yanked her hand back. The shock had not hurt, but the burst of light caught her off guard. She reached again, slowly. This time, nothing happened, and she stepped into

the shower. The water flowing over her face was satisfying in that it woke her senses far better than her alarm. Startled out of her thoughts by her husband

clearing his throat, she took a breath to tell him what had just happened when he cut her off.

“Who the hell are you?” Scott stood frozen, staring at her.

“Last time I checked, I was your wife.” She wiped the layer of droplets to clear her view and waited for him to respond.

His lips parted to speak, but he remained silent, brows creased, and head tilted.

“What is it?” She stopped the shower. Studying his expression, Valerie pushed the door open and yanked a towel from the wall. The question he posed to her was odd, but his demeanor made her heart race. Something was wrong. She had seen him speechless twice in the seven years she had known him: once when their son was born and again when the boy had broken his arm. Scott had frozen in shock. Her mouth went dry, and the grip of fear tightened her chest.

Scott pivoted when she rushed by him, mouth still groping to form words. Valerie flew down the hall to her son’s room and slapped the switch on the wall.

The two-year-old scrunched his nose and threw an arm over his eyes. Relieved, she guided the switch to the off position and pulled the door until the opening was an inch wide. Valerie exhaled. Pausing to take a few long breaths, she fought to slow her heart and walked back to her bathroom.

“Stop being weird,” Valerie said, shivering. The towel just covered her front, and the cold drops from her dark sienna hair annoyed her. She shoved him.

“You scared me.”

“Have you looked at yourself today?” Scott asked.

Tight-lipped, she raised a brow, daring him to joke about her body. Scott pulled the towel from her loose grip. The heavy terry cloth fell into a heap on the floor. He reached out to touch her bare skin, but she pushed his hand away.

“I love you, Scott, but we don’t have time for this.”

Valerie kissed his cheek and laid a playful slap on the same spot.

He grabbed her wrist as she tried to walk away.

“I said we don’t have time.” The reflection in the mirror caused her to choke on the last word. The figure moved with her as she stepped closer. She rubbed the remaining beads of dampness from her face and studied her reflection again. Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned in further. A swarm of butterflies released in her stomach. The hair stood up on her arms. Her mouth dry and uncomfortable. The thirty-five-year-old working mom stared at the image of her twenty-year-old self. All signs of age erased.

She turned back to Scott, eyeing him as if he might have something to do with what was happening. Trembling, she faced the mirror again, expecting to see the stress-worn image of the woman she saw while brushing her teeth just moments before. Tracing her hands down her body, she compared the figure in the mirror to herself. Her skin was taut and smooth. Breasts lifted and firm. Her stretch marks from pregnancy were faded. The pocket of flesh created by her C-section scar was undetectable, replaced by flat, long muscle. She raked her hands through her damp hair. The thick tresses were like dark silk through her fingers and flowed over her shoulders. Her search for gray was unproductive.

“You look amazing,” Scott whispered behind her, wrapping his arms around her slender frame.

“This isn’t real, Scott. Am I sick? What is this? The static. . .” She shook trying to articulate. “There was this huge static when I grabbed the shower door. I swear, like a whole twelve-inch bolt of lightning.”

Ignoring his gentle caress on her bare skin, she squinted into the mirror, wrinkled her nose, and pursed her lips together before resting her face. Her skin remained supple, her features soft.

“Now I kind of wish I had called off work today.” Scott bent down to kiss her neck.

“Get off of me! Hon, something is wrong. This—” she turned to face him and waved her hands over her body, “—just does not happen. Fairy godmothers don’t pop in and give you your twenty-year-old boobs back. And abs? I have never had abs. Pizza belongs here,” she said, poking a finger into her abdomen.

“Well, how do you feel? Do you feel sick or strange?” He laughed. “Did you hit a Gypsy woman with your car recently? Should I be wary of pie?”

“Really?” Valerie rolled her eyes. “I can’t go to work like this.” She whipped back around to the mirror.

“Well, you need to decide because it’s already five and I have to go. But that,” he motioned at her body, mimicking her, “is mine when I get back.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Her stomach flipped, knowing he had to leave. She wanted someone outside of her head to tell her what to do. She wanted him to stay and help her sort this out. Even if he could stay, Scott was far too distracted to be of any help.

“You can call off if you want, but you’d have to come up with a damn good reason. The staffing office was already desperate, or they wouldn’t have asked you to cover a shift an hour and a half away.” Scott sighed, “Think of it like this: no one there knows you any different. You’ll be fine. Then you’re off for a week and can figure things out.” Scott kissed her head and grabbed a handful of her backside, pulling her closer to him.

“Okay. I know,” Valerie said grabbing the thick straps of his overalls and pulling herself up to stand on his steel toes. “Be safe. When do you think you’ll be home?”

“We’re taking a train to Wyoming. I’ll bring one back tomorrow around the same time. We’re hauling coal. The trip is pretty routine as long as none of my engines lose power. But if you don’t stop this, I’m never leaving.” He kissed her mouth slow and soft.

“I’ll call you when I get to the hotel.” He left Valerie standing naked in their bathroom, fighting the angry swarm in her belly. Valerie continued the debate of whether or not to go to work. She would be the only nurse on shift at a stand-alone emergency room. She laughed to herself, pacing, and thinking of the least bizarre way to explain why she could not go to work. No amount of rationalization would calm the tremors in her hands and her growing queasiness. She forced herself to rush through her morning routine in hopes the more normal she acted, the more normal she would feel.

She cinched her navy-blue scrub pants as far as the drawstring would allow. Her waist had shrunk more than just a few inches, and the uniform looked like another person could fit in them with her. Frustrated, she flung the closet door open. Taking care not to trip over the shoes on the floor, she tiptoed to the back corner shelf where a pile of her old, pre-pregnancy scrubs sat. Though they also required cinching, they fit better and looked less like a circus tent over her now slender figure. A loud chime came from a panel on the wall, making Valerie cry out. One hand white-knuckled the counter while the other clutched her chest. The nanny had let herself in, and the front door had triggered the chime. Valerie closed her eyes and inhaled for a measured three seconds before releasing. Knowing she would eventually have to face someone, her nanny, Gia, would at least be more objective than her husband had been.

Before meeting Gia on the main floor, Valerie peeked in on Caleb one more time. The shift was her third twelve-hour day in a row, and she missed him. It was difficult for her to fight the urge to hug and kiss her sleeping son, but she knew waking him would be a mistake. If he were to wake up, he would be in the worst mood for Gia. With Scott driving freight trains out of town and back, she often navigated parenting with only the help of her nanny. Knowing she would soon have an entire week home with her son helped her to walk away and let him sleep.

“Good morning,” Valerie chimed, overcompensating for her internal struggle.

Gia sat her heavy school bag down next to the front door and removed her shoes but stayed by the door. Valerie kept on her path from the stairs to the kitchen, terrified Gia would notice her appearance, or worse, not notice at all.

In the kitchen, Valerie poured a cup of coffee. Breathing deeply, she hoped it would ease her tension, but found little solace in the steaming cup. She looked down at the dark beverage. Heart pounding, hands shaking, she took another breath. Her anxiety got the best of her.

“Am I crazy,” Valerie asked, “or do I look significantly different to you?”

“No. Did you color your hair?” Gia shifted her weight, rubbed her forearms and elbows, and took a short glance in Valerie’s direction.

“Are you serious? I lost like twenty pounds overnight, and you ask me if I colored my hair? Look at this,” Valerie said, raising her voice. She pulled the drawstring free of a slip knot and stretched the waistband three inches away from her torso.

“Oh, well, now you point it out, they do look loose,” Gia answered, chewing her lip and refusing to validate Valerie’s concern.

“I’m losing my mind. I am having a mental break down at thirty-five.” Valerie pulled her hands through her hair, gripping handfuls at the root. “Gia, please, just look at my face.”

Gia took a step back as Valerie approached. The nanny made no expression, nor did she examine Valerie’s face. She looked at her dead in the eye.

“I’m sorry,” Valerie said backing off. “I am a wreck. And I’m late. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She glanced at the clock on the stove and gathered her lunch, throwing random food items into her bag. “Scott took a train to Wyoming this morning. He won’t be back today. I’m working at the ER down south, so I’m out of town, too. The number is on the fridge if you need it. I won’t be home until maybe nine tonight if there is no traffic. Caleb can stay up and wait for me if he wants.”

“South? Like the Springs? The drive is almost two hours away, more in traffic.”

“If you can’t stay late, I can call off. The facility might have to close, and I will probably get written up, but with the day I am having so far, I have no problem staying home.”

Gia continued to chew her lip. After a few seconds, she smiled and clapped her hands together. The sound made Valerie jump. The changed expression on the nanny’s face also startled her.

“No, it’s fine.” Gia’s voice was cheerful but exaggerated. “I will take care of everything here. No need to rush home. Take your time. Caleb and I will be fine.” She pulled her thick curly hair back and tied it with a band. It made a big light brown pom-pom on the back of her head.

The coffee in Valerie’s mug rippled but did not quite splash from the tremors in her hands. She opened her mouth to protest but was cut off.

“You can go. It’s fine,” Gia encouraged, but even with her attempt at a natural tone, Valerie could still sense the shakiness in her voice.

Valerie hated passive aggression, secrets, or unresolved disputes. “Alright, what’s going on? You are obviously not yourself. I mean, neither am I, but I’ve owned up to my psychosis. What’s bothering you?”

“Umm, school? I have a new teacher. A new class, I mean. I’m not thinking about a guy or anything. I mean, the teacher is a guy, but it’s not a boyfriend thing,” Gia scrambled for an acceptable answer but fell flat in her attempt to lie.

“I’ll call you once I get settled at work if we aren’t busy.” Valerie did not have time to pry any further if Gia remained adamant about her undisclosed uneasiness.

The two stood in silence for a moment, and then Caleb let out a whine from his room.

“Alright,” Valerie said, “you two have a good day. Text me if you need anything at all.”

Gia’s shoulders dropped as she sighed with relief.

Valerie curled the weight of her bag onto her shoulder and left the kitchen. When she reached for the door leading to the garage, a visible arc of electricity shot from her hand to the knob, a three-inch space, accompanied by a loud pop. Valerie shook her hand as if it had hurt, more out of habit. She let out a frustrated breath, grabbed the handle again, and was able to enter the garage without incident.

Within minutes, Valerie merged onto the highway to bypass the city of Denver. The sun had not yet given a hint of light to the sky, but the dark drive provided an isolated environment to mull over the events of the morning. When she passed the airport, two cars exited, and she was alone except for a few oncoming headlights. She replayed the conversation with Gia. The way the young woman had acted bothered her. Gia always seemed honest and straightforward. Maybe she planned on quitting . . . But Valerie needed Gia. With the unpredictability of Scott’s schedule, Valerie would have to stay home with Caleb. She did not trust anyone else with him.

Or maybe Gia did notice. With increased traffic and oncoming headlights, Valerie caught glimpses of herself in the rearview mirror. Her transformation was still evident. Gia must have been lying. Valerie just could not figure out how any of this was possible. In her thirteen years of nursing, she had never heard of anything like what she was experiencing.

“You’re fine. No one knows you. Just get through the day and get home. You can sort everything out then,” Valerie whispered out loud to herself, repeating the speech in variations to not allow herself to turn the car around. Scott was right. After her shift, she had the week off to make better sense of the situation.

On the south end of Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain loomed over the city. From the highway, she could see the dozens of antennas at the summit marking the NORAD command center, a protected government facility operating the world GPS system. To her, the towers were just part of the scenery, like the barbed wire topped chain-link fence surrounding the base. Traffic flowed with uniformed men and women going to and from their posts. Between growing up with her father in the military, her brother becoming a police officer in the Army and her marrying Scott while he still served, she felt right at home.

She had not told her family she had taken the shift near them. She and her father, Mike Burton, had a strained but tolerable relationship. Her older brother, Kevin, was still in the military and they never had much in common. For a split second, she considered asking her father, a known conspiracy theorist, about her condition. He would demand a logical explanation and assure her nothing good would come of her transformation. She decided to leave her father out of the equation until she had a better idea of what was happening.

Still deep in thought, her classical music cut off. The gauges on her dashboard fell flat. The vehicle coasted down a hill toward a stop light just south of her destination.  Valerie threw her coffee mug down to the ground and gripped the steering wheel, pumping the brakes to no avail. She employed every muscle in her upper body to maintain course without power steering. She slapped the triangular button for her hazard lights and pushed her horn, but nothing responded.

Most vehicles continued as usual, but two cars coming from the opposite direction were losing momentum up the hill. She watched one get rearended as she sped closer to the bottom. Her shakiness from the morning intensified. Her vision narrowed and a cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She knew what was to follow. What a hell of a time to pass out.

Valerie fought against the feeling. With her last attempt at controlling the car, she pulled the emergency brake and pointed the car at a distant mile marker.

Thank God Caleb is home.

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