Denise hated to disturb her father while he was working, but he always seemed to be working, just like her mother. Denise stood in the doorway of the den. It was lit only by the gold and green desk lamp on her father’s desk. In the glow of the lamp, her father sat hunched over his desk, pouring over paperwork. Probably more loan applications, Denise figured, from people who had to move into the district when one of their children developed a power.
“Daddy?” she said quietly. When he didn’t acknowledge her, she turned to leave.
“What is it, Neesy?”
Denise didn’t like it when most people called her “Neesy,” especially not her brother, but when her father used that nickname she’d had since she was a baby, she didn’t mind.
“Daddy,” she began, hovering in the doorway, half wanting to run, half wanting to stay, “what would you do if you thought something bad was going to happen but wasn’t sure?”
Gerard Evans leaned back in his banker’s chair and stroked his chin with the earpiece from his reading glasses. Denise thought the reading glasses made him look much older than he was. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Denise didn’t know how much she should tell her father about what she had seen on the bus. “What if you thought something bad was going to happen, like say, a building was going to catch fire and a lot of people were going to die? Would you tell the police?”
Her father’s eyes narrowed, but not in a way that seemed mean. It was more in a way that suggested he was thinking. To Denise, he always looked kind when he was thinking, and she knew it was because he wanted to help people who came into the bank and needed money. But sometimes, he had told her, he couldn’t give them the money they asked for, and that broke his heart. Denise sensed that his heart was breaking now.
“Come over here,” he said quietly.
She approached the front of the desk and stood there, like she imagined customers of the bank would do. After all, her father was vice president, a very important position. But he reached out and guided her over to his side and then turned in his swivel chair and faced her. “Denise, tell me what you think you saw.”
They had had this conversation before, and it always went badly. First there was the time Denise told her mother she should get the tires on the car checked. A week later, one of the tires went flat. Then there was the time she had stayed up all night studying for a pop quiz in social studies—sure enough, Mrs. Glinton gave a surprise quiz the very next day.
It was useless to lie to him so she told him everything she had seen on the bus, about the dirty chalk-white building catching fire at night. Denise hadn’t been able to get the image out of her mind all day. It was going to happen. She knew it.
Gerard Evans leaned forward in his chair. Even at home, he wore the white shirt and dark, striped tie he wore at work, although the tie was loose at the collar. When she was little, Denise used to pull on the tie. Wanting to go back to the way things used to be, she resisted the impulse to do so now.
“Neesy,” he began, “you know that if you start to develop a power, I’ll have to report it to the district, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, knowing where this conversation was leading.
“And you know that if you develop a power, that’s the end of going to school outside the district. You’ll have to say goodbye to your friends and go to the same school your brother goes to. Do you want that?”
Denise frowned and shook her head.
“Then why do you keep letting on like you can see the future? Honey, you know that’s not possible. In all the powers the district has catalogued, no one has ever been discovered who can reliably predict the future. No one.”
She loved it when her father talked this way—using words like “catalogued” and saying no one could reliably predict the future (there had been a few crazy people who tried to get into the district by claiming they could see the future, but they were always found out to be phonies). When her father talked that way to her, Denise felt grown up.
“But, Daddy,” she said, “it felt so real. I even smelled smoke.”
“We’ve talked about this before,” her father said. “It’s called Phantom Power Syndrome. Kids whose brothers or sisters have powers sometimes feel left out, so they think they’re developing a power, too. It’s a type of jealousy.”
“Jealousy?” Denise blurted out. “Daddy, I’m not jealous of Vee. He uses his power to cheat at games. He gets away with things no one ever sees him do. Daddy, I don’t want to live in the district forever. I DON’T WANT A POWER!”
“Okay, okay.” He had been trying to calm her down while she was speaking, and finally, he managed to shush her by telling her not to wake her mother and brother, who had already turned in. “Well, if you see any more of these things, you come and tell me, okay?”
“But what if I’m at school or on the bus, like today?”
“Then you tell your teacher or the principal or some other authority figure. I’m sure they’ll investigate and everything will be all right.”
Denise nodded. She knew her father was just telling her this to make her feel at ease, and it worked. If her father believed she didn’t have a power, she didn’t have a power, and that was that.
“Okay, now go to bed.” He swatted her on the leg as she ran toward the door. She reached the doorway, then paused and looked back at her father, who was already hunched over his paperwork again.
“Daddy,” she said, her voice feeling hollow as if it were coming from someone else, “I think you should give Mrs. Patillo the loan.”
Gerard Evans looked up from his paperwork. “Who’s Mrs. Patillo?”
Denise shrugged and ran out of the room.
The next day, as the school bus approached the dirty chalk-white building, Denise held her breath. She wondered if the images would return, but they did not. Denise watched the dirty chalk-white building pass and began to relax.
Two hours later, she was called to the principal’s office. When she arrived, her father rose from the chair in front of Mr. Sturgeon’s desk. His face was pale.
“Daddy, what’s wrong? Did something happen to Mom or to Vee?”
“No, honey,” he said in a reassuring tone. “They’re fine. But, Neesy, I need you to tell me something.”
“Okay,” she said, uncertain.
“Last night in the den, do you remember telling me I should give a loan to someone named Mrs. Patillo?”
Denise nodded, confused. She didn’t think her father had been paying that much attention.
“Where did you hear that name?”
Denise shook her head. “I must’ve made it up.”
Her father blinked. “About an hour ago, a woman came into the bank and requested a loan so she could open a bakery. She said she’d just moved to the district and her kid—the one with the special power—hadn’t even started school yet. Neesy, her last name was Patillo.”
Denise stared at him, not fully understanding—or wanting to understand.
“Neesy, did you see Mrs. Patillo last night, in the den?”
Denise shook her head. “No, it was more like she was whispering to me. I heard her say—” Denise stopped, realizing where this conversation was going. “I don’t have a power! I DON’T HAVE A POWER!”
Mr. Sturgeon, who had been sitting quietly behind his desk, said, “Maybe you’d better shut the door.”
Denise thought he was talking to her or her father, but someone behind her shut the door, and, for the first time, Denise became aware of a fourth person in the room. She turned to see a man she didn’t know. He had the serious, upright demeanor of a police officer and wore a dark suit with a stylized eagle above the breast. Denise recognized the symbol instantly.
“Daddy! You told the district?” She felt betrayed.
“Neesy—” He tried to put his arms on her shoulders, but she shook away from him. “Neesy, if what you saw is true, about the building catching fire, the authorities have to know. You don’t want people to get hurt, do you?”
Denise blinked tears and sniffled. “No.”
The man from the district leaned forward, hovering just over Denise’s head. He smelled like cigarettes. “Denise, you’re a brave little girl for telling your father what you saw. We're going to take you to the District Center so they can run a test on you. It won't hurt."