JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 2: ENTER THE DYNAMO
When Jake got up in the morning, monsters and magical girls were in the news again.
He dressed in his brand new school uniform and checked himself out in the mirror. This was his first time in a suit. It couldn’t quite hide his gangly frame, but it looked sharp enough, if a little stuffy for his taste. He untucked his shirt, loosened his tie, opened his top button, and folded the French cuffs over the jacket sleeves—yes, that was better. He quickly ran his fingers through his mussed black hair before he slouched downstairs and landed in his seat at the breakfast bar. Leaning across the bar, he watched his mother, who, clad in a frilly apron, fried up breakfast. With a sweet smile, she slid a steaming plate of eggs and toast in front of him. Meanwhile, his father, coffee in one hand and a folded newspaper in the other, sat on the loveseat and hunched toward the television. The light of the TV played against his thick spectacles.
On the screen, an empty suit and a bleached blonde, both with fake smiles affixed to their heavily painted faces, expounded gleefully on the city’s latest bout of bloody violence. In the air to their left hovered a box displaying a hulking, gray monstrosity rampaging through an open-air market. The image was shaky, apparently recorded on a phone. It turned to static when the monster drew close.
“Last night at approximately nine-fifteen,” the bleached blonde said, “another monster attacked the Godai District in downtown Urbanopolis. Analysts classified it as a level-three threat. The High Priestess of the Temple of the Moon Princess offers condolences to the families of the victims.”
“Magical Girls Grease Pencil Marionette, Card Collector Kasumi, and Tuneless Ramona quickly arrived on the scene to combat the creature,” said the suit. “Casualties total seven dead and thirteen wounded. Five need psychological counseling after seeing Tuneless Ramona dance.”
“During the fight,” said the blonde, “Grease Pencil Marionette’s hand brushed against Card Collector Kasumi’s, and rumors are now running rampant regarding the nature of their relationship—”
Jake dropped his fork with a clatter. He rose from his breakfast, walked across the great room, and turned the TV off.
His father snapped up, and his coffee slopped. “Hey, I was watching that!”
“I can’t stand magical girls,” Jake muttered around the egg in his mouth as he returned to his plate.
“They protect us from the monsters,” his father answered as he hunted between the cushions for the remote. “You should thank the Moon Princess every day for the magical girls!”
Jake merely grunted in reply as he finished his eggs. It had been a full five years since he’d last said a real prayer to the Princess.
Soon after, he stood by the front door with his satchel in hand while his mother fussed over him.
“Look at you!” she cried as she buttoned the top button of his shirt and tightened his tie. “Your first day of high school!”
“Aw, Mom, don’t make a big deal—”
“I’m just glad I had a son,” she said as she threw her arms around him. “I don’t know what I’d do if you were a girl and started getting powers—”
“C’mon, Mom. A girl has a better chance of gettin’ hit by lightning than becoming one of those magical freaks.”
“Still, I’d worry. I worry anyway. There are so many monster attacks these days—”
“We have to live our lives like normal,” said his father as he pushed his glasses up his nose. “Otherwise, the monsters win. Besides, the Moon Princess is watching over us. She’ll know when it’s time to bring her New Tokyo down out of heaven.”
Yeah, right. Jake didn’t say it aloud, but to his mind, if the Moon Princess really cared about what happened on Earth, she would have returned already. Some said she delayed her Second Coming because she was building her defensive grid in the Oort Cloud to prevent further invasions of the Solar System. Some said she was testing her followers’ faith. But Jake figured she’d simply got too many power-ups, lost her humanity, and forgotten about the miserable creatures who crawled on the Earth and desperately offered her prayers.
No, the Princess wasn’t coming back.
Mankind was on its own.
Jake met his best friend Ralph on the way to school. He too was in a brand new uniform, but he had his starched shirt tucked in, and a clip secured his neatly tied necktie. Pomade held his coiffure in place, but it still curled at the part and at the neck. He looked neat now, but in a few days, his hair would be a rat’s nest, and his shirt would be full of wrinkles.
Slinging their satchels casually over their shoulders, they strolled together down the narrow walk. Theirs was a quiet suburban neighborhood on the fringe of Urbanopolis. The houses were tidy, the lawns were neatly trimmed, and the stately oak trees lining the street were just beginning to turn red and yellow as fall approached. This was far from the city center where human-impersonating monsters conducted random slaughters, and far from the bay where giant reptiles often rose from the sea. The suburbs were still vulnerable to flying monsters and alien abductions, of course, and they had suffered more than a few vampire and zombie infestations in the last few years. Still, suburbanites could claim that their lives were relatively peaceful. Most of the dwellings were single-story bungalows or ranch-style houses interspersed with more lavish villas built in the traditional sukiya style. Most were occupied. Only a few, one every block or so, were burned out and vacant because of a magical battle.
Ralph gave Jake a hearty punch to the shoulder. “Are you ready for this?”
Jake grinned. “High school. Finally. Today, life really begins.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Last year, we were children. Now we’re adults. This morning, I actually shaved.”
“What, your legs?”
“Hey, check this out.” Ralph dug into his satchel and pulled out a glossy photo. “It’s even autographed, dude.”
Jake took it. The photo featured a young girl in what looked like an electric blue powder puff tutu. Instead of a matching bodice, she wore a breastplate of intertwining silver and gold. On her forearms, she had heavy vambraces of the same material, and on her forehead she wore an amber stone mounted in a tiara. Her hair, done up in curly pigtails, was the same blue as her skirt. In her right hand, she clutched a thick wand—or perhaps a cudgel—surmounting which was her emblem, a blue lightning bolt crossing a pink heart. She held up two fingers in a “V for victory” sign, and electricity arced between them. Scrawled across the photo, in silver marker, was, “To my #1 fan! —Dynamo.”
“Pretty Dynamo,” said Ralph with a satisfied nod. “Definitely the hottest magical girl right now. She’s got a flying snowboard, and with her Lightning Rod—”
“Where’d you get this?”
“There’s a shop downtown that sells ’em—”
“And they all say ‘number one fan’?”
“You idiot. That’s not even her real signature.”
“It could be.”
“Are you seriously into this stuff?”
“Of course I am. Everybody is. Do you have any idea how many monsters Pretty Dynamo has killed? How many lives she’s saved? She’s even more awesome than Sword Seamstress, who was my last favorite.”
“What? What’s the matter? With her magical Knitting Rapiers, Sword Seamstress can slay a monster and knit a cardigan at the same time.”
“What kind of girl calls herself pretty?”
Ralph snatched the photo back. “Lots of magical girls have pretty in their names. Uh … say, how old do you think she looks?”
“Hard to tell. Twelve?”
Ralph held the photo overhead as if hoping sunlight would shine through the paper to reveal new details. “Really? I thought she looked older—”
“Don’t tell me you have a crush on a magical girl.”
“What? No! Well, maybe.”
Jake shook his head. “I’m an adult today. You’re still a child.”
“Any of the girls in our classes might actually be magical girls, you know.”
“I already have a girlfriend, and I’m sure she’s not part of the freak show. She would have told me.”
“Maybe not. They say some magical girls are real jealous of their secret identities.”
“How would ‘they’ know that?”
“Um … well, anyway, you gotta admit Pretty Dynamo is pretty cool.”
“She’s wearing an armored tutu. I don’t have to admit anything.”
They reached the school, a three-story building of plain concrete with only a squat clock tower to break up its boxy profile. Certain influences of Streamline Moderne such as rounded corners, porthole windows, and a chrome grille around the clock saved it from being utterly nondescript. Other students, all in fresh uniforms, trailed through its glassed-in entryway. Out front stood a bespectacled woman with a deeply lined face and blue-gray hair secured in a tight bun. She slapped a rolled-up sheaf of paper against her palm as if wishing it were a riding crop.
As Jake and Ralph approached, she stiffened and marched toward them, pointing her roll of paper with an air of vague menace. “Young man,” she called. “Young man, are you Jake Blatowski?”
Jake stopped, stuck his hands in his pockets, and said, “Yeah—”
“I am Mrs. Pasternak, the principal, and I want you in my office this instant!”
Ralph nudged him. “Haven’t even made it through the door, and you’re already off to see the principal.”
“Heh. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Jake’s mouth was as dry as if he’d been sucking on a cotton ball. His vision blurred. What he had just heard sounded like something from a bad TV drama, or from a bad joke.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
Mrs. Pasternak hunched over a computer and peered at its screen as she adjusted her cat-rimmed glasses. “I’m sorry, Mr. Blatowski, but I have now triple-checked your academic record, and I cannot find any evidence that you completed fifth grade.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? I just completed eighth grade.”
“Yes, I see that. But that does not change the facts. You didn’t skip a grade, did you?”
“No, of course not.”
“So you, like, want me to take a fifth-grade level test or something—?”
A sickly grin formed on Mrs. Pasternak’s face, revealing gray teeth. She turned from her computer, leaned her elbows on her desk, and intertwined her fingers.
When a grownup did that, something bad was coming. Jake tensed.
Her lipstick was a thick smear of red. Around it, tiny hairs stuck out of her caked-on makeup. “Mr. Blatowski,” she said slowly, her voice as cloying as her smile, “here in the Juban School District of Urbanopolis, we don’t believe in simply teaching to test. We prefer to form and instruct the whole person.”
Jake replied with a nervous chuckle as he rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s too bad. I left half of myself at home.”
Mrs. Pasternak didn’t laugh. The strained grin slid from Jake’s face.
“Mr. Blatowski, school is not just about memorizing information. It is also about learning the skills necessary to interact with your peers as a competent individual. If you skipped fifth grade, you also skipped vital socialization during an important stage of your physical and psychological development.”
“Even worse, I would have missed that nasty hygiene video.”
Now Mrs. Pasternak’s hideously made-up mouth turned down in a harsh frown. Jake swallowed a lump.
“My point is this, Mr. Blatowski: you cannot enter high school until you demonstrate that you’ve been through fifth grade.”
“I have been.”
“But it’s not in the computer, so it may as well have never happened. I’m sorry, but my decision is final.”
Jake’s heart pounded, and sweat formed under his collar, which suddenly felt too tight. “But if you won’t let me test out of it, what in the world do I do?”
“Students, I want you to give a warm welcome to your new classmate.”
Miss Percy, a pretty if mousy young teacher with thick horn-rimmed glasses, gestured toward Jake as the students filling the desks stared at him with open mouths.
Jake pondered for a moment. He had never realized just how small kids were at this age.
The class erupted into chatter and squeals of high-pitched laughter. Miss Percy waved a piece of chalk in the air and demanded quiet.
Trying to ignore the pandemonium, Jake slouched at the front of the room, hands deep in his pockets as he stared down at the chipped tile floor. They were only kids, but their derisive laughter got to him anyway.
He no longer had his new suit. Now he wore a blue waistcoat and bowtie. In place of his manly trousers, he wore ridiculous blue plaid shorts that looked like pajama bottoms, beneath which he covered his hairy calves with knee socks. To add insult to this injury, the elementary school uniform came complete with a beanie cap of the same blue plaid.
This is not happening. This can’t be happening. In a few minutes, my alarm will go off, I’ll wake up, and I’ll go to high school—
“Mr. Blatowski,” Miss Percy said sweetly, having turned back to him without restoring order, “I believe there’s an empty seat right back there—next to Dana Volt.”
She pointed toward the back where one girl didn’t laugh or talk or make a scene, but instead stared out the window. At the sound of her name, she turned her head, appraised Jake, and let her lip curl in a sneer that looked unnatural on a face so young.
Her green eyes remained locked on his face as he walked toward her. She was probably of average height, but Jake had sprouted early, ended up tall, and at fourteen had nearly stopped growing. He doubted she’d rise much above his waist if she stood. She had tangled red hair that hung to her lower back. She appeared frail, perhaps due to her skin, which was pale enough to look sickly, though a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose somewhat mitigated that impression. Like the other girls in the class, she wore a pleated, red plaid skirt with matching hairband, but she apparently considered herself a rebel, as she wore her creased shirt untucked and her waistcoat unbuttoned. Her bowtie hung around her collar, untied. Jutting from that collar were six safety pins, and she wore a choker from which dangled a small crucifix. School rules forbade jewelry, but some kids found ways to bend the rules: safety pins weren’t jewelry, and she could claim the crucifix was for religious reasons.
A large, blue pen of cheap-looking plastic protruded from her breast pocket. Jake found that odd: he associated pens in pockets with nerds rather than punks, but perhaps fashions had changed since he’d last been in elementary school, or perhaps the pen was merely another way of ornamenting her clothes without falling afoul of the school’s guidelines.
Back when he was her age, he might have thought her cool or intimidating. Now he thought her silly, a child play-acting at a child’s idea of toughness. She would have been cute if it weren’t for the hard glare and the curling lip. Those didn’t look like an act.
When he found the empty desk beside her, he slid back the tiny chair and gingerly sat. His knobby knees stuck up, and the chair’s hard seat pressed against his tailbone. Sitting in this awkward position would no doubt be agonizing after a few hours.
Dana’s intense eyes remained on him. After half a minute, he turned to her and said, “Have I got somethin’ on my face?”
“Yeah,” she replied in a quiet voice. “Ugly.”
Oh, I can tell she’s gonna be a barrel of laughs.
The day went much as expected. The subjects, being ones he’d covered before, were a bore, and the childish way in which Miss Percy taught them was insulting. He reviewed sentence-diagramming and basic algebra. Grammar had never been his strong suit, so he discovered to his embarrassment that diagramming sentences was still as difficult as he remembered. The algebra he rather liked, but it reminded him that he had planned to start calculus this year.
The science class, which was chemistry, was amusing, but still too basic: it was an introductory explanation of electrons with no hands-on activity. While the teacher showed on the blackboard how to surround an elemental symbol with dots to represent an electron shell, he glanced at Dana. She had stared out the window during the other lessons, but now she leaned forward, bright eyes devouring the writing on the board as she sucked the end of her blue pen. Science was apparently her favorite subject.
During breaks, or when he went to the toilet (he had to raise his hand to get a hall pass), children peered at him around corners. They gawped and giggled. When he looked their way, they scattered, stomping their feet as they ran.
Oh, yeah. I’m sure this is absolutely vital to my “development.”
Recess was the worst. The school was a one-story brick building, L-shaped, with a large playground tucked against its inside corner. Other kids played on swings and slides or ran around. Some kicked a soccer ball in the field. Girls played wall ball or tetherball. A high cyclone fence surrounded an outdoor half basketball court, and Jake thought about grabbing a basketball and shooting some hoops—but a gaggle of first-graders was using the court for a dodgeball game.
He leaned against a wall of the school, thrust his hands into pockets, and watched. He contemplated leaving the school to grab a coffee at a nearby café, but, of course, elementary students were not allowed to leave the grounds.
He noticed Dana. The playground equipment stood in a square of woodchips, and long, rough-cut logs surrounded the square. While other children ran about and whooped and hollered, Dana, holding her hands out for balance, quietly walked back and forth on one of the logs. She kept her eyes down. She spoke to no one, and no one spoke to her.
Wondering if he could call his girlfriend, he dug out his cell phone and looked at the time. Nah, she’s probably in class—
“I’ll take that, Mr. Blatowski.”
Miss Percy stood in front of him, eyes stern behind round glasses. She held out one soft hand, palm up.
He pushed off from the wall, and she backed up a step. She clearly wasn’t used to having students taller than herself.
“The phone,” she said. “That’s not allowed.”
“High-schoolers can have phones if we keep them turned off in class.”
“This isn’t a high school, Mr. Blatowski.”
“No buts. You follow the same rules as everyone else.” She swallowed and trembled slightly, but kept her hand out.
With a sigh, he gave her the phone. “Fine. Can I get it after school?”
“Confiscated items cease to be your property.”
She scurried away and sought refuge behind the building’s metal fire doors.
He pounded a fist against the brick wall. I really, really hate this place.
All of this might have been tolerable if it weren’t for Dana. Apparently, she had no friends, but Dana had found in Jake someone more of a misfit than herself, and she clearly meant to exploit it.
The other kids were afraid of Jake. They pointed and giggled and yelled taunts from down the hall or across the playground, but they ran like mad when he came their way. Although hardly heavyset, he was tall for a boy his age, and to grade-schoolers, he must have looked huge. They mocked him only when they were out of the range of his arms.
Dana, however, didn’t care. Her pretty face set in a permanent glare, she took it upon herself to torment him. Whenever she found him looking her way, she stuck her tongue out. When he stooped low to use a drinking fountain in the hall, she walked by him and slapped the back of his head to knock him off balance and send his nose into the water stream. In the lunchroom, as he walked toward a table with his meager portion of some unrecognizable noodle dish, she stuck a finger under the corner of his tray to upend it. After lunch ended and he returned to the classroom, she pulled his chair out from under him when he sat, causing him to spread-eagle on the floor. That sent the class into a new fit of laughter.
As he grabbed his chair and put it back in its place, he leaned toward her and hissed, “What in the name of the Moon Princess is your problem?”
That was all she said.
He had never realized before how easy he was to torment. She was a child. He could easily pick her up and throw her across the room—but he wouldn’t. He wasn’t that kind of guy. He wasn’t the kind of guy to snitch on a little kid to the teacher, either. What could he do except endure?
Is this my punishment, Moon Princess, for not believing in you? If so, you are one sick, sick wench.
At the end of the day, he nicked a basketball from the gym, went to the outdoor half-court, and let off some steam. He had some talent for basketball. He might have made varsity this year—if he were in high school.
Over and over, he practiced reverse layups, twisting his body and working up a sweat. Over and over, he felt a wave of satisfaction as the ball fell through the hoop. For the briefest moment, he forgot about grade school. More importantly, he forgot about Dana Volt.
Except she was back to poke the hornets’ nest one more time.
Jake didn’t know when she appeared, but after the umpteenth successful layup, he found her watching him, her tiny fingers sticking through the cyclone fence.
“You’re stupid,” she said. “You suck.”
A quick glance revealed no teachers in the vicinity.
“That’s it.” Jake slammed the ball hard into the ground. The noise echoed off the school walls, and the ball bounced high into the air.
Dana let go of the fence and jumped back. For a moment, her green eyes went wide; a deer-in-the-headlights look replaced her customary glare.
But then she remembered the fence. Her glare returned, and she stuck out her tongue.
“C’mere, you little brat.” He ran toward the gate. The fear returned to her eyes, and she turned to run. He slammed the gate open, and in a few quick steps he had her.
He roughly grabbed her by one arm and instantly regretted it. Her arm was tiny, so small he could almost close his fingers around it. He was sure he must have bruised her. He loosened his grip, but he didn’t let go.
Dana released a few grunts and groans as she tried in vain to tug her arm from his grasp. Finally, she startled him with a scream: “Rape! Raaaape!”
Jake yanked her against his chest and clamped a hand over her mouth. “You crazy kid, don’t just go screaming something like—”
He looked up to see Miss Percy run out of the school building and yell incoherently as she crossed the playground.
“Ohhhh … this looks bad, doesn’t it?”
Jake got an earful from both Miss Percy and the thickset principal, Mr. Axness, who casually mentioned in the midst of his scolding that he had been a championship wrestler back in his day.
To defend himself, Jake admitted that Dana had spent the day harassing him. Neither the teacher nor the principal betrayed a trace of sympathy.
“You are here only because you couldn’t properly complete elementary school the first time,” Mr. Axness said, and Jake decided it was best not to correct this slander. “You are a lot older, a lot bigger, and a lot stronger than the other students. If I hear word of you bullying any of the younger children ever again, I’ll show you the move that got me these trophies.”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the bronze wrestler figurines lining the shelf behind him.
“Is that clear, Mr. Blatowski?”
Jake swallowed a lump and, with it, his pride.
“Yes, Mr. Axness.” He said it in a whisper because he was afraid that, if he raised his voice, he’d start crying. “Yes, that’s perfectly clear.”
Fighting back tears and struggling to preserve whatever shred of dignity he had left, he walked out of the principal’s office. In the hall, Dana Volt sat on the floor, her arms around her knees.
He looked at her for a moment, but there was no emotion in his look. He had none left.
When he turned away and walked toward the front doors, he heard the swish of cloth and the patter of her school slippers as Dana rose and followed him.
In the foyer, he tried to ignore her as he slammed open his shoe locker, put his slippers away, and tied on his patent leather Oxfords. She replaced her slippers with a pair of Mary Janes.
“Are you going to jail?” she asked as she stood and brushed her hands down her skirt. “I hope you go to jail for a really long time, and I hope some big guy with tattoos makes you his girlfriend.”
“A girl your age should not talk like that. What TV shows have you been watching?”
He rounded on her. He reached toward her collar, but before he touched her, he closed his eyes, mastered himself, and slowly dropped his hands to his sides. “No, of course not. Why are you still here? Go home.”
He smacked the crash bar on the glass front door and walked out into the sunlight. He didn’t bother to hold the door for her.
Still, she followed him.
“You’re stupid,” she said from a few steps behind as he headed down the walk.
“Yeah, I must be. I’m still in fifth grade. Go home, will you?”
She bounced back and forth from one foot to another. Finally, she ran in front of him, yanked down one eyelid, and yelled, “Beh!” Then she scampered off.
One by one, Jake cracked his knuckles. “That … little … brat!”
I am not a stalker. I just wanna know what makes the runt tick.
As stealthily as he could, Jake followed Dana home. Steadily, never once looking back over her shoulder, she marched down the sidewalk, deeper into Urbanopolis. She followed a meandering road down out of the rolling hills. The bungalows with their lawns and trees and neat shrubbery gradually gave way to a jumble of brownstones and Art Deco apartment buildings, which formed a buffer zone of sorts between the wealthy, homogenized suburbs and the seedier but more colorful shared-wall nagaya and blockish danchi that filled the city’s more heavily populated districts.
Jake heard a faint, mechanical buzz. Dana put a hand to her breast pocket. Then she ran past a jumble of beat-up rubbish bins and into a narrow alley.
Uh oh. It’s not safe for a kid her age to jump into a place like that—
He tiptoed to the alley’s entrance, pressed his back against the wall, leaned, and peeked in.
Surrounded by strewn garbage, Dana took out her blue pen. She put it to her mouth and whispered, “The moon shines her light on both good and bad.”
What the heck? Is she talking to her pen?
She paused a moment and then said, “But the sun is a harsh mistress. What is it, boss?”
Either listening to a voice coming from her pen or merely pretending, she nodded a few times. “I can be there in two minutes. Over and out.”
After she slipped the pen into her pocket, she lifted her right hand into the air.
“Shock my heart!” she shouted.
As if he’d drawn too close to a Van de Graaff generator, Jake’s hair stood on end, and a tingling sensation pushed against his face. A bright light surrounded Dana as she floated into the air. Her uniform disappeared, but in its place, a gauzy, frilly blue skirt sprouted from her waist. Bands of light encircled her forearms and calves, and then those bands solidified into lace-edged vambraces and greaves of silver and gold. Another light shone from her torso and became a cuirass. White and blue streaks of electricity crackled around her and made metallic pings as they struck the rubbish bins. As her new outfit formed from thin air, Dana chanted, “By the power of Zeus, Thor, and Raijin, release the energies within my soul!”
A tiara of silver and gold, holding an amber stone, appeared on her brow. Her hair darkened from red to blue. It whipped around her face, but then pink ribbons appeared and tied it up into pigtails.
Once her outfit was complete, she dropped back to the ground. Landing lithely on one foot, she crossed her arms before her chest and spun in a circle. “Electrifying the world with love and friendship—and making evildoers feel the wattage of justice!”
She stopped spinning, but raised a hand to her head in the universal salute of the devotees of the Moon Princess: index and middle finger spread wide across the forehead, thumb pointed straight down.
“I,” she cried, “am Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo!”
Jake ducked back around the corner and slapped a hand to his mouth. Sweat dripped down his face. His other hand brushed one of the rubbish bins, and static electricity numbed his fingertips.
Sweet ever-loving Moon Princess! That little twerp is a magical girl!