JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 4: NO LOVE LOST
As the sun turned red and slowly set over the bay, it softened the scene of death and destruction with rich hues of rose and violet. With knees trembling, and with dried tears still on his cheeks, Jake slumped under a canopy that the emergency aid workers had erected. A thick, sharp smell like lead solder hung on the air, but every once in a while he caught the smell of blood, which made his stomach lurch. A low chatter surrounded him, and people frequently brushed past. First-responders and paramedics treated those with minor injuries. Ambulances, one after another, carried away the seriously harmed. Out in the street, in neat rows, the less fortunate lay with sheets over their faces.
A tall girl, perhaps sixteen, leaned over him with a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee in her hand. She was slender, and she wore her silver hair in a short boy cut. The strange hair was a clue, but the green gown fringed with bells gave it away.
“You’re a magical girl,” he said.
“I’m Grease Pencil Marionette. Pleased to meet you.”
He nodded wearily and took the coffee. “I’ve heard of you. Didn’t some mad scientist build you or something?”
“You mean my father?”
He lowered his eyes. “Sorry.”
She hunkered down beside him with a cup of her own. “It’s okay. They tell me he was quite the eccentric, even if he wasn’t exactly mad.”
She swept a hand toward the shattered buildings and the gray piles of masonry surrounding them. “He had a dream, a dream of a future in which an army of robots would protect the city. That way, young girls, even if they developed magic powers, could go on living normal lives.” She sipped her coffee. “Of course, he died when he activated me, and his notes burned.”
He glanced at her. It would have been easy to mistake her for a little boy if it weren’t for her height. A faint smile dimpled her round cheeks, but her mouth was tight at the corners. Her gray eyes peered intently at his face.
He looked away. Down the street, the hovering Bubble Princesses waved their wands in the air. As they did, huge soap bubbles appeared around chunks of masonry and lifted them. On the ground, ordinary men and women, some firemen and some volunteers, dug at the rubble with shovels and picks. Several backhoes worked as well.
“Should I help?” Jake asked.
“Right now, after what you went through, you should rest. You might be more rattled than you realize. Do you want a blanket?”
He shook his head and drank his coffee. His hands shook. His fingers felt so weak, he was afraid he might drop the cup.
“You know Pretty Dynamo,” Marionette said.
He thought for a moment. “I just met her today.”
Her smile took on a hint of mischievous amusement. “I’ve seen her rescue a lot of people, but you’re the first one she’s carried around with her while she fought.”
“She told those Bubble Princesses she was teaching me a lesson.”
“Was that her excuse?”
He cleared his throat. “Where is she, anyway?”
“Oh, she never sticks around once the killing’s done, but we don’t begrudge it. She’s the best. She’s holding this city together, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
She took a long pull on her coffee. “Most magical girls lose their powers when they turn eighteen. But I don’t age. I’ve been around a while. I even knew the Moon Princess before she ascended.”
“Are you really a robot? You don’t seem like it.”
“Oh, yes. I am. To make me like a real magical girl, my father had to fill me with hopes and desires I could never fulfill. I’d like to grow up, to have a family.” Her eyes grew distant, and her smile faded. “To be an artist. I can’t do any of those sorts of things, but I like to see the other girls do them—when they can. A lot of them have a hard time living normal lives once all this is over.”
She tipped her head back and poured the rest of her coffee down her throat.
“It’s always the best ones,” she said as she threw her cup away. “It’s always the best ones who have trouble. I’ve watched Dynamo: she doesn’t have any friends among the magical girls, and it makes me wonder if her alter ego has any friends either.”
Jake swirled his coffee in his cup and thought about Dana Volt, her hard eyes staring out the window while the rest of the class laughed.
“I’ve seen it before,” said Marionette. “If things don’t change, in fifteen years, the girl who used to be Pretty Dynamo is going to be in and out of drug rehab.”
He watched the Bubble Princesses again, just to have something to look at aside from his coffee and Marionette’s face. “Why would you tell me this? I’m just a teenage boy. Are you trying to destroy all my illusions about magical girls?”
“I might be a robot, but I can read people. You don’t have any illusions.”
She put a hand on his knee. Her fingers were warm. They felt entirely real.
“She has great power, but in the end, she’s just as fragile, just as vulnerable, as any other little girl. I won’t ask how well you know her because I know you’d want to protect her identity. But do me one favor: if you do know her, if you know who she is—”
He turned toward her again. Her eyes bored into his.
“—If you know who she is, then watch out for her.”
At that, Grease Pencil Marionette stood and walked away.
It was well after dark when Jake made it home. As soon as he stepped through the front door, his mother grabbed him fiercely. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call me?”
“You’re all over the news, boy,” his father said from the couch.
The lights were off, but the television was on. It filled the room with a flickering glow. On the screen, Pretty Dynamo bent over Jake and stuck a finger in his face. Then the video looped, and she did it again.
The image cut to a scene of Jake throwing up on the pavement.
Oh, this is just what I need—
A female reporter’s chipper voice intoned, “Who is the mysterious boy who accompanied Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo during her heroic battle with the city’s latest monster, a level-nine kaiju? Why did Dynamo carry him throughout the fight?”
“Oh my Princess,” Jake whispered.
“What were you doing downtown?” his father asked.
“I … I just went for a walk, I guess.”
“You can’t do that!” his mother cried as she grasped his vest and tugged on him. “Not with all the monsters! Why didn’t you call me?” She pulled him close and held him tight, as if afraid he’d disappear.
“My teacher took my phone—”
“That’s it! I’m calling the school!” She marched toward the wall phone near the kitchen.
“Mom, there’s nobody there now—”
“Then I’ll call in the morning!
“Don’t make a scene, please.”
“They can’t take your phone! Your mother needs to be able to call you to make sure you’re safe!”
Jake sighed and dropped onto the sofa.
“Well,” said his father. His eyes were invisible behind his thick lenses, which reflected the television’s image of Jake losing his lunch. “I assume your opinion of magical girls has changed significantly.”
“Not really,” Jake replied as he threw an arm over the back of the couch. “Pretty Dynamo’s kind of a jackass.”
Morning came, to Jake’s disgust. While the sunlight peeked like a creepy neighbor through his bedroom window, he groaned loudly, rolled out of bed, and climbed into the crumpled remains of his elementary school uniform. He had lost the blue beanie cap sometime during the evening before—thank the Princess for small favors.
When he stumbled down the stairs, his mother was bustling over breakfast. His father was once again glued to the morning news. The weather was warm, so the front door was open, and Ralph walked in with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Blatowski. Mm, something smells good—”
“There’s enough for you to have some,” Jake’s mother said as she delivered eggs and sausage to Jake’s plate.
“Hey, don’t mind if I do.” Ralph dropped onto the stool beside Jake at the breakfast bar. “How’s the return to fifth grade going?”
“Shut up,” said Jake.
“I’ll see the superintendent today,” said his mother. “I’m getting you into high school, and I’m getting your phone back. This is all ridiculous!”
Jake took up his fork and picked at his eggs. He hadn’t been able to get down dinner the night before, and though his knees were weak and his stomach felt hollow, he still couldn’t work up an appetite.
Ralph reached an arm around his shoulders.
“Hey, Ralph, we’re close, but we’re not that close.”
“Dude, I’m sorry, but I just wanted to touch the man who touched Pretty Dynamo.”
Ralph unfurled his paper. There, on the front page, was a picture of Jake spewing stroganoff in the middle of the street. The bold headline announced, “PRETTY DYNAMO RESCUES BARFING BOY.”
Jake pushed his plate away and lowered his head to the countertop. “I officially hate my life.”
The phone rang. Looking for a distraction, he leaned over and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Jake? Jake! Is that you?”
“Oh, hey, Chelsea—”
“Like, OMP! I have been, like, calling your frickin’ phone all frickin’ morning! Where the frick are you?”
“Why didn’t you pick up your frickin’ cell?”
“A teacher took my phone—”
“She took your phone? OMP! Seriously? That is, like, totally fascist!”
“I can’t frickin’ believe you went back to frickin’ grade school! I thought I could tell everybody I had a high school boyfriend, but now you’re in frickin’ fifth grade? Do you want my girlfriends to laugh at me? I can’t tell ’em I’m dating a fifth-grader! That’s, like, totally gross!”
Chelsea’s voice rose an octave. “And what the frick is up with you and Pretty Dynamo? Are you, like, dumping me for her?”
“What? What in the world are you—?”
“It’s on page six,” said Ralph. He opened the paper to display another headline: “PRETTY DYNAMO AND BARFING BOY: IS DYNABARF THE NEW POWER COUPLE?”
“Yep,” said Jake, “I definitely hate my life.”
“Well?” yelled Chelsea. “Explain yourself!”
“Chelsea, honey, I’m obviously not dating Pretty Dynamo—”
“You better not be,” Chelsea shrieked, “because I ship her with Sword Seamstress!”
She slammed the phone down. Jake winced.
“Wow,” said Ralph.
“The Dynamo with the Seamstress?” Ralph clapped a hand to his face. “I think I’m getting a nosebleed—”
“Dude, what is wrong with you?”
“Think about it: if Sword Seamstress gets with Pretty Dynamo, they’ll be DynaSword.”
“Is everyone in this city crazy except me?”
Jake’s mother slid a plate in front of Ralph. “Here you go!” she sang.
“You’re the best, Mrs. B. Ooh, over medium, just the way I like ’em.”
When Jake slunk into the classroom, most of the other students were already there. Dana stared out the window, chin on hand.
Man, sitting next to her is going to be awkward today—
He didn’t make it to his seat. As soon as he stepped through the door, the class was in an uproar. Chattering fifth-grade girls surrounded him, their eyes shining and their loud voices occasionally spiking out of the audible range. They pushed and shoved one another as they shouted.
“Jake, you’re so cool!”
“I thought you were a total loser, but you’re actually awesome!”
“You met Pretty Dynamo!”
“Are you seriously going out with her?”
“Did you seriously barf on her?”
“Can you get me her autograph?”
“Can we meet her?”
“What’s she like?”
He staggered back. “Whoa, hey!”
Twenty eager pairs of eyes stared up at him.
“Well, I mean, she’s—”
He looked across the room. Dana still sat at her desk, still stared out the window. She hadn’t turned around.
“She’s okay, I guess.”
The children’s faces fell. A few lips quivered.
A lump formed in Jake’s throat. He coughed into his fist. “I mean, y’know. She’s a magical girl. Embodiment of the power of love and all that.”
Two of the students, a blond girl and a dark-haired girl with a pink bow in her hair, gasped simultaneously. Rapturous grins appeared on their faces. They turned toward each other, clasped hands, bent at the knees, and squealed.
Unfamiliar with the complex symbolism of feminine body language, Jake merely frowned.
“Oh my Princess,” the dark-haired girl cried, “you two are totally going out!”
“OMP!” shrieked the blonde. “I can’t believe we share a class with Pretty Dynamo’s boyfriend!”
Jake scratched his head for a moment, but then a small smile formed on his mouth.
Heh. Kids. Yeah, I remember this stuff. Do they still sing the “sittin’ in a tree” song? How did that go? First comes love, then comes marriage—
A fat boy with dark circles around his eyes pushed his way through the girls. “Hey, Jake, when ya gonna get ’er pregnant so she can go on welfare?”
Kids these days …
Jake started when Miss Percy’s voice came from directly behind. “Sit down! Everyone! Class is beginning!”
Desks clattered and scraped across the floor as children flew to them and dropped into their seats.
Jake cautiously sat beside Dana. She kept her eyes firmly affixed to the window.
Why is she always staring outside? Is she just bored? Is she looking for escape?
He turned to Miss Percy, who led the class in the morning prayer to the Moon Princess. Even though his eyes were on the teacher, his thoughts stayed on Dana. Now that he’d seen her as a magical girl, he couldn’t help but think how tiny she looked in this form. Dynamo had a presence, an energy, that Dana decidedly didn’t have.
Maybe they’re not really the same—
Jake mumbled his way through the prayer’s responses. Miss Percy read off various rote intercessions such as “May the Princess keep us” and “May she protect us from all harm” and “May her kingdom come.” To each, the children replied with the standard “May it be so.”
Dana kept silent. She wore a crucifix, so perhaps she claimed an exemption. Devotion to the Moon Princess was the official religion of man’s last city, but vestiges of other religions remained.
At the end of the prayer, Jake and most of the other students raised their right hands to their foreheads, index and middle fingers spread, thumb pointed down. It was the same gesture Dynamo had made when she transformed.
If Pretty Dynamo follows the Princess, why doesn’t Dana Volt pray?
As Miss Percy started yet another lesson on sentence diagramming, Jake doodled in his notebook. At first, he drew diamonds and connected them to form cubes. But then he found himself writing out words in thick block letters:
“I know who you are.”
He stared at the words for half a minute. He carefully tore the paper around them, folded the paper up into a tiny square, and tossed the square onto Dana’s desk.
She finally stirred. After turning from the window, she picked up the paper and read it. Her sour expression didn’t so much as budge. She wrote on the back, folded it up again, and tossed it to him.
He opened it. Inside, in a childish scrawl, it read, “Your stupid.”
My stupid what?
He ripped up another part of the page and wrote, “I saw you transform.” A fresh lump formed in his throat, and his fingers trembled around the scrap of paper. At last, with teeth clenched in determination, he folded it over.
He was about to toss it toward Dana’s desk, but a hand reached out and seized his wrist. He looked up to find Miss Percy standing over him.
“And what is this?” she demanded. “Something you can share with the whole class, I hope?”
He glanced at Dana. Now her bored, sour look was gone, and that look of intense fear was back. He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but she actually turned paler.
Miss Percy opened the square of paper and scanned it. Her eyes widened briefly before returning to stern disapproval.
“Hmph.” She slapped the paper down on his desk. “I suggest, Mr. Blatowski, that you save your love notes until after school!”
The class erupted into fresh laughter. Most of the students doubled over, guffawing, but Jake looked around to see that the little black-haired girl with the pink bow was glowering, arms crossed over her chest.
Dana turned crimson, but underneath the embarrassment, she looked relieved.
Jake picked up the paper and, as discreetly as he could, slipped it into his mouth. It was disgusting, but he swallowed it.
Man, I seriously screwed up.
Morning recess came. Jake leaned against the wall as the kids played soccer or swung on the swings or simply ran around. He thought again about sneaking off campus to get a cup of joe, and he thought again about practicing basketball, but third-graders were using the court to play some rough variant of tag, and he doubted he could escape the watchful eye of the teacher on recess duty if he tried to slip from the school grounds.
The dark-haired girl with the pink bow walked up to him slowly while repeatedly interlacing and then separating her fingers. Her eyes fixed him with an intense if childish glare.
Jake turned toward her, but the blonde ran up and grabbed her. “Rikka! Come play tetherball with me!”
“Okay, Janice.” Rikka held Janice’s hand and ran with her toward the tetherball pole on the far side of the playground, but looked over her shoulder several times as she went.
Dana left him alone. The day was uneventful and dull, but free of harassment. At the end of it, Miss Percy, visibly trembling, ordered him to stay after class.
Once the other students had filed out, the room was strangely empty and quiet. As it was late in the afternoon, the sun no longer poured through the windows, and the light from outside seemed wan and enervated. Jake gingerly sat on one corner of his desk. Sitting lowered his head to Miss Percy’s level, and being able to look straight into his eyes apparently emboldened her.
She cleared her throat and, apparently steeling herself, threw her shoulders back. “How did the rest of it go?” she asked.
He frowned. “The rest of what?”
“‘I saw you transform.’”
She held his gaze for half a minute while the words hung on the air.
Forcing a sickly smile onto her mouth and raising a hand, she added, “‘Into a beautiful flower,’ something like that? Mr. Blatowski, I know you are in the throes of puberty, but this is an elementary school. You may be only three to four years older than your classmates, but that’s a significant gap at your age.”
Holy Princess, she actually doesn’t get it.
He scratched the back of his neck and did his best to look sheepish. “Golly, you’re right, Miss Percy. I guess I forgot myself.”
Ugh. Dana, don’t ever say I never did anything for you—
“Mr. Blatowski, let me remind you that this is the second time in two days that I’ve caught you in inappropriate conduct—with the same girl, I might add. I realize you’re a young boy, and I realize redheads are a rare sight in this day and age, but that’s no excuse for your lack of restraint.”
He clenched both his fists and his teeth, but managed to keep his voice even. “I’m really sorry.”
“I should hope so. If this continues, we will be forced to contact your parents—and external authorities. Is that clear?”
Darn it. Now my teacher thinks I’m some kind of sexual freak.
Tears in his eyes, he headed for the gym to steal another basketball and take out his frustrations on the court. It was better than taking out his frustrations on Dana’s skull, which is what he really wanted.
The gym was dark, but even from across the way, he could see a tiny figure standing sentry in front of the equipment cupboard. When he drew close, he discovered, of course, that it was Dana Volt.
She stood with her arms crossed and her intense green eyes half-lidded in a sullen glower.
“Out of the way, twerp, or I swear to the Princess I’ll run you down.” He stepped up his pace to a brisk half-jog.
She spun and threw open the cupboard’s double doors. Then she ran at him, her Mary Janes clopping against the hardwood. He stopped in surprise just as she slammed the top of her head into the pit of his stomach. With a whoof, he bent over. The air left his lungs. Squealing faintly, she rained punches on his chest and shoulders. Her strikes were ungainly, weak. They barely stung. She had her eyes squeezed shut.
Struggling to catch his breath, he raised his arms to fend off a few of the blows, but he put little effort into blocking, and he didn’t hit back.
Since her punches had no effect, she changed tactics. She ran behind him, put her palms against his back, and leaned into him. He put a foot out to keep his balance, but she didn’t have enough weight to move him. She whimpered as she strained.
Curious, he decided to walk where she pushed him. Under the influence of her pressing hands, he plodded flat-footed into the equipment cupboard. Once they were inside, she slammed the doors shut and left them in darkness. Then, with a cry, she struck him with her fists again.
He could barely see her in the dark, but her movements were slow enough that he could easily grab her wrists.
After he seized her, he bent down and hissed, “What’s your malfunction?”
She sniffled. Her voice was thick with sobs. “You’re gonna tell! You’re gonna tell everybody!”
He sighed. “No, I’m not. Dana, listen: you are seriously the most obnoxious person I know—but you also saved my life yesterday. As far as I’m concerned, we’re even. Clean slate. Got it?” For emphasis, he shook her wrists, and her whole body wobbled.
She sniffled again and, before he realized what she was doing, used the back of his right hand to wipe her nose.
“That’s not even!” she said. “You owe me!”
“What? Why, you little brat—”
Grunting and groaning, she twisted her body back and forth as she strained to escape his hold, apparently unaware that she could free herself by snapping her wrists past his thumbs.
How the heck does this girl fight monsters?
He worried that he might bruise her again, so he loosened his grip. At the same moment, she raised a knee. It missed his groin, but struck him hard in the left hip.
The blow bent him over. He lost his balance and stumbled into her, sending her sprawling with a loud whump onto a pile of wrestling mats. Hands still locked around her wrists, he fell heavily on top of her.
She gasped and stopped struggling. The light was dim, but he could see her green eyes glistening with that now-familiar look of fear. He caught a faint, sweet scent, apparently her shampoo. She smelled like grape Kool-Aid.
The double doors flew open, and Miss Percy’s voice exclaimed, “Who is making all the—?”
She stopped and, with a hand to her mouth, sucked in her breath.
“Jake Blatowski!” she screamed.
He heaved a deep sigh.
“I seriously, seriously hate my life.”