JAKE AND THE DYNAMO Chapter 16

JAKE AND THE DYNAMO

CHAPTER 16: REQUIEM

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A stairwell led down into the shelter. From the top of that stairwell, a patch of black soot radiated out into the street. As Chirops neared it, his nose twitched. He recoiled at the stench of burnt petrol and charred flesh.

A chill ran down his spine at the thought of what must lie in the concrete bunker beneath, a place of refuge now turned into a charnel house. Across the universe, these magical girls of Earth were infamous for their ruthlessness, a ruthlessness that, thanks to their influence, now characterized humanity as a whole. Urbanopolis, as its innumerable enemies well knew, would do anything to survive.

Even kill its own.

The universe is a tomb …

The demoniac stood at his shoulder. Chirops didn’t even look as he contorted his body into some new, grotesque mockery of the human form, his joints popping like firecrackers.

“We’re too late,” Chirops said.

The demoniac bent over backwards and stuck his nose against the ground. He inhaled deeply and then spat something green onto the asphalt. “Phaugh, I smell the stench of the dove, one washed in the blood!”

“Washed in blood?” Chirops scratched his head. “That sounds unhygienic—”

The demoniac snorted as he gave Chirops a venomous sidelong glance. “Your mother scrubs docks in hell,” he muttered.

“Scrubs docks? You mean she holystones them?”

The demoniac hissed and drew back as if Chirops had singed him with hot iron. “We call them unholystones where I come from!”

“Oh … well, that makes sense.”

“I mean I smell a Christian, fool.” On all fours, he crawled in a circle, snuffling all the while. “They take a ritual bath—”

“That’s good, isn’t it? They say cleanliness is next to—”

The demoniac hissed again, and Chirops closed his mouth with a squeak.

The demoniac snarled, “She bled here … our hated enemy … Andalusia.”

“Oh, her. Yeah, she’s dead. It was one of the Dark Queen’s trolls—”

Chirops yelped when the demoniac swiped him across the face with his long claws. “Fool! You denied me my prey! Did you torment her?”

“We just … well, we killed her … gah!”

The demoniac grabbed him around the throat, lifted him into the air, and shook him. “Idiot! Then you lost her! You should have put her to the fire and demanded she recant, and then I could have devoured her soul for eternity!”

He threw Chirops to the ground. Stunned, the bat lay panting on the blackened asphalt.

“Your mother wears frocks in hell,” the demoniac grumbled. He bent down and sniffed again. His expression turned thoughtful as his head, accompanied by a series of gruesome crackling sounds, spun on his neck like a slow-motion top. “Her blood passed to another … and he stinks like a Jew.”

“That must be him,” Chirops croaked as he rubbed his throat. “Pretty Dynamo’s boyfriend. He was there when Andalusia died.”

The demoniac nodded, and a stream of saliva ran slowly down his chin. “I want him. I will swallow his soul … with fava beans in a light—”

“The Dark Queen wants him alive for now. Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo is our real target.”

The demoniac narrowed his eyes and crossed his misshapen arms. He pouted. “Tell the Dark Queen that her mother winds clocks in hell.”

“Do you think you can track him? By smell?”

The demoniac’s lip curled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “I’m not a bloodhound, you ridiculous cretin … but I will find him. It is only a matter of time.”

 


 

The shower’s hot water stung his cuts and bruises, but it felt good anyway. After he stepped out, Jake wrapped a towel around his waist, cracked his knuckles, and walked to the sink to begin his new, favorite morning ritual.

About a month earlier, he had begged his parents until they bought him a shaving kit—the old-fashioned kind of shaving kit, the kind real men used. He began the solemn rites by filling the sink half-full of hot water and dunking his badger-hair brush in it. While that was soaking, he poured hot water into his ceramic scuttle to keep his shaving soap warm. Then he dropped a brand new double-edged blade into his safety razor and screwed it closed. To soften his whiskers, he spread onto his face a thick smear of pre-shave oil scented with citrus and anise, though today he had to be careful to avoid the scabs on his cheek. He knocked water out of his brush on the side of the sink and dabbed it at his cake of hardwood-scented soap. Once he had enough, he whisked the brush around in his scuttle to work up a good lather. He massaged the lather into his face until his cheeks dripped with it.

Following that, he took up his razor, lifted his nose, and, with short, precise strokes, carefully removed the down from his upper lip. Once he had accomplished that, he rinsed off the rest of the soap and splashed on some aftershave. Then he splashed on some more. And some more. He splashed it all over.

When he was done, he felt like a man again.

He’d lost his uniform, so he had to go to school in his street clothes: a pair of cargo pants, a button-up shirt, and a denim jacket. He knew he wouldn’t get in trouble for it; teachers were usually lax about the rules right after a large-scale monster attack. Still, his father insisted he put on a tie.

Breakfast was unusually plain. The power had been off for most of a day, so his mother had thrown out the contents of the refrigerator. He made do with toast. Strangely, his father wasn’t watching the news, but instead hunched over a cup of coffee and his own plate of toast at the breakfast bar. Perhaps the news was too depressing. Perhaps they had all seen enough of what it would inevitably be describing.

“Sukeban Tsubasa,” his father muttered.

Jake frowned.

 


 

Ralph met him on the way to school. They could walk together for a few blocks before they had to part ways.

“You’re alive,” Ralph said.

“So are you.”

They slugged each other’s shoulders and strolled together in uncharacteristic silence. They passed a house that a few days ago had been whole, but was now a blackened crater. Part of the road was nothing but rubble, and orange signs warned vehicles to find another route.

A breeze rustled the red-tinged leaves of the oak trees. Ralph tipped his head back and laughed quietly.

“How’s high school?” Jake asked.

“It’s fine. Same peeps. Not much different from middle school, really … there’s this new guy, though. Total pretty boy. Has girls hanging off him all the time. You should feel lucky that your girlfriend’s still down in eighth grade, or this dude would steal her.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He’s real skinny, like he doesn’t eat enough, and he has long hair and big eyes and … ah, I don’t get it. Why do chicks go for dudes who look like chicks?”

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“They’re always on about his long eyelashes. Is that even a thing? Eyelashes?”

“I think it is, yeah.”

Ralph shook his head. “Women.”

“Tell me about it.”

“You talked to her yet?”

Jake started. “Who? Dynamo? Well, I mean—”

Ralph cut him off with another laugh. “Chelsea.”

“Oh.” Jake stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched.

“She’s okay, by the way,” Ralph said. “I saw her yesterday.”

“Did you? That’s good—”

“Jake.” Ralph lowered his head and drew an arm across his brow. “You know, you an’ me an’ Chelsea have been friends for a while.”

“Yeah—”

“I introduced you to her.”

“Sure.”

“I’ve known her since kindergarten. She used to play with my sisters.”

“I know.”

“She practically is one of my sisters.”

“I know, dude.”

Ralph coughed into his fist and sucked in his lower lip.

A lump formed in Jake’s throat. He had an inkling of where this was going.

“Jake, if you don’t really like her, you should just—”

“Ralph, I like her.”

“When’s the last time you even saw her?”

“Well, I mean, we’re in different schools now—”

“So? You knew that was coming anyway.”

“A lot has happened the last few days.”

“Sure.”

They were silent for another minute. The wind picked up, and the trees’ rattling leaves sounded strangely peaceful after the long days of violence. Jake’s ankle throbbed, and he still limped. He had it taped up, but wondered if he should get a crutch.

“Ralph, do you think it’s weird? For a high-schooler to date an eighth-grader?”

“You’re not a high-schooler.”

“I will be. You know what I mean.” His neck was stiff. He tried to rub out one shoulder. “Sheesh, when we started dating, she was twelve. We held hands behind the gym.”

“She’s not twelve now.”

“I know that. And her birthday’s ahead of mine, so she’ll be the same age as me for a bit …” He slapped a hand to his forehead. “Heck, I should get her something—”

Ralph sighed.

“What kind of stuff do you think she likes?”

Ralph smacked him in the back of the head. “You don’t know that after all this time?”

The blow stung more than it should have. Jake touched his scalp and found a bruise he hadn’t been aware of until now. “I dunno, Ralph. I mean, we’ve been saying we’re boyfriend and girlfriend and stuff, but we just … we just hang out. It’s fine when we’ve got friends with us. But I took her out for burgers or whatever a couple of times and we just sort of stared at each other.”

“So you don’t like her.”

“I like her. I do. I just don’t ‘get’ girls, I guess.”

Ralph thrust his hands into his pockets. “You sure seem to ‘get’ Pretty Dynamo.”

“Do not start that with me—”

“What’s up with you and her?”

“Nothing. Nothing is up with me and Pretty Dynamo. We just ran into each other. That’s all.”

“I thought it was funny at first. I understood. I mean, she saved your life, and that’s awesome. She’s awesome. But now you’re on the news with her again, and it’s really starting to look like you’re dumping Chelsea for—”

“Stop it. Believe me, Pretty Dynamo is not girlfriend material. For several reasons.”

At that, Ralph scowled, looked away from him, and rolled his shoulders. “Well, then, I don’t suppose you could—”

“Ralph, no.”

“What?”

“I know what you wanna ask. No, I will not introduce you to her.”

“That’s harsh. She doesn’t belong to you, dude. She belongs to the city.”

“She doesn’t belong to anybody. Look, she’s not a people person, all right? If I told her I wanted to introduce her to friends and acted like I was using her to show off, she—well, she wouldn’t take it well.”

“What’s she like?”

Jake rubbed the back of his neck and found a scab he hadn’t known was there. “I’m not really sure.”

“But you think you know how she’d react if—”

“Yes, I know that. That much I know. But she’s not easy to read. It’s like, there’s the Dynamo you see on the news, or who shows up for photos or whatever, and then there’s the real Dynamo. That’s all I can say. I really can’t explain.”

They reached a corner, and Ralph abruptly stopped. Jake walked on a few paces more, but then half-turned toward him. Ralph stared at the ground. A scowl knitted his brows.

“I gotta turn here,” Ralph said.

“Yeah.”

“You should see Chelsea this weekend.”

“Okay, okay, I will. I got something I need to do on Friday, but—”

“This is Friday.”

“It is? I lost track. Man, what a week. Okay, why don’t we hang out this weekend? I’ll call Chelsea and then, you know, same time, same place—”

“Don’t you think you should take her somewhere nicer?”

“I don’t have the money.”

“Or maybe, y’know, just the two of you?”

“C’mon, help me out.”

Ralph sighed. “I’ll make you feel awkward.”

“No you won’t.”

“Then you’ll make me feel awkward.”

“So bring a girl of your own.”

“Right. Why don’t you bring Pretty—?”

“No, Ralph.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Ralph shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and, with a hunch in his shoulders and a glum frown on his mouth, turned and walked away. A few red leaves drifted onto the walk behind him as he went.

 


 

When Jake stepped into the school, a heavy knot formed in his stomach, and his palms turned slick. He could hear his heart hammering against his ribs.

Okay, if she’s not here, there could be lots of reasons. She might be taking a break after all that fighting. It doesn’t mean she’s hurt. It doesn’t mean she’s … y’know …

He told himself that several times as his classroom drew closer. He stopped at the door and took a deep breath to gather his courage. Then he at last stepped in.

Dana’s seat was empty.

His heart froze, and sweat formed under his collar.

It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything—

Several desks were empty. The few students present slumped in the seats. Some had red eyes. Some sniffled quietly. Janice and Rikka, the blonde and the dark-haired girl, hunched toward each other, held hands, and whispered quietly.

Oh man, I wonder how bad it was—

“Hey. You’re in the way, dummy.”

It was a girl’s voice, quiet, from directly behind. He turned to see Dana standing there, looking the same as always with her wrinkled uniform, safety pins, and crucifix choker. She had her satchel slung over one shoulder. As soon as his eyes met hers, she looked away and her lip curled.

He grabbed her and hugged her tight. As she had before, she relaxed for a brief moment in his arms. But then she squirmed and pounded a fist against his chest. “Leggo! Leggo!”

He released her. “You’re alive!”

“And you’re a freak!” Pouting, she pushed past him. As she marched toward her desk, she glanced over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue.

He smiled back.

Rikka now had her head on her desk. She was shaking. Janice patted her back.

Man, something bad must have happened to her—

Behind him, someone cried, “You’re alive!” Then a pair of arms wrapped around him.

He quickly disentangled himself and turned to find Miss Percy standing there, beaming up at him.

After a moment, her expression collapsed and her face turned crimson. She fumbled her glasses farther up her nose, cleared her throat, and stepped around him as she said, “Ah … sit down, Mr. Blatowsky. Class is starting, you know.”

After giving her a suspicious glare, he walked to his desk and lowered himself into his tiny chair. Once he was seated, he leaned toward Dana and whispered, “Talk to me at lunch.”

She made a rasping noise in her throat, stuck out her lower lip, and took up her usual posture: hand on chin, eyes out the window, boredom in her eyes.

Chuckling quietly, he pulled his notebook out of his satchel and wrote the date at the top of the first blank page.

 


 

The school hadn’t yet repaired the hole in the gym wall, but had marked it off with warning tape. Fortunately, the weather was still mild, so the new opening provided only sunlight and a faint breeze. Children gaped at the hole until the teachers on lunch duty shooed them away and ordered them to sit and eat.

Dana sat alone at a corner of the most sparsely occupied table. Jake picked up his tray of slop—it looked vaguely like a tuna sandwich—and sat across from her.

She glared at him as she pulled out a bento box and untied its cloth cover. After taking out a pair of lacquered chopsticks, she opened the box and made a show of ignoring him.

Inside, she had white rice balls decorated with dark green pieces of nori to make them look like pandas. Beside them were little carrot slices, cut like elm leaves, lying on a bed of noodles. Also sitting on the noodles was an octopus carved from a wiener. A few pea pods and asparagus tips rounded out the meal.

“Wow,” said Jake. “A charaben. Don’t see a lot of those in this part of town. It’s really cute.”

Dana made that rasping noise in her throat again, but she fished out a handheld camera and snapped a picture of the bento before she dug in.

“Aren’t you going to say Itadakimasu?”

She made the same sound, and then she ate quickly.

“Your mom must love you.”

She grunted, head low and arm hooked around her lunch like a man eating in prison. “I’m an orphan.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry. I mean your guardian must love you.”

“I live alone.”

“No you don’t. We have social services.”

She made that rasping sound.

“Does your family usually eat Japanese? I know a lot of people do.”

Another grunt.

He picked at his own food, leaned toward her, and said, “I still owe you, remember?”

She flashed her green eyes at him, bit the head off one of her panda-shaped onigiri, and chewed noisily.

She sucked in her cheeks and squinched up her eyes. “Umeboshi,” she muttered with her mouth full.

“You don’t like umeboshi? Does salty food bother you?”

“I like umeboshi.” She hunched lower, devoured the rest of her panda, and reached for the other.

“So you’re okay with strong-tasting food, huh? That’s good to know. Well, anyway, since I owe you—”

She stuffed the entirety of her second panda in her mouth before she murmured, “You don’t owe—”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Her scowl deepened and her cheeks reddened, but she swallowed without chewing and said, “You don’t owe me.”

“You got rice on your face. Here.” He reached toward her with a napkin, but she made a new sound, halfway between a snarl and a squeal, and slapped his hand away. She snatched up her own napkin and dabbed at her face with it.

After a wary sideways glance, she clenched her teeth and hissed, “You … saved me this time, so we’re even again.” She started in on her noodles.

“You don’t eat enough, do you?”

She paused, chopsticks halfway to her mouth. Her glare this time looked wary.

“I mean, that looks healthy and all, but it’s pretty small portions, and I’ve seen how you can eat.”

Another grunt.

He leaned farther and lowered his voice to a whisper, barely audible over the din of the other students. “It’s your power, isn’t it? Tesla said your magic takes energy. That’s why you’re so thin. You need to eat more.”

Her hand shook, and the noodles fell away from her chopsticks. “My mom,” she whispered, “is really nice—”

“I’m sure she is.”

“—but she’s a health nut.”

Now she attacked her noodles savagely: she slurped them into her mouth, along with the autumn leaves made of carrots, in a single gulp. After she made short work of her octopus wiener, she closed up her bento with a look of disgust affixed to her face.

“One lousy piece o’ meat,” she muttered.

“It’s Friday. I thought Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Friday.”

She ground her teeth.

“You’re supposed to have fish on Friday and tacos on Tuesday, or something like that.”

As she tied the cloth bag around her box, she said, “I wanna eat more, but I can’t tell her or she’ll guess—”

He leaned his chin on his hands. “I want to ask you a favor. Come with me, and I’ll take you somewhere where you can eat all you want, and nobody knows you, and nobody will be suspicious.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“Then we’ll call it even,” he added.

She looked away from him, her fingers tapping on the tabletop. “Why do you care?”

“Because I’m selfish.”

The tapping stopped.

“I just … I’m worried about you, all right? You’ve got a lot of people worried about you—”

“Who?”

“Well, Marionette—”

“She hates me.”

“No she doesn’t. Look, a lot of stuff has happened this week, and it’s all crazy, and I don’t know what to do, and I’m sitting here with an honest-to-Princess zombie monitor on my wrist, and I’m about to freak out. Let me worry about you. It will keep me sane.”

She intertwined her fingers, and her scowl deepened. She kept her eyes down on the table as she said, “I won’t eat snails or anything weird.”

“Okay.”

“And I like French fries.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me where to go.”

“No, tell me your address, and I’ll pick you up.”

She turned her green glare on him again.

“It’s pretty far, Dana, and we have to take public transport. I don’t want you to go alone. So I’ll get you at five-thirty tonight—”

“Why so early?”

“So I’ll have you home by bedtime.”

“It’s not a school night.”

“Still.”

She made that rasping sound again. “Okay. Five-thirty.” She pulled her blue pen from her pocket and wrote an address on the corner of a napkin.

“One more thing. This is the favor I’ll be repaying you for.”

She paused.

“Tell me how to contact Grease Pencil Marionette.”

She hesitated for a few seconds, but then wrote a second address under her own, folded the napkin over, and handed it to him. Then she held up her right hand, pinkie extended.

“What does that mean? You got a girlfriend in your room?”

“Pinkie swear, idiot.”

“Oh. Right.” With a quiet laugh, he wrapped his pinkie around hers.

 


 

Once school ended, Jake boarded a public bus. He sat in the back and stared at the addresses Dana had scrawled on his napkin. He considered the distance between them.

He had time.

If he was quick.

He sighed and stared out the window as the city, its skyline marred and broken and in some places still burning, rolled past.

He made three transfers, stood in three packed crowds, and finally pushed the stop button near a squarish brick building, apparently a former warehouse, with three stories of blank, identical windows. It stood on a narrow, gently curving street. The buildings around it were identical.

He got out of the bus and looked again at the napkin, which, after the address, simply said, “Attic.”

There was no security system and no intercom, and the narrow front door was open. He walked into a small, dark hallway that smelled faintly of stale tobacco and cat piss. Cigarette burns spotted the ratty orange carpet. A baby cried somewhere, and a TV played loudly. He found the staircase, noted more cigarette burns on a worn wooden bannister that probably hadn’t seen varnish for a hundred years, and walked up. A groan of old wood accompanied each of his steps. The sound of a man and woman arguing joined the sound of the television and the screaming child.

He rose three floors and, at the end of a long hallway, found a narrow ladder leading to a trapdoor in the ceiling. He rapped on the door three times.

“Just a minute!” cried a girlish voice. After several seconds, the trapdoor creaked open, and Jake ascended. The thick smell of linseed oil and the sharp tang of mineral spirits met his nose.

He stopped and sucked in his breath when the first thing that met his eyes was a woman, entirely nude and possessed of generous curves, lounging on a velvet-draped divan. She leaned on one elbow with her hips turned sideways and her full lips firmly set. Heat entered Jake’s face. He took a step back, slipped, and nearly fell down the ladder.

Marionette, now with a paint-smeared smock over her green shorts and jacket, held the trapdoor.

“Jake,” she said.

He swallowed, smiled weakly, and answered, “An attic in an old industrial building? Is that the best the city can do for you?”

“I live like a starving artist. It’s in my programming. My father probably thought it was funny. Now, either come in or go out, but don’t just stand there.”

“It looks like you’re busy—”

Marionette called over to the nude model, “Mikaela, cover up and take a break.”

The model, without a hint of emotion entering her face, rose, draped on a housecoat, walked to a corner, and rummaged in a beat-up refrigerator.

Jake hauled himself up into the studio, and Marionette dropped the trapdoor into place.

The room was Spartan. A drop cloth and an easel holding a large canvas stood in the middle. A small cot and a tiny desk sat in one corner. There was a bookcase full of books. Against one brick wall stood the divan, upholstered with fly-spotted velvet. A small kitchenette stood beside a door presumably leading to a bathroom.

Three leaded windows looked out over a busy street from which rose the muted noise of engines and horns. They cast colorless light onto the walls, where hung numerous paintings, mostly still lifes or nudes.

Jake’s eyes swept over the art, and he started when, in one painting, he recognized Card Collector Kasumi—a naked Card Collector Kasumi. She sat with her back to the viewer, but had her arms crossed so that her hands were visible on her shoulders. One of those hands gripped the long locks of her golden hair and pulled them over her chest. Her head was turned, bringing her fine-featured face into profile. Her one visible eye followed Jake as he walked around the trapdoor to take a closer look. Her mouth turned up at the corner, but her smile was utterly ambiguous, like that of Mona Lisa. Although Jake knew nothing of painting, he could see that the brushwork was exacting, precise—but not mathematically so. It was bold and powerful in its delineations of the muscles in Kasumi’s back, but feminine and fine in its detailing of her face. It was a painting full of emotion, but Jake could not say what that emotion was. Power and vulnerability, strength and weakness, masculine and feminine all warred with each other in this simple nude. A veil of mystery covered it.

When he stepped near, he noticed a piece of masking tape on the corner of the frame, on which was penciled, Her Secret.

Because the painting arrested his gaze, almost a minute passed before he noticed that Kasumi also featured in the painting beside it. In this one, she was in full magical girl costume, but her pink skirt was brown with blood and grime. She was on her knees, and in her hands she held her wand, which had split in two. Her eyes were turned up in pleading, and her mouth was open in a rictus of agony. Behind her roiled storm clouds tinted red as if reflecting fire or a setting sun. A strange pattern of light and dark played across her. It took Jake’s eye a moment to decipher it, but when it did, he realized it was the shadow of an enormous serpent, mouth spread wide and fangs exposed. A piece of tape on the frame read, Her Burden.

He saw immediately that these two paintings together captured the paradox of the magical girl: awakening sexuality—and war to the knife.

But beside them hung yet a third painting in the same series. In this one, Kasumi was much smaller, wedged into a corner of the scene. With clothes shredded to rags and the halves of her wand still in hand, she stood on a street corner with eyes downcast. Behind her lay a huge snake, coils piled upon ropy coils. Its head lay at Kasumi’s feet, and a pool of dark blood spread from a wound in its neck. In the foreground, men walked by in clothes almost no one in Urbanopolis really wore: elegant morning dress with long coats and top hats and dapper gloves. Hanging on their arms were women in gowns with elaborate, curly up-dos and lace-accented hats or fascinators. The storm clouds still hovered overhead, but they were dissipating, and rays of golden sunlight shone through. No one on the street turned to look at Kasumi or the monster she had slain. They passed by unaware, uncaring. The tape on the frame proclaimed, Her Triumph.

Jake saw the title and reeled back, struck by a sudden pang of despair. There is a kernel of defeat, the painting said, even in the heart of victory.

Marionette might be a robot, but her art was definitely human.

I’m in the loft of a master …

Marionette rinsed brushes in the kitchen sink. “Whatever you’ve got to say, Jake, say it. I don’t get a lot of time for this, and I’m paying Mikaela by the hour.”

“Do you ever sell these?” he blurted.

A smile crossed her mouth, as unreadable as the one she’d painted on Kasumi. “You can’t afford one.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Yes, I sell them. Sometimes. I refuse to do shows, because I don’t …”

She sighed and turned off the running water.

“You said it was your dream to be an artist,” he said as he leaned toward the nude of Kasumi.

“Yes?”

“I think you already are one.”

“That’s kind of you.” She walked to him and stopped at his shoulder. She put a hand to her chin, frowned, and leaned back slightly. Perhaps she was the sort of artist who only saw her mistakes.

“I won’t sell this one,” she said. “What is it you want, Jake?”

“I was hoping I could tell you in private—”

With another sigh, Marionette turned to her model, who now leaned on a wall and sipped from a water bottle. “Mikaela, let’s call it for today.”

Mikaela shrugged. She walked into the bathroom, came out a minute later in jeans and a sweater, and left through the trapdoor.

Marionette rubbed her temples. “All right, Jake. Out with it.”

“Lady Paladin Andalusia’s familiar asked me to talk to you.”

“Yes?”

Jake swallowed. “He wanted me to tell you … she’s dead.”

Marionette chewed her lip for a minute and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Darn it. She was a good one.”

“I know. She saved my life.”

“So if you’d been in a shelter in the first place, she’d be alive.”

Jake staggered. He had to swallow very hard to remove the lump in his throat. Careful to make sure he didn’t touch a painting, he put a hand on a wall to steady himself. He sniffed a few times and touched his face to make sure he wasn’t crying.

Marionette walked back to her working canvas and stared at it. So far, it contained only a sketch, though to Jake’s eye it was already magnificently detailed, a perfectly exact representation of the model who’d recently left. With obvious disgust, Marionette pulled her beret from her head and threw it across the room. It struck a window with an anticlimactic whap. “I have a hard time,” she said, “believing a Robosaur or a zombie could—”

“It was some troll-like thing who called himself Chai Square. And he said he was there to kill me.”

“You?”

“Me.”

“You specifically?”

“That’s what he said.”

She kept her eyes on her canvas, so Jake couldn’t see her expression. She pulled off her smock and threw it aside. “Sweet Princess, Jake, what have you done?”

“I really don’t know.”

She spun around, marched toward him and poked a finger to his chest. “You had no right, no right to meddle in this stuff!”

“I haven’t meddled—”

“Like heck you haven’t! The Moon Princess didn’t approve of sidekicks, and she had a reason, Jake! Sidekicks have short lifespans!”

“I am not a sidekick!”

“Look at you! You look like mincemeat, and you’ve got a Princess-darn zombie monitor on your wrist! You realize, if that thing goes off, you’re a dead man? If it rings, so help me, I will rip your skull in half right here!”

She leaned into his space as she said this, but instead of backing up, he straightened and took a step toward her. He hadn’t realized before that she was almost as tall as he was.

“What exactly is your problem with me, Marionette? When I first met you, you seemed nice. But ever since then, you’ve been ticked off at me!”

She crossed her arms. “You want to know why I’m ticked off?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, Jake. For starters, when a girl was in danger, a girl you couldn’t possibly save, you wouldn’t listen to me, but instead tried to steal my plane to go on some stupid, testosterone-fueled suicide mission!”

He snorted and ran his hand through his hair. “I was doing what seemed right at the time.”

“Just like a man. Never thinking with your brain.”

“So is that it? You’re mad because I disobeyed your orders?”

“Oh no, there’s more. After you tried to skyjack me, you kissed me!”

“Of course I did! I wanted to turn you on!”

She slowly shook her head. “And after that, you ran off into the city to play hero instead of laying low and staying safe. I suppose you spent today showing off your battle scars to any girl you could get to look.”

“I did not. I spent it in school. Believe me, there are no girls in my school I wanna impress.”

“I’ll bet. I know how boys are, Jake, especially at your age. You’re not choosy.”

“Whatever you think I am, Marionette, I’m not like that.”

“Sure you’re not. And after everything else you’ve done, now you’ve contrived to get me alone in my apartment.”

“That’s only because … wait, what?”

She unbuttoned her green jacket and let it fall to the floor. Underneath, she wore a ruffled, sleeveless silk shirt that stopped above her midriff. She took another step forward and placed her hands on his shoulders. He could feel her breath on his face. “So I give up, Jake. I give in.”

“Hold on. What are you—?”

She took another step so that her face was just below his, and the pressure on his shoulders increased. “Now my question is, are you man enough to finish what you started?”

“What I—?”

“Do I have to spell it out? I’m mad as heck, Jake. But I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at me. I’m mad, you bastard, because you did exactly what you wanted.”

He blinked, mouth open. “What I wanted?”

“You turned me on.”

She shoved him against the wall, right between Her Secret and Her Burden. She pushed down on his shoulders until his face was level with hers, and then she pressed her lips to his, hard enough to bang his head into the brick.

He resisted for the briefest moment, but then it was the easiest thing in the world to relax and go with the flow. An image of an angry Chelsea appeared briefly in his mind, but he waved it aside as effortlessly as he might wave off an annoying fly. His hands found the smooth, synthetic skin on Marionette’s bare and slender waist. He drew her closer and then slid his hands up her back. She made a soft whimper in her throat. That enflamed him, so he seized her fiercely.

Her body pressed into his. He could feel taut muscles under his hands and pushing against his chest.  She didn’t feel at all as Miss Percy had when she’d clung to him, soft and obviously feminine. Marionette might as well have been a boy.

But right now, he didn’t care, so maybe she was right.

Maybe he wasn’t choosy.

Her fingertips slid through his hair, dug into his scalp, made his head tingle. Somehow, that recalled to his mind that he had something else to do tonight. Something important.

His teenage brain pointed out that he had a girl in his arms, a girl who wanted him, and that trumped anything, even urgent obligations, even solemn oaths.

Then he saw an image of Dana, not angry like the image of Chelsea—although, knowing Dana, she probably would be angry, since she was always angry—but disappointed. He had made a promise, and he was shirking it.

He could stay here. It would be easy. Following Marionette’s lead was very easy.

But then Dana would go back to her friendless life. She’d have no reason to trust him again. Perhaps, she’d tell herself, there was no point in trusting anyone.

Another image: Dana on the playground, arms out to either side, walking back and forth on a log. She spoke to no one, and no one spoke to her.

And yet another: Dana’s pinkie finger wrapped around his own.

He drew his hands up to Marionette’s shoulders and pushed her away—or tried to. She was a great deal stronger than he was, and he felt a moment of panic when he realized he couldn’t budge her. But the pressure was apparently enough to clue her in: she released him and took a step back, breathing heavily.

“I gotta go,” he said hoarsely, and he staggered toward the trapdoor like a drunk. He threw it open, slipped on the ladder, and clattered down to the floor below, where he fell hard on his tailbone.

Overhead, one fist on a hip, Marionette gazed down at him. “You’re still a little boy, Jake Blatowski,” she said, and then she slammed the door shut.

The hallway was empty except for Mikaela, who, face still stoically blank, leaned against a wall and smoked a cigarette. She didn’t give him so much as a glance.

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  • Baron

    I don’t comment much, but I just wanted to say I’m loving the story and religiously check for updates. I’m also looking forward to Rag and Muffin when you get that done.

    • Thank you kindly. And feel free to comment as much as you like. It’s encouraging to an author when people talk about his work.

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