JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 18: SINKING DEEPER
Jake squirmed in his bus seat and struggled to control his breathing. His face felt hot, as if he had a fever, and his clothes stuck to him in uncomfortable places. Marionette’s intense kisses kept replaying in his head.
Other bus passengers glanced his way uneasily or stared at him openly. He probably looked like a freak.
He swallowed hard and ran a hand through his hair. His fingers came away moist with perspiration. He desperately wanted to hit the court and shoot some hoops. Or go back to Marionette’s apartment. Or grab another girl—any other girl.
You’re not choosy, she’d said.
And he remembered Natasha’s words, too: Boys his age need sports to release their excess energy, or they commit sex crimes. He had thought she was joking.
Darn it, maybe they were both right.
He ran his hand through his hair again and shifted in his seat. He really didn’t want to see Dana in this state.
He stared out the scratched, streaked window, trying to find something else—anything else—to concentrate on. The window was shatterproof plastic, and behind it was a thin screen designed to stop shrapnel. He watched skyscrapers and low, heavy concrete buildings scroll past.
He noticed things now that had never registered on him before: how most of the streets were narrow and featured blind corners, how heavy concrete flowerpots, steel bollards, or even caltrops made of welded I-beams lined most walkways. Mounted on top of all the tall buildings, beside the equipment sheds and cell towers, were howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, and missile launchers. At most intersections, at least two buildings had inset panels on their second or third stories, concealing the street-level auto-turrets.
Urbanopolis was a city built for war. He had grown up here, so it had never seemed strange to him before.
A billboard rolled past the window: it depicted a smiling, handsome, athletic, and youthful couple. Both the man and the woman had babies in their arms, and ten other children surrounded them. Above them, bold white text proclaimed, “DO YOUR PART.”
That was the primary duty of a citizen. Of course, the City Fathers encouraged young men to spend a few years after graduation in military service or “Down Under” in fabrication or hydroponics, but everyone’s first and most important job was, breed. Marry and have children. Stave off the extinction of the human race.
Jake swallowed. It wasn’t something he’d thought much about, but if he wasn’t married three years after he graduated high school—assuming he could ever get into high school—he’d have to pay the onerous bachelor tax. If he married but didn’t produce what the Fathers considered a reasonable number of children in a reasonable amount of time, he’d owe the small family tax.
He’d have an extra year of deferment if he went straight from high school to two years of public service, and if he didn’t blow his earnings on frivolities like drinking or gambling, he’d walk away from those two years with a large wad of cash in hand. If he could thereafter quickly arrange to marry, he’d dodge the extra taxes. Even better, if he married a retired magical girl who’d revealed her secret identity, she’d come with a healthy pension. Assuming he found a steady job after that, he’d be set for several years.
Thinking about the facts of life like this, he finally cooled off. Then his mind returned to Marionette, but in a different way.
What the heck was she thinking?
No girl had ever come on to him like that before. It was intense, it was exciting; it was also disconcerting. He expected something like that maybe from Rifle Maiden … no, even she wasn’t like that. She was a flirt, but all she did was flirt.
He touched the back of his head and found a new bruise. His lips were tender as well. Marionette was rough.
Of course, she had been under a lot of pressure in the last few days. She’d just seen a good friend die. Maybe this was how she coped.
Some drank. Some prayed. Maybe Marionette snogged boys.
Yes, that had to be it. It was unexpected, but it made sense. Sort of.
He still felt frazzled, but his heartrate and breathing were back to normal when the bus deposited him at a stop a block away from Dana’s apartment. It was down in the neighborhood where he had seen her before. As he walked, he was grateful for the a cool breeze.
Technically, this part of the city was within Juban, but it was on the edge of the district and was less upscale than the suburb where Jake lived. Anonymous brownstones rose on either side of the narrow street. Down the way, warning signs with flashing yellow lights blocked off the devastation that the kaiju had wrought on Monday, Jake’s first day of fifth grade, which seemed like a century ago. They hadn’t yet cleared the rubble. They hadn’t had time.
He noted the numbers nailed above the brownstones’ doors and made his way downhill until he found the one he wanted. Dana stood out front and stared across the road.
She had changed out of her uniform, but maintained the punk look. Now she wore a pair of black canvas skorts with a studded leather belt, a white T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a cannabis plant, and a fitted, patent leather jacket with three-quarter sleeves. She had on a backwards-facing baseball cap, also black, with a leather brim and the word “DOPE” emblazoned on it in raised, chrome letters. On her legs, she wore a loose pair of white, knitted leg warmers that draped over her sneakers. School rules allowed only minimal makeup, but now she wore black eyeliner and bright red lipstick, and she had blotted out her freckles with foundation. From her shoulder dangled a leather purse that matched her jacket. On her right wrist, she wore a leather bracelet with spiked studs, and on her left wrist she wore a leather bracelet emblazoned with a chrome skull, which connected by a steel chain to a matching leather ring on her middle finger. She still wore the choker with the crucifix.
It surprised him, but she looked good in black. He would have thought it would clash with her hair or make her pale skin appear sallow, but it didn’t. Her choice of style was absurd, though: she looked as if she were on her way to a rave she was too young to attend, and she looked better without makeup.
She hadn’t noticed him, so he walked up behind her, cleared his throat, and said, “Excuse me, miss, but have you accepted the Moon Princess as your personal lady and savior?”
She didn’t so much as glance over her shoulder. “Buzz off.”
“We have some literature here we’d like you to read. It’s absolutely free, and—”
“I said buzz off.” Now she spun around, and her eyes narrowed. “Oh. It’s you.”
“That’s no way to greet the guy who’s giving you free food.”
She made that rasping sound in her throat. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Your parents know where you’re going, right, and they’re okay with it?”
She made the same noise. After a quick glance around, she stepped closer to him, lowered her voice, and muttered, “I’m a magical girl. Don’t treat me like a little kid.”
“Okay, okay. I just don’t wanna get you in trouble.”
She tapped a sneaker against the sidewalk. “I go places all the time without Mom knowing.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess you would. C’mon, we’re takin’ the bus … Dana?”
While he spoke, she walked up to him, grabbed his shirt, pulled it to her nose, and inhaled deeply.
“What are you doing?”
She glared up at him. “You smell funny.”
“You always smell funny, but you usually smell like a stale loaf of pumpkin bread dipped in hydraulic fluid—”
“Really? Maybe I shouldn’t mix Old Spice with Axe.”
“—and now you smell like paint.”
He swallowed. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
She pointed at his throat. “What’s that on your collar?”
Jake grabbed his collar, stared down at it, and confirmed his worst fear: he saw a bright red stain.
He rubbed a thumb across the stain. It didn’t feel right. A little tacky, but not in the way he expected. He frowned. “It’s … it’s paint.”
Dana stepped back from him and folded her arms. Her emerald eyes half-lidded, she said, “Did you just do it with a painter?”
“No! And a kid your age shouldn’t talk like that!”
As they walked together back toward the bus stop, Jake stuck his hands in his pockets and said, “So where’s your little pal, anyway? Where do you keep him when you’re not—?”
Without a word, Dana unzipped her purse, and Tesla’s antennae popped out, soon followed by the rest of his head. “Good evening,” he said as he adjusted his glasses.
Jake jumped in surprise and quickly looked around. They were alone.
“Jeez, Dana, you should be more careful.”
“Ah,” said Tesla, “no doubt you are concerned about my welfare. But you shouldn’t worry, young man: though my present quarters appear cramped, I have, using the space-saving modular technology at which my race excels, outfitted it with all the necessary amenities. I have a kitchenette, a lavatory, an entertainment system—”
“That’s great, but why are you with us anyway?”
“Is that not obvious? Before arriving on your planet, I made a close study of your culture, so I am well aware of the bestial appetites and wanton depravity of the pubescent males of your species. Thus, I am your chaperone.”
“Hey, I am not—”
He remembered his mental state from a few minutes before and tugged at his collar. “Okay, fine. Whatever.”
“Besides,” Tesla added, “I heard there was free food. I don’t know about you two, but I’m in the mood for pollen and nectar.”
“I didn’t say anything about paying for you. You’ll have to stay in the purse. How are we supposed to explain if people see you?”
“Ah. Young Dana and I have discussed this extensively. If anyone asks, she is to say that I am a plush toy.”
“You would be one creepy-looking plush toy.”
“Look, just stay out of sight, all right?”
Tesla sighed. “Well, I’ve had worse accommodations. Although a young maiden’s carry-all is not the most dignified mode of transport, it is still more luxurious than the cockpit where I often, of necessity, spent months on end—”
“Oh yeah,” said Jake as he looked up at the sky, which was just beginning to darken to a rich royal blue, “you said you were a pilot, right?”
“Indeed. A fighter pilot.”
Tesla sighed and adjusted his glasses again. His gaze grew distant. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the pants of Orion. I watched G-strings glitter in the dark near the Lederhosen Gate—”
“Wait, hold on,” said Jake. “Off the what now?”
Tesla rolled his compound eyes. “Honestly, do I really need to explain this? I know your mental capabilities are substandard for your species, given the severe retardation of your educational progression, but surely even you have some basic astronomy.”
Jake grumbled and tugged on his jacket. “Yes, I know some astronomy—”
“Good. I fought, young man, in the Battle of Orion’s Pants, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of our galaxy. I assume you can intuit its significance.”
Tesla sighed again.
They reached the bus stop and sat down on a bench inside a small glass enclosure. No one else was around, so Tesla kept his head out of Dana’s purse and kept talking. “Young man, please tell me that you have at least heard of Orion’s Belt.”
“Of course I have.”
“And you can name the stars that make up the Belt?”
“Let me think—”
Another sigh. “Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. I served in the Seventy-first Electrical Light Armored Division, also known as the Electro-Lights, and we were part of the fleet defending Alnitak, which is actually a multiple star system. The Evil Space Aliens’ Union had targeted it for destruction and intended to hit it with an antimatter payload, so we had to neutralize the enemy fleet and disable the bomber without destroying the antimatter containment field. Tricky business. We hid our fleet from their scanners by maneuvering between the primary—a very hot blue supergiant—and its closest companion, a blue dwarf. The distance between the two stars would sound enormous if I described it to you, but it was an extreme environment nonetheless. The heat coming off the primary was about ten thousand times that of your sun. We spent several days navigating the solar winds, gravitation forces, magnetic fields, streams of plasma—our ships bathed in hard radiation the whole time while we awaited the command to strike. A wrong move at any time would have meant all of our instantaneous deaths. By the time the fighting actually started, my shielding was already cooked, but I pulled through.”
“Yes. The Evil Space Aliens’ Union, or ESAU, is a very powerful, very dangerous coalition of over sixty super-civilizations bent on the subjugation or annihilation of all races in the Milky Way. Opposing them is the Interstellar Society of Amiable Do-gooders, or ISAD, of which my homeworld Elektron is a part. Battling the Evil Space Aliens’ Union is not easy, especially since they are constantly acquiring new member systems while our own membership is lagging—”
“Well, for starters, they get better pay and more holidays.”
Jake nodded. “Ah.”
Tesla adjusted his glasses again. “But as I was saying, ESAU wanted to destroy Alnitak, and not Alnitak only, but all the stars of Orion’s Belt.”
“Are those stars the homes of some major civilizations or something?”
“What? Oh no, no. All three systems are uninhabited.”
Jake scratched his head. “Then why attack them?”
Tesla clucked his mouthparts. “Your intuition is, shall we say, exactly what I’d expected but less than I’d hoped. Surely this is obvious. Think, young man: why do you suppose Orion has a Belt?”
Jake squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. “Okay, I really hope you’re not going to tell me it’s to hold up—”
“It’s to hold up his pants, obviously!”
“All right, fine, but I still don’t see—”
“Oh, surely you must. My boy, you realize, do you not, that you see the particular constellations that you do only because of the position of your star system relative to all the others?”
“You recognize, I take it, that Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka are not actually in a straight line, but only appear that way to you? That they really differ greatly in their distances from your world?”
“So Orion’s Belt is only a Belt for you.”
“So, obviously, the attack on Orion’s Belt was really an attack on you.”
Jake sat quietly for a minute and stared at the sky. The royal blue gradually turned to purple. “Why us?”
“As I said before, we don’t know. But the whole universe is focused on you.”
“How does destroying Orion’s Belt affect us, though?”
Tesla groaned and shoved his glasses farther up his clypeus. “You are extraordinarily slow. Think, young man. Use that stunted brain of yours, even though it pains you! If ESAU had destroyed Orion’s Belt, then tell me, what would have happened to Orion’s pants?”
Jake blinked. Slowly, he said, “You have got to be—”
“Do you still not grasp their nefarious plan? The Evil Space Aliens’ Union intended nothing less than to moon your entire solar system!”
“If it were not for our heroic efforts, then even now as you gaze into the night sky, instead of beholding the wonders of the cosmos, you would instead be gaping at Orion’s shapely yet extraordinarily hairy buttocks—gaping in horror, no doubt, or maybe prurient interest in your case, since you seem to be a little … well, you know—”
“Duck, Tesla,” Dana said. “The bus is coming.”
They made several transfers, and the busses became more crowded the deeper they went into the city. Soon, Jake and Dana were obliged to stand. Dana held onto a pole, and Jake held onto a strap hanging from the luggage rack overhead. Everyone on the bus looked weary and ragged. Most stared at the floor or at their hands. Few talked. The city had learned to live with constant disasters and to recover quickly after each one, but the latest had been especially bad. It showed in people’s faces.
To avoid the blocked-off areas, the bus followed a mazelike route as it snaked its way downtown. Although it steered clear of the worst devastation, piles of debris, buildings with gaping holes in their sides, and even active fires were visible outside the dingy windows.
Jake cleared his throat and nudged Dana. She glared at him.
“I don’t suppose you know what shape New Beijing is in, do you?”
She grunted. “No.”
Jake felt fresh sweat under his collar. Maybe this trip wasn’t such a good idea.
She gave him a sidelong glance. “We’re going to New Beijing?”
She snorted and stared out the window. Then she muttered under her breath, “Sukeban Tsubasa …”
Jake swallowed a lump.
“So,” Dana said, her eyes still on the window, “we’re having Chinese. Great.”
“You don’t like Chinese?”
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
“This place serves a lot of food, so—”
“The best you could come up with was Chinese?”
“Hey, look, I’ve been to this joint before. It’s good, and it’s cheap, all right? Well, okay, it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s a good deal. I haven’t bought many things in a while, so I have a fair amount of cash, though it’s not like my allowance is huge—”
“Get a job, loser.”
“I can’t get a job without a high school I.D.”
She made that rasping noise again. “This is a waste of time.”
“Because I’ll be hungry again in an hour.”
“Stop complaining. I’m paying.”
She glared. “You did call to make sure this restaurant didn’t blow up, right?”
He glanced around the bus to see that several other people were watching them, some with amused smiles on their faces. One girl covered her mouth with a magazine before whispering to her companion, who giggled.
Great, I wonder what we look like. Maybe if I’m lucky, everyone will just think she’s my sister—
He glanced up at the brown skin of his hand clutching the strap overhead, and then down at Dana’s bone-white hands clutching the pole.
Then again, probably not.
The bus carried them into the Xicheng District and deposited them on a corner in Jiumen Street, where outdoor vendors thrived. Large stalls, illuminated by dangling paper lanterns or by fluorescent lights hidden behind floral-patterned panels, displayed every imaginable snack food.
Sweet, spicy, and sour flowed past Jake’s nose in rapid succession, and his mouth quickly watered. Particularly intense were the succulent scents from the stalls selling skewered meats spiced with cumin and pepper and grilled over charcoal. The thick smell of stewed pork wafted from the shops selling steamed buns. Less tempting to the nose but more inviting to the eye were the shops selling hawthorns, cherry tomatoes, and kiwi slices coated with hardened sugar syrup. Some stalls had set out stacks of glasses containing the sweet, thin yogurt called Lao Beijing Suannai. Jake had tried this treat before, and it reminded him of the lassi he sometimes drank in Little India, which stood right outside the border of Juban.
In addition to these tasty foods, there were other, bolder offerings for those with strong stomachs and adventurous palates: deep-fried crabs, deep-fried lizards, deep-fried tarantulas, deep-fried scorpions, and deep-fried seahorses. Even Little America, with its butter and candy bars and shredded potatoes, could not boast such extreme experimentation with the deep fryer.
Innumerable people milled up and down the streets and crowded around the most popular stalls. Street vendors were usually back in business immediately after a monster attack, and they usually did booming business: everyone wanted comfort food once the terror was over, and nobody wanted to cook.
Much of the babble in the crowd was in English, and some was in Japanese, but Cantonese, Standard Chinese, and a pidgin combining those with Mongolian and Tibetan met Jake’s ear as well. Chinese characters adorned the stalls, but English translations accompanied most of them. Although this place was known as New Beijing, it had received that name from outsiders; half of the refugees who had settled here during the First Invasion had actually come from Hong Kong. The rest were from various places around China. Their several cultures and languages had blended, or had died.
During the First Invasion, a lot of things had died.
Dana crossed her arms and lowered her eyelids, but, try as she might, she failed to keep her sour expression. Her mouth twitched at the corners, and her jaw looked stiff, as if she was struggling not to smile at the succulent aromas and the vibrant nightlife. She worked her tongue around and swallowed a few times, so Jake knew her mouth was watering as well.
“Are we eating street food?” she asked, her voice at a higher pitch than usual.
“That could be fun, but it’s not what I planned. No, we’re going to a place we can sit down—”
Dana stopped and stared at a cluster of bright red hawthorns coated in sugar and mounted on sticks. Each stick held a dozen. “I want one o’ those,” she said, pointing.
“You’ll ruin your appetite.”
“You can’t ruin my appetite.”
“You’ll ruin my wallet. C’mon.”
Now that they had stopped, people jostled them, so he took Dana’s hand. She shot him a fresh glare, but didn’t pull away. He led her down the street.
Here in this huge crowd, he noticed for the first time how people stared at her or glanced at her several times while pretending not to. She was the only Caucasian in the vicinity, so she might have got a few stares in any case, but most of the staring was no doubt due to her hair. He could imagine what was going through everyone’s mind: is it real? Is she real?
During the First Invasion, the human race had lost genetic lines, religions, languages, whole countries. Even now, linguists and folklorists desperately scoured the city to find the last speakers of near-dead languages and the tellers of near-dead legends to record them for posterity.
And then there were the archaeologists, which the city held in almost as much veneration as it held the magical girls. They traveled into the wastes in armored convoys with military men and magical girls for guards. They dug into the rubble to salvage what they could of man’s past. Often, they came back with very little, as the monsters deliberately targeted books, artwork, technology, and great architecture. But sometimes, the archaeologists found treasures: Jake vividly remembered that, when he was ten, an excavator had uncovered a largely intact library and had soon after paraded hundreds of books through the streets of the city like a Roman general in a triumphal procession. Most of the texts he’d retrieved had been religious, philosophical, or scientific, but he had brought back fictional works as well. The Juban Public Library had produced a magnificent display celebrating the recovery of The Wizard of Oz, which had immediately become required reading for all grade-school students.
Precious as were mankind’s rarities, it was no wonder that people stared in wonder at Dana. There were so few redheads left. Jake knew some famous ones lived in New Dublin and received large checks from the government whenever they had children, but all told, they were exceedingly scarce.
It suddenly struck him that Dana herself was a treasure, a last remnant of dying humanity’s former richness. That was a great privilege—and it also had to be a great burden.
He wondered for a moment why she dressed the way she did. The goth-punk look made her stand out even more than she would anyway. Was she calling attention to herself?
Or perhaps, rather, the eyeliner and black leather were her way of saying, leave me alone.
For the first time in his life, Jake felt the weight of his own ordinariness. His ancestry was a mixture of several ethnic groups that intermingled in his several features. His family called itself Polish and Jewish, but his Polish and Jewish heritage—both genetic and cultural—were deeply buried. They didn’t show.
He felt a faint twinge of guilt, perhaps arising from his Jewish roots: he knew exactly what was on the menu at the restaurant where he was leading Dana, and he was planning to gorge himself on stewed pork tonight.
For the briefest moment, he envied her. She was everything he wasn’t, something definite and exact, a last surviving example of—for lack of a better term—a pure race. In the present world, that was something to be proud of: she was a testament to mankind’s former diversity, a silent statement that, once, we were many.
He drew her toward a restaurant crowded with noisy patrons sitting at several tables both inside and out on a patio. Since the weather was warm, Jake chose an outdoor table. He pulled out a chair for Dana, but she merely shot him a fresh glare, pulled out the chair opposite, and dropped into it.
He laughed as he sat down.
Her sneakers dangled just an inch above the concrete walk, so she kicked her feet.
A young, pretty waitress quickly appeared. Jake had been to this restaurant several times before with his parents, so he and the waitress chatted briefly. She smiled and gestured toward Dana before saying in heavily accented English, “Girlfriend?”
“Just a friend,” he replied.
“Acquaintance,” said Dana as she leaned a cheek on one hand. “Where’s the food? Is there a menu?”
Jake cleared his throat. “We’ll have the gook-fa, please.”
The waitress nodded and quickly retreated. She soon returned with a pot of tea and two cups. Jake checked the tea to make sure it had steeped properly, and then he poured Dana a cup before pouring his own. “So I don’t keep you up all night on a caffeine high, I ordered the herbal. It’s chrysanthemum.”
“You’re a dork.”
“You’re welcome. Try it. You’ll like it.”
Soon, a young man, hunched over and glistening with sweat, pushed by a cart loaded with bamboo steamer baskets. Jake waved to him. A moment later, a plate full of pork-filled steamed buns sat on the table. Jake felt that guilt again, but he also felt hungry, so he shoved the guilt down.
Dana poked at a bun. “Is this it?”
“Haven’t you ever had dim sum?”
“Eat that first, and then I’ll get you more—oh, here comes the next cart.”
He held up his hand again. Rice noodles filled with beef and drizzled with sweet soy sauce joined the buns. Dana’s nose twitched.
“It was more of a brunch thing originally,” Jake said, “and the more expensive dim sum joints aren’t open in the evenings, but this one is. Eat up. You keep eating, and I’ll keep ordering. And try the tea. It’s good.”
Dana took a bun and frowned. “You really got the money for this?”
“Well … we might want to stick with the cheaper dishes—”
She sucked the bun down, apparently without chewing. Then she took another. A third she stuffed into her purse.
“C’mon, Dana, it looks like you’re swiping food—”
“You’re paying for it, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but … ah, forget it.” He held up his hand when the har gau, or steamed shrimp dumplings—an essential dim sum dish—rolled by. A plate of them soon lay on the table.
Dana slurped one down. Jake poured a little chili oil on his plate and rolled his dumpling in it before he ate.
Dana’s eyes narrowed. She pointed at the oil bottle. “Gimme that.”
“You okay with spicy—?”
She made that rasping noise.
“Okay, here you go.”
He passed it to her. She doused a dumpling before she devoured it.
She didn’t so much as wince. He nodded in approval.
Then she stuck the fourth dumpling in her purse.
Jake sighed. “How much can that little guy eat?”
She shrugged and helped herself to the stuffed rice noodles, taking the whole dish and leaving him nothing.
Around came the fried chicken feet, so Jake held up his hand again. He managed to grab one before Dana ate the rest. In just a couple of minutes, she had eaten enough to satisfy most people twice her size.
He soon had more food on the table, and she kept eating. Jake had known she could eat a lot, but as he watched her pack away multiple dishes, he began to think that this wasn’t the greatest idea. He started silently calculating the price of each item and then comparing it with the credits in his wallet.
I’m gonna end up washing dishes.
Of course, that wasn’t realistic. If he couldn’t pay, he would make Dana stay at the table while he went to the nearest terminal to call home for a wire. That would be embarrassing, and he’d have to explain to his parents why he had slinked off to New Beijing without telling them.
Dana slurped up a plate of meatballs with tofu, and then she leaned across the table, ears red, and muttered, “Hey, you said nobody would know me here!”
She pointed to a nearby table where a large family with seven children ranging from a babe in arms to a teen was getting seated. Among the kids was the little dark-haired girl from class.
“Oh,” said Jake, “it’s … uh … Rikka, right?”
Dana put her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. “She knows us! She’s gonna see me eat and think we’re doin’ somethin’ weird!”
“No she won’t. It’s none of her business.”
“That doesn’t matter!”
“Just ignore her.” In an attempt to distract Dana, he ordered a plate of taro cakes. She took one, but only picked at it.
He ate one himself and then leaned his cheek on one hand. “So, are you this hungry all the time?”
She chewed on her cake. “It’s pretty much—”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Rrrr.” She swallowed and hissed, “It’s pretty much all the time, but especially after”—she glanced toward Rikka’s table and lowered her voice—“you know.”
Jake looked at Rikka again and was surprised to see her staring directly at him, brow wrinkled and a deep frown on her face as she raised a cup of tea to her lips.
Earlier in the day, when he had seen how she acted at school, he had thought that maybe she lost family during the attack. But she had a big family with her now, and her siblings were smiling and jabbering. Her parents looked tired, but otherwise okay.
What is her problem?
Dana downed a few more dishes, and now Jake got seriously worried. He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, sorted through his credits, and said, “We gotta stop.”
She made that familiar rasping noise. “I thought you said I could eat what I want.”
“Well … I exaggerated. I didn’t realize quite how much you can eat.”
Another cart rolled by with more bamboo steamer baskets. This time, Jake waved it away.
Dana scooted back from the table and sighed. “Oh, well. It is the biggest meal I’ve had in a while.” She stuck her lip out.
“I didn’t say thank you.”
“You’re welcome anyway.”
She twisted her mouth and glanced again toward Rikka. Jake followed her gaze: the rest of Rikka’s family talked and laughed and ate, but Rikka, even as she lifted a pair of loaded chopsticks toward her mouth, still glared daggers at Dana and Jake.
What exactly is her problem?
Soon after, they were back on the street. Jake mournfully hefted his lightened wallet, which now held only a paltry few credits.
“That was months’ worth,” he said.
“Get a job,” she replied. She stretched her arms over her head and skipped along the walkway. Then she wrapped her hands around a bollard and swung herself around it. Her lips turned up at the corners, just slightly.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Almost full. It’s a good feeling.” She skipped again, and she giggled. It wasn’t Pretty Dynamo’s ironic chuckle. It was honest, girlish laughter, like the tinkling of silver bells. She slapped a hand over her mouth, and her ears turned red.
He said, “I’ve never seen you so full of energy.”
“And you’re smiling.”
She dropped her hands to her sides. “I am not!”
“You are. You totally are. You should smile more.”
Crossing her arms, she turned her back on him. “Whatever. Now I hate you again. Buy me ice cream.”
“Or you could buy me those candied fruits you wouldn’t buy me earlier.” She stuck her nose in the air and walked several paces in front of him, swinging her arms and stomping her feet as she went. “To make up for it.”
“Nope. I’ve got about enough for bus fare.”
“You’re old. Go tell ’em you’re old and get a job. Show ’em your birth certificate or something.”
“Why? So I can buy you stuff?”
“Why would I do that?”
A stately Chinese flame tree grew through a round opening in the pavement. Dana grabbed one of its thick lower branches and dangled, nothing but her toes touching the ground. She turned her face toward him. Her shoulder hid her mouth and nose, and only her emerald-green eyes showed. “Because I said so.”
She’s acting like a normal kid. All this time, was she really just … hungry?
He shoved his wallet back into his pocket. Then he zipped up his jacket, as the evening air was growing cool, and said, “Okay, Dana. I’ll get a job, or I’ll figure out something else to make money.”
She dropped her arms from the tree, and her eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because I want you to keep smiling.”
Half a minute passed while they stared at each other in silence. The crowd was still thick, and many people pushed past them, most glancing at Dana as they went. But Dana never looked at them. She kept her intense eyes fixed on Jake.
As one, they turned when they heard screams up the street. A stall selling skewered chicken fell to the ground with a crash, flinging meat and hot charcoal across the pavement. A mob of panicked people ran their way, shouting incoherently.
“Dana!” Jake reached her in a few bounds, wrapped his arms around her, and dived behind the tree. Even so, one of the panicked runners—a young woman probably in her twenties—struck his shoulder and rattled his teeth. She fell to the ground, and then the people behind stumbled over her. For a moment, Jake thought he was about to see more people crushed. Images of the zombie and the terror in that hellish shelter flashed through his mind.
Dana beat her fists on his back. “Let go!”
“Just a minute!”
He felt something vibrate against his stomach. In a moment, he realized it was her blue pen. She must have had it in the inside pocket of her jacket.
“Let go!” she shouted again.
He jumped back from her when he heard the crack of lightning, deafeningly loud. Wind rattled the leaves of the flame tree. Papers and debris blew up the street and pelted the panicked mob.
Jake stepped around the tree, put a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes against the wind, and gaped.
Although the sky had previously been clear, a black, angry storm cloud now swirled above a three-story office building. Standing on the corner of the building’s roof was a young businessman in a tattered, filthy, and unfashionable suit. His ugly tie whipped in the wind. Hovering at his shoulder was an impossibly huge bat the size of a dog.
“Hey,” said Jake, “isn’t that the guy we saw in Little India—?”
Dana stepped to his side. She whispered, “Oh … oh no.”
When the demoniac tipped his head back and laughed, a fresh burst of lightning cracked across the swirling clouds. With a sinister, monstrous grin spreading his mouth, he pointed a long, taloned finger directly at Jake and screamed, “Your mother picks locks in hell!”
“Sweet Moon Princess,” Jake whispered. “I am getting really, really tired of this junk.”