JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 20: PLAYED
Five blocks north of Jake’s house, the residences of Juban gave way to shops and strip malls. The shopping district was a tidy, modern section of town with wide sidewalks and glassed-in storefronts, and it even boasted several parking lots, since an unusually large number of Juban’s residents owned cars. At nine forty-five on Saturday morning, Jake walked up the street and, with his hands in the pockets of a blue windbreaker, loitered on a corner. He had a few loose coins in his pocket, the only money left after the night before.
He knew he was in trouble.
Ralph arrived at exactly ten.
“Hey,” Ralph said.
Also with hands in pockets, he stood at Jake’s side. For almost a minute, the two of them watched the traffic slide by before Ralph said, “I saw you on TV last night.”
“Two magical girls fighting over you. Man—”
“Don’t start, Ralph. First of all, Pretty Dynamo isn’t fighting over me. Only Tsubasa is, and she’s only doing it to get at Dynamo.”
Ralph kicked at the pavement. “Y’know, this sucks.”
“Tell me about it—”
“It sucks that all the superpowered girls run after you, but you can’t appreciate it.”
Jake sighed and rubbed his temples. He felt the first twinges of an oncoming headache. “It only looks cool on TV, Ralph. Up close, it’s …”
He trailed off.
“It’s different. That’s all.” He checked his watch. “Seen Chelsea?”
“Not today. You called her?”
“Well … yeah.”
“When I got home.”
Ralph tipped his head back and groaned. “Jake, seriously—”
“I’m sorry, man. I’ll do better.”
“I’m not the one you should apologize to.”
“Yeah, but apologizing to you is easier.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I’m really not trying to be a jerk here, but life’s been complicated—”
“And those complications forced you to go all the way to New Beijing with another girl?”
“For what? What exactly were you doing there with Pretty Dynamo?”
Jake chewed the inside of his cheek for half a minute. “I can’t tell you.”
Ralph hunched his shoulders. “It really looks like you’re two-timing Chelsea.”
Poplars lined the street. A sudden breeze blew through them and scattered their dry leaves, which slid along the sidewalk with a faint hiss.
“I know,” Jake said.
Chelsea herself appeared soon after dressed in a long, tan cardigan, a white T-shirt, and a pair of pink sweatpants that said “JUICY” across the butt. She was petite, with that hungry, rail-thin look typical of girls in their earliest teens. She had her platinum blond hair pulled back in a braided ponytail. Her arms were crossed, and a sour expression sat on her face.
“Chelsea,” Jake said, holding his arms out, “it’s been—”
“Like, oh my Princess, where the frick have you been? Frickin’ robot dinosaurs from frickin’ space attack the whole frickin’ city, and then there are, like, frickin’ zombies and demons and stuff, and where the frick do I see my boyfriend? Running around with some other girl. Like, seriously, what the frick? Do you, like, totally see monster attacks as a chance to fool around on me? Cuz if that’s how it is, we are, like, so frickin’ over, m’kay?”
She turned her face from him and held up one palm as a visual representation of just how over they were.
Jake coughed into a fist and rubbed the back of his neck. “Chelsea, honey, I’m really sorry. I know how this looks—”
In an instant, she was clutching his arm and leaning her head on his shoulder. “Jakey, you had better, like, spend a lot of frickin’ money on me today. To make up for it.”
She gave his arm a squeeze.
He coughed into his fist again. He could feel, against his leg, the measly handful of coins in his pants pocket. “Yeah, about that—”
“I’m sorta broke right now, so I was hoping you or Ralph might spot me—”
Ralph clapped a hand to his face.
Chelsea released Jake’s arm and went back to crossing her own. “Are you, like, frickin’ kidding me? How did you go broke? It’s not like you ever take me anywhere nice or buy me any nice things.” She put one hand to her brow and stretched the other toward him in the dramatic poise of the tragedian. “OMP. Like, ohh MP. You frickin’ spent it on Pretty Dynamo, didn’t you?”
Jake’s face grew hot.
“I, like, knew it. I can just picture it now: you fed her juice boxes to get her in the mood, and then you, like, took her to some nasty love hotel—”
“Whoa, whoa! No, nothing like that ever happened! And … that’s really gross. I’m just a little short on cash, all right? Not like I have a huge allowance—”
“Get a frickin’ job, loser.”
“Yeah, I would, except I’m in fifth grade.”
“Ugh.” Chelsea rubbed her temples. “Seriously, like, don’t frickin’ remind me. Word is out, Jake. You know that, right? All my friends are frickin’ laughing at me. They’re all, like, ‘Oh, look at Chelsea, dating a fifth-grader. Ew, nasty. And he’s Pretty Dynamo’s newest item. Sucks to be Chelsea.’ My reputation’s in the frickin’ gutter, Jake. Like, totally.” She poked a finger hard against his chest. “I hope you appreciate what a frickin’ good girlfriend I am to stick with a guy like you.”
“I do. Believe me.”
“Good.” She cracked her knuckles, and her lips spread in a broad grin. “So are we gonna stand here on the street, or am I gonna, like, totally kick your butt?”
Juban’s shopping district was modest, but it boasted an impressive arcade with almost a hundred stand-up video game machines, a skate park, an ice cream shop, and even a bumper car ride. As usual on a Saturday morning, children and teenagers clustered around its various machines and mixed their cheers and jeers with the pops and whistles and hammy music coming from the games. Black crepe covered the walls, and black lights hummed in the ceiling, making Jake’s jeans glow bluish white and show where he’d spilt tea two months earlier. Rock music played. The whole place smelled like popcorn, stale soda, and sweat.
Ralph was getting a workout on Dance Dance Devolution, but he was so clumsy that his on-screen avatar had already regressed from human all the way down to amphibian.
“Watch this!” he called to Jake as he wiped sweat from his brow. “I’m gonna really bust a move!”
“Your moves are just busted,” Jake muttered as he focused on his own game, Soul Canister, which he was playing against Chelsea. He had selected a beefy male avatar wielding a massive claymore. Chelsea had selected a svelte female clad in tight black leather and armed with a rapier. As usual, she was crushing him.
“Ha!” Chelsea cried as she flawlessly executed a triple combo and used him for a pincushion. “You’re weak, Jake Blatowski! Weak! How’s it feel to get beat by a little girl?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Jake muttered. His character fell hard to the ground, and the words “YOU LOSE” flashed across his screen.
“Give up,” Ralph gasped as he flung himself around the dancing mat. “Nobody beats Chelsea at Soul Canister.”
To prove the point, the high scores scrolled up the screen. The top six slots all proclaimed, “CHELSEA.”
“I am undefeated,” Chelsea cried as she thrust her hands into the air. “But I am a merciful conqueror. I will put in another credit and begin another game—if you promise to really try this time.”
Ralph lost and, soaked in perspiration, collapsed to the ground. “Dang, that thing is hard!” he wheezed.
“Wow,” said Jake as he glanced at the image above the flashing “INSERT COIN” on the screen of the dancing game. “I’ve never seen anyone get all the way down to amoeba. Good job, Ralph.”
Chelsea sighed. “Ugh, like, seriously, you two are guys. Guys are supposed to be good at video games, yet here I am, mopping the floor with you. This is frickin’ pathetic. I mean, Jake can’t even get past level one on Ninja Maiden.”
“Hey, that’s a hard game.”
“No, you are just a button masher. Pretty Dynamo must like you for your personality, because it is definitely not your skills.”
“I’ve got skills.”
She interlaced her fingers behind his neck and leaned on him. “Like what?”
“Give me that credit you promised, and I’ll show you.”
She rolled her eyes, but fished in her purse and handed him a coin. He jumped onto the mat of the recently vacated dancing game, dropped in the coin, and went all out.
It was a hard game demanding speed and endurance. But Jake didn’t spend hours on the basketball court—or, for that matter, tagging after Pretty Dynamo—for nothing. He went for ten minutes straight and missed only five steps the whole while. By the end, his ankle was screaming for mercy, but he was a man on a mission.
Minute by minute, he elevated his avatar: beginning as a human, he soon became a pale green creature with a huge head and an atrophied body, then a globe-spanning collective consciousness, then a living machine in orbit around a dead star, then an interstellar network of cybernetic organisms, then a Kardashev Type III machine mind powered by a galaxy-sized Dyson bubble enclosing billions of stars in stable orbits just outside the Schwarzschild radius of a quasar, then a five-dimensional being living inside the event horizon of a supermassive Reissner-Nordström black hole, and finally a disembodied cosmic supermind embedded in the quantum foam.
The words “YOU WIN” flashed across the screen in bold red letters. Breathing hard, Jake mopped sweat from his brow and took his place in the uppermost slot on the high score list. Unfortunately, this game only let him put in his initials.
Chelsea responded to his display with a slow, condescending clap. “My boyfriend is a veritable encyclopedia of useless skills. Useless skill number five hundred and sixty three: really good dancer. Right above ‘can list vital stats on every known dinosaur.’”
“Says the fighting game princess,” Jake muttered as he typed, “JOB.”
Chelsea sighed. “That’s why you’re out of money. You spent it on a complete Land Before Time collection, didn’t you?”
“No. I already have a complete Land Before Time collection, thank you very much!”
“Then was it Dino-Riders?”
“Nope. Already got it.”
“Cadillacs and Dinosaurs?”
“Got that one, too.”
Chelsea put a hand to her forehead again. “Oh my Princess. Oh my frickin’ Princess. It was Dinosaucers, wasn’t it?”
“Are you kiddin’ me? Dinosaucers is to Dino-Riders what Gobots is to Transformers. And … and I already own it.”
She shook her head. “I declare you to be a lost cause. Ralph, what do you think?”
“It’s true,” said Ralph. “He is never going to get a girlfriend.”
“The case is terminal, Jake, but we may be able to revive the patient if you, like, promise to find some cash and take me to a frickin’ movie next weekend.”
“All right, all right. Fine. What movie do you have in mind?”
“Kung Fu Cheerleader Nun Prison Break IV. They say it’s, like, even better than the first one.”
Jake rubbed his temples again. The twinges were getting stronger.
“They changed the cast, though,” said Ralph.
“Oh my frickin’ Princess, they needed to! Did you, like, see the third movie? Trying to explain what was going on by making the warden a time-traveling alien? Like, seriously? What the frick?”
“But it ended on a cliffhanger, so we’ll never—”
“Who cares? No, they need to, like, do exactly what they did, which is reboot the whole frickin’ franchise. Number four has a brand new generation of Kung Fu cheerleader nuns trying to escape from Abbey High Dojo and Penitentiary, and I am totally okay with that.”
Jake groaned. “Couldn’t we maybe see a movie that doesn’t involve scantily clad schoolgirls kicking monsters in the face? Because that’s sort of become my real life.”
Ralph shook his head. “Some guys just can’t appreciate what they’ve got.”
Chelsea slapped a hand against the side of the Soul Caliber machine. “Truth is, I’m, like, gettin’ bored with this one. I need a new challenge.”
“I know the cure for what ails you,” said Ralph. “They just put it in last week.” He put an arm around Chelsea’s shoulders and led her past knots of jabbering teens toward the arcade’s back wall. Jake followed.
There, covered in flashing lights and uttering a cacophony of beeps and whistles, stood a massive game featuring two square cages of PVC pipe enclosing elevated mats. Behind the cages was a screen four feet high. Above the screen, in bright pink and blue, flashed the words, “MAGICAL GIRL RUMBLE.”
Several young boys clustered around it. They pointed and laughed and talked, but they also looked at the price of play and shook their heads.
An evil grin formed on Chelsea’s lips. “Ah,” she said as she rubbed her palms together, “I’ve heard of this.”
“Yeah,” said Ralph. “A lot of people are mad about it. I’m surprised they could even get one of these in Juban. You’d think the Homeowners’ Association would be down here with torches and pitchforks.”
Chelsea nodded. “It does seem sacrilegious, but I like it.”
Jake stepped up behind them. “What is it, exactly?”
Ralph rounded on him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shook him. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Magical Girl Rumble! It’s the immersive, full-body magical girl VR fighting game! You can play as any magical girl from the history of Urbanopolis and duke it out with other girls! The first version let you play as the Moon Princess, but that made a lot of people angry, so they took her out. She was OP anyway. But you can still play as her team: you can be Hatchet Harridan, Ice Queen, Hell’s Belle—”
“Any magical girl?”
“Yeah, dude. Even the current ones. They update it regularly. Pretty Dynamo’s been a favorite for a while—”
As if on cue, the screen lit up with a beautifully rendered image of a street in downtown Urbanopolis. Heat lightning crackled across overhead clouds. The windows of the high-rises flanking the street were shattered, and glass and broken bricks littered the cracked asphalt. A couple of cars burned in the background, adding black smoke to the melancholy sky. The graphics were hyper-realistic, and it took Jake a moment to decide whether it was a 3D render or a live-action film.
It looks a little too real …
The camera panned across the street and focused in on two girls strolling toward each other. Jake started, and his heart thudded in his ears when he recognized Pretty Dynamo: she looked exactly like the real one, down to the toothy, lopsided grin and the flashing eyes. She had her fists raised, and she bobbed back and forth as if she were preparing to box.
Opposite her stood Sukeban Tsubasa, the grayish light glinting from her armored bra. She threw her head back, laughed, and pointed a defiant finger at Dynamo.
“You wanna go?” she yelled.
“You bet I do!” Dynamo replied.
Jake’s heartbeat slowed. The voices were passable, but obviously not those of the real girls.
“Fight!” cried a deep, masculine voice. In an instant, Dynamo had her Lightning Rod in hand. She leapt, spun the spear, and brought it down into Tsubasa’s head, striking three times while “+3 combo” appeared in the air. After the manner of video game characters, Tsubasa slid backwards and raised her arms, but didn’t fall or even stagger. Then she replied by thrusting out both of her hands. Guns popped out of her wrists and belted red flames, which pounded into Dynamo and sent her flying backwards. Blinking to indicate damage, Dynamo struck the ground and sent up a cloud of dust, but quickly snapped back to her feet. Her health bar shrank.
Jake relaxed. It had impressive graphics, but it really was just a game.
“Dynamo versus Tsubasa?” Ralph said. “I bet they rushed to put in this demo after last night. And what are those red things she’s shooting?”
Chelsea sighed. “Tsubasa’s brand new. I bet they don’t know her real stats, so they just made a wild guess. Generic beam weapons and stuff.”
“Yeah, that sucks. If Pretty Dynamo is gonna fight anyone, it should be Sword Seamstress.”
Jake started again. “What did you say?”
Ralph leaned on Chelsea’s shoulder. “I gotta say, Chels, you’re a genius. I never would have come up with it myself, but I totally ship those two now. They’d be perfect.”
“I know, right?”
“Hold on,” said Jake.
Chelsea giggled. “Don’t you think they just, like, crackle together?”
“They could, yeah—”
“Just a minute,” said Jake, “what are you two going on about? Pretty Dynamo and Sword Seamstress hate each other.”
“Jake’s jealous,” said Ralph.
Chelsea snorted and waved a hand. “They don’t really hate each other, Jake. They’re just playing around—”
“Probably don’t wanna admit their true feelings,” said Ralph.
“Guys, I was there. Sword Seamstress tried to kill Dynamo. She almost did. I saw it.”
Chelsea patted him on the head as if he were a little boy. “I’m sure it looked that way. Magical girls play rough.”
“Chelsea, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Thanks to Sword Seamstress, Dynamo lost her powers, and we ended up trapped downtown in a zombie horde. I’m lucky I’m not dead.”
Chelsea’s smile slipped. “What?”
“She used her, um, her Christmas—”
Ralph raised an eyebrow. “The Unholy Christmas Sweater?”
“Yeah, that was it. She hit Dynamo with it, and Dynamo—”
“She lost her powers?” Chelsea said. The color drained out of her face.
“I had to improvise to boot her back up, and if that hadn’t worked, both of us would be zombie food.”
Ralph scratched his head. “I wouldn’t have thought the Unholy Christmas Sweater could do that. I mean, it usually just demoralizes monsters so they’re easier to kill, but it does seem to have some kind of sapping—”
“It shut Dynamo down.”
Chelsea shook her head. “I don’t understand. How could it?”
Ralph shrugged. “She’s an electrical cyborg, so maybe it interfered with her implants. Wouldn’t have thought she’d have that kind of vulnerability, but they say every magical girl has a hidden weakness. Pretty slick of Sword Seamstress to figure it out, though. Maybe I should make her my favorite again—”
Jake’s head began to pound. “Ralph, Sword Seamstress almost killed me. Stop talking like this is some fan club thing.”
“It can’t be,” Chelsea whispered. She bit down on a knuckle of one index finger, something Jake had only seen her do when she was extremely nervous. “I mean … Sword Seamstress would never try to really hurt her—”
He felt another twinge in his temples. “She did, Chelsea. Look, would both of you stop contradicting me? I was there. You weren’t. You ever watch a magical girl lose her powers while a horde of zombies is staggering your way? No? Didn’t think so. You ever beat a dead man’s brains out with a crowbar? No? Then shut up. You ever fall from the top of a building? Ever been almost dragged into hell? Ever race to reboot a robot while Velociraptors are trying to rip you open? Ever watch a girl die right in front of you while she’s clutching your hand? I’ve done all of that this week! I thought I could come here to relax and just hang out, but instead, you two have been on my case all morning!”
He jabbed a finger at Ralph. You, knock it off with this obsession of yours. These girls aren’t collectible action figures, all right? They’re not … they’re not …”
He waved a hand toward Magical Girl Rumble. “They’re not toys! They’re people—happy, sad, angry, messed-up people. They don’t need you picking their boyfriends—or their girlfriends—for them. Why in all the holy moon is everyone in this city so obsessed with shipping magical girls? Do you have any idea how creepy that is? A lot of ’em are in elementary school! Some of ’em are in kindergarten! They’re children! Let them be children, for the Princess’s sake!”
When he finished, his chest heaved a few times. After a moment, he noticed that the arcade was strangely quiet: he could still hear the pops and whistles and music, but the other noises had stopped. He turned to see all the kids frozen, staring at him.
Ralph stepped up close and murmured, “Jake, people love the girls. We just want them to be happy. That’s all.”
He pushed Ralph away. “Well, knock it off. They don’t need you to make them happy. They just need you to leave them alone.”
He tugged at his collar. “I’m gonna step out for a minute. I need some air.”
He worked very hard to ignore the eyes following him as he made his way to the exit.
Jake walked out of the arcade’s rear door, which opened onto the skate park, a vast sculpture of white concrete full of geometrical waves and ripples like a storm-tossed sea flash-frozen and then reimagined by Picasso. Its largest features were three broad, irregular bowls like empty lagoon-style swimming pools, but between those were ramps, half pipes, full pipes, boxes, ledges, and rails forming a veritable maze.
Several kids on boards, rollerblades, or bikes were doing tricks. Just as Jake stepped out the door, a boy of probably twelve shot up one side of a half pipe on his BMX and pulled a frontside 180, spinning in midair before shooting back down and doing it again on the other side. Jake watched for a few minutes and nodded in appreciation of his skill.
Heh. If Pretty Dynamo were here with her board, she’d have that kid for lunch.
His eye strayed to the far end of the park when he saw a curious but familiar flash of red.
A little girl stood at the top of a ramp. She wore a baggy T-shirt and a pair of bicycle shorts along with knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards. Under one arm, she held a pink skateboard.
Her skin was bone-white, and intense red hair poured from under her helmet. Even at this distance, she stood out. Three other kids were skating nearby, and they paused to watch.
Carefully and deliberately, she set the board down. Just as carefully, she set one foot on it. Then the other. She held her hands out to either side and wobbled.
Uh oh. A walkway, set off by a guardrail, surrounded the park. He moved onto it and headed her way.
She pushed off, whipped down the ramp, and promptly wiped out. The clatter of her tumbling skateboard echoed off the concrete as she rolled to the bottom and lay in a heap. The kids watching her laughed and pointed. A boy on rollerblades sniggered as he leapt up onto a ledge and pulled a groove trick, sliding thirty feet before easily spinning out of the grind and landing back on the ground.
Now Jake ran. He bolted to the other side of the park, leapt over the rail, and barreled down the side of the ramp. Then his bad ankle gave out. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he fell on his seat and slid to a stop next to Dana.
She sat up and dusted off her arms. A long, raw scrape stretched up her right ankle. Against her pale, almost bluish skin, her blood looked shockingly red. It stood out boldly like her hair.
She stuck out her lower lip, and her little nose quivered. Her green eyes, directed at the ground, were wet.
“Jeez, Dana, what are you doing?”
She gave him the briefest sidelong glance, and her brows knit together. “Practicin’.”
She made her signature rasping sound, and then she lowered her voice and leaned toward him before she muttered, “Tesla says I’ll get better as Dynamo if I practice as Dana.”
He shaded his eyes with a hand and stared up into the bright September sky. It was a clear, warm day, and the sun was high overhead. The light glared from the white concrete. “Hey, you’re wearing sunscreen, aren’t you?”
She rolled her eyes.
“No, I’m serious. I know you burn easily. Don’t try to tell me you don’t.”
“You sound like my mom.”
“C’mon.” He put a hand on her upper arm and tried to pull her to her feet.
She squirmed out of his grasp. “Would you stop stalking me?”
“I’m not stalking you—”
“And stop touching me!”
“At least come in and put a bandage on that ankle.”
She hunched her shoulders and wrapped her arms around her knees. “Go away.”
“Man, don’t I even get points for last night? I fed you, remember?”
“That was then. This is now.”
He jangled the few coins in his pocket. Might be enough for a vending machine. “Come inside and let me get you something for your ankle, and maybe I’ll buy you a juice box.”
She scooted around in a circle to turn her back on him. “You can’t bribe me.”
“Yeah I can. Juice box.”
She shuddered. Her voice so low he could barely hear it, she mumbled, “What kind of juice box?”
“Whatever you want … well, whatever they have, I should say.”
She tapped her index fingers together. “Strawberry milk?”
“If they have strawberry milk, you can have strawberry milk.”
She breathed hard for a few seconds, but finally stuck her nose in the air. “I don’t wanna.”
“Stubborn, huh? Well, maybe you don’t have a choice.”
She snapped her head toward him and glared. “What does that mean?”
“I mean you’re not getting away without letting me put something on that ankle. It would be a shame for you to end up with a scar.”
With that, he grabbed her under her knees and arms and picked her up. Her ears turned scarlet, and the color quickly spread into her cheeks. Some of the other kids made catcalls.
She slammed a fist down into his shoulder. But she only did it once.
“I hate you,” she said.
She was so light that it was easy to bend down and grab her board, too. He carried her around to the arcade’s front entrance. There, he paused for a moment when he saw a huge crowd of jabbering high school girls around the claw crane game under the awning. But after considering them for a moment, he merely shrugged and walked inside.
Must be a popular new plush toy or something …
Tim, a high school senior working a part-time job, ran the arcade’s store and ice cream shop. Jake got more stares and a few giggles from the patrons when he set Dana down on his glass-top counter.
“Where’s your first aid kit?” he asked as he leaned her board against a wall.
Tim bent over and fished around under the cash register. “How bad is it?”
“Just a scrape.”
He came up again with a white box in hand. “Good, cuz I’m not allowed to call an ambulance right now. I wanted to shut down the skate park, but the boss wouldn’t hear it.”
“How often have you called an ambulance for the skate park?”
“Me? Never. Still, it’s knowing I can’t that makes me nervous. Hey, you’re Blatowski, right?”
“Heard they sent you to fifth grade. That sucks.”
“Yeah, we’re plannin’ to contest it, but it’s been a hectic week.”
“No kiddin’. You really with Pretty Dynamo? Everyone at school says you’re the ‘Barfing Boy.’”
“Sort of. Me an’ Dynamo run into each other a lot.”
“So who’s this cutie? You babysittin’?”
“Nah. She’s a classmate.”
Dana sat on the edge of the counter and dangled her feet. Jake knelt in front of her, ripped open an iodine swab, and cleaned her wound. She sucked her breath between her teeth and tapped her heels against the counter. “Is that really necessary?”
“I told you, so you don’t get a scar.”
She bent forward to bring her mouth near his ear and hissed, “I been hurt worse than this.”
“No you haven’t, not when you’re … I mean …”
She glanced toward Tim. “Yes I have. It transfers from one to the other.”
He remembered the bruises he’d left on her arm: he’d given them to Dana, but he’d seen them again on Pretty Dynamo.
He also remembered the words of Lady Paladin Andalusia: “My alter ego is dead already.”
He tossed the iodine swab in the trash, leaned near to her injured leg, and blew.
She jumped. Her leg jerked back, and her heel knocked against the glass counter with a loud thunk.
“What was that?”
He looked up at her. “You want me to kiss it?”
Her ears turned red again, and her jaw quivered. “Why, so you can get hep C?”
“You have hep C?”
“No, but you will if you go around kissin’ people’s bloody wounds!”
Jake chuckled. “Hey, Tim, you got any sunscreen?”
“Bandages are free, but the sunscreen ya gotta buy.”
“Don’t suppose I could pay you later?”
“Boss’d have my skin.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. How much?”
“That’s more’n I got. Any strawberry milk in the vending machine?”
“Dunno, you’ll have to look. Getting your grade-school tastes back?”
“It’s for her, dumbass.”
“Uh huh. You sure you’re not babysitting?”
“Very funny.” Jake put gauze over Dana’s scrape and taped it in place. “There,” he said. “All better.”
She held her hands in her lap and stared down at them. She began, “I don’t …”
She stopped, scowled, and interlaced her fingers. “I don’t need you to take care of me.”
“Nope. You just need me to buy you a juice box.” He tapped a finger against the tip of her nose, and she growled.
Now limping slightly, Dana stood at his side with her arms crossed as he fiddled with the vending machine. It contained several juice boxes, not one of which was strawberry milk.
“Apple?” he asked.
“That’s probably not much different from that electric whatever you drank the other—”
“And that one was gross.”
“You sure enjoyed it at the time.”
“Whatever. Shut up. Find me something else.”
“That’s not a real fruit.”
“Neither is electric—”
“Shut up. Next.”
“Grape pomegranate? That one’s probably got a lot of antioxidants.”
“Are all of ’em just fruit juice?”
“That’s sort of the idea. That’s why it’s called a juice—”
“Shut up. What else is there?”
“Why don’t you look? How old are you? You can read, can’t you?”
She made that rasping noise, glowered at the vending machine for half a minute, and said, “I’m not thirsty.”
“You are such a little brat.”
“And you’re a big, clingy, weirdo stalker freak.”
“I’m not stalking you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then why are you here?”
“Here. Why are you here when I’m here?”
“Coincidence. I’m here …” He slapped a hand to his forehead. “I’m here because I’m supposed to be on a date.”
Ralph pushed his way through the crowd and punched Jake in the shoulder. “There you are! Dude, I thought maybe you got stuck in a toilet or something.”
Dana, eyelids half lowered, looked back and forth between them. “I knew it,” she muttered.
“Hey,” said Ralph, “who’s this?”
“Oh, she’s a classmate. Dana, this is Ralph Willikers. Ralph, Dana Volt.”
Ralph held out a hand. “Shake or bow?”
“Shake.” She took his hand for a few seconds, wiggled it unenthusiastically, and quickly let go. Crossing her arms again, she gazed at him and twisted up her mouth. “So I assume you’re the pitcher.”
Jake squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. Dana …
“Ah ha ha. Did Jake tell you I play?” Ralph tousled her hair. “Yep, I’m hopin’ to make the team, but tryouts aren’t ’til the end of February.” He rubbed his right shoulder. “Been workin’ on the ol’ fast pitch, y’know!”
“Uh huh. They say it helps to think about baseball.”
“I think about it all the time!”
“Okay, Dana,” said Jake as he clapped his hands to her shoulders, “weren’t you just leaving?”
“I think you were.”
“I think you were buying me a juice box.”
“But you said … why you little brat!”
Chelsea, a deep scowl on her face, marched over and, from behind, wrapped her arms around Jake’s neck. “Jakey.” Her voice in his ear was soft but dangerous. “Where did you go?”
“Um … out. Just out for a minute.”
“That was more than a minute, sweetheart. That was way more than one frickin’ minute.”
He still had his hands on Dana’s shoulders. She tilted her head back to stare at him. “That’s your girlfriend?”
“Yes, this is my girlfriend, Chelsea. Chelsea, this is—”
Chelsea, lips narrowed, pointed a finger down at Dana’s face. “Who’s the twerp?”
“This is Dana, as I was just saying. She sits next to me in—”
“He’s buying me a juice box,” said Dana.
Chelsea’s arms slipped from his neck. “Why are you buying this little runt a juice box?”
“That’s a good question. An excellent question. You see—”
“You can’t even afford to take me on a proper frickin’ date, but you’re wasting money on juice for one of your frickin’ classmates?”
She threw her arms around his neck again and leaned on him. “Jake, I’m thirsty. Why don’t you buy me a juice box instead?”
He fished his few coins out of his pocket. “I might have enough for two … okay, I don’t.”
“Dibs,” said Dana.
Chelsea shoved Jake aside and rounded on her. “Who do you think you are, you little runt?”
Dana raised one eyebrow. “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m the girlfriend.” Chelsea tugged a strand of Dana’s hair. “And has anyone ever told you that you look like a clown?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you look like a wench?”
Chelsea raised a fist, so Jake pulled her back. “C’mon, she’s just a kid.”
“I can see that. So why are you buying her stuff?”
“First Pretty Dynamo and now this brat? I can’t frickin’ take any more of this.”
“You’re not jealous of a fifth-grader, are you?”
“I don’t know, Jake. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what you’re capable of. I mean, you always did seem a little … well, you know—”
“He does, doesn’t he?” said Dana.
“You stay outta this!”
“Yo,” said Ralph, “what’s going on out front?” He pointed toward the entryway. Outside the glass doors, a gigantic crowd of teenage girls had gathered. Jake could hear their excited voices, though the glass muffled them so he couldn’t tell what they were saying.
“I dunno. I saw ’em on the way back in, too, but the crowd wasn’t that big.” He called to the desk clerk, “Hey, Tim, there something new in the crane game?”
Tim leaned over the counter, watched the knot of girls for a moment, and shrugged. “Not that I know of. There’s a guy who comes around from the company once a week to fill the merchandisers, but I don’t pay much attention to what’s in there. They make me cart that thing indoors whenever there’s a storm, though. It’s a real pain.”
Jake looked again at his money. “I bet I have enough for just one go at that thing—”
“Win me an awesome toy,” said Chelsea as she squeezed his arm, “and all is forgiven.”
Jake made a fist around his paltry cash. “Okay, I’m on it.”
“Jake,” said Ralph, “you suck at the claw crane, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right. Chelsea, maybe you should play—”
They made their way out front, Dana tagging after them. As they approached, the cluster of laughing and chattering girls parted slightly to reveal a boy at the game’s controls. He was probably Jake and Ralph’s age, tall and quite thin. He wore loose slacks along with a khaki sweater vest over a dress shirt and a carelessly tied necktie. His sleeves were rolled up to reveal skinny, almost hairless forearms. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair before he said in a smooth voice, “Okay, who’s next? Megumi, you want one? How about that little kitten in the corner? The pink one?”
He looked up from the machine, his big, glistening eyes rimmed with long lashes and set in a come-hither gaze. His full lips were moist, and a hint of pink sat in his cheeks.
A pigtailed girl at his shoulder waved a hand and bounced up and down. “Get me the puppy! The puppy!”
“Well,” the boy said, his voice like oil, “it’s in plastic. That means it’s extra hard, you know—”
Megumi clenched her fists and shook her head back and forth. “I want the puppy! I want the puppy!”
“Okay, okay.” With a faint chuckle, he cracked his fine knuckles, dropped in a coin, and as the game hummed and creaked, expertly guided the joystick until the claw was directly over the plastic-wrapped plush in question. With a whine, the claw dropped, snagged the toy, picked it up, and delivered it to the chute. With a wave of his thin fingers and a deep bow, he presented it to Megumi, who hugged it and squealed.
Jake put a hand to his chin and nodded. “The guy’s good.”
Ralph grabbed his shoulder. “Oh my sweet Moon Princess, it’s him!”
“Him? Who him?”
“That guy I told you about—!”
The boy ran his fingers through his hair again and looked over. He instantly lost his oily, seductive look, and a wide-eyed smile replaced it.
“Ralph-sama!” he cried, his voice rising an octave.
Ralph took a step back, as if planning to use Jake for a shield. “Hey, T.B.,” he said cautiously.
T.B.? His name is T.B.?
T.B. rubbed a hand against the back of his head and forced a weak, nervous laugh. “Didn’t expect to see you here! Aheh. Aheh heh. So, um, what brings you to the arcade?”
Ralph took another step back. “Games—”
“Oh. Right. Cuz … cuz that’s what you do at an arcade! Heh heh heh.”
The girls surrounding T.B. pouted. Megumi leaned on his shoulder. “T.B., honey, who are these dorks?”
T.B. started, but after a brief look of panic crossed his expressive features, he quickly got back his bedroom eyes and put a hand to Megumi’s chin. “Oh, darling, don’t you worry. Ralph here’s just a friend of mine, you see. But you are the only one whose company I truly crave.”
His fingers entwined themselves in a lock of Megumi’s hair, and she trembled. “Oh, T.B. …”
A blond girl on his right crossed her arms and pouted. “T.B., how come you’re givin’ all your attention to Megumi today?”
Without releasing Megumi, T.B. turned toward her and murmured, “Oh, Cassandra, you know I love you, too. But when one is surrounded by so many beautiful flowers, it’s difficult to know which one to pluck first.”
A deep red entered Cassandra’s cheeks, and she nearly dropped to the pavement as her knees visibly shook.
Sheesh, thought Jake, this guy is somethin’ else.
Chelsea put her fingertips to her throat and stared. “Oh my sweet frickin’ Princess, that guy’s in your class, Ralph?”
“Yeah, he’s a real—”
“Oh, frick. I would have petitioned to skip a grade if I knew high-schoolers could be that frickin’ hot.”
Wrapping his arms around Megumi and Cassandra, T.B. took a couple of steps forward, but didn’t leave his crowd of admirers. He tilted his head so his long hair draped over his eyes. “Well, sweetie,” he said to Chelsea, “there’s plenty of room aboard the T.B. train. You just gotta wait your turn.” He gave the girls under his arms a squeeze, and they squealed.
“Ooh,” Chelsea breathed as she slowly slid her hands down her torso, “what’s the wait time?”
Jake tugged at his collar. “Um, Chelsea? Would you mind, y’know, not openly lusting after other guys right in front of me? It’s kinda hurting my self-esteem.”
T.B.’s eyebrows went up, and he put his hands out, thumbs and index fingers extended as if framing a picture. He took a few more steps forward, still within the ring of fawning females. He gazed down into Dana’s face.
“And what is this here?” he whispered. “A porcelain doll come to life? That fiery hair! Those sea-green eyes! That saucy button nose—!”
“You suck,” said Dana.
Jake clapped a hand to her shoulder. “And then there’s her mouth, which pretty much ruins everything else.”
T.B. grinned. “Oh, that’s okay. She’s just jealous because she knows she’s too short”—he pointed his thumbs at himself—“for this ride.”
His girls tittered.
Is this guy for real?
“Sweet Princess,” Chelsea whispered, “I just wanna rip his clothes off right here—”
“Chelsea?” said Jake. “You’re drooling, honey.”
“I take it back,” said Dana, her half-lidded stare still on T.B. “You super suck. You super-duper suck. You suck worse than this guy.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Jake. “And that means you really, really suck.”
T.B. hugged his two closest girls again and took another step forward. He remained a good ten feet from Dana, but he bent down so he could look her in the eye. “Aw, don’t be like that, sweetheart. How ’bout you let me pinch your cheek, and then I’ll buy you an ice cream cone?”
Dana tapped a foot against the ground. After half a minute, she turned one cheek toward him. “Just don’t pinch hard,” she muttered.
“What? Dana!” Jake rapped his knuckles on her scalp. “Don’t be so easy to bribe!”
She stuck her lip out. “Well, you wouldn’t buy me ice cream!”
“Hold it,” said Chelsea, again seizing Jake’s arm. “Why were you buying the runt ice cream?”
“I wasn’t, like she said.”
Chelsea blinked a few times.
Dana crossed her arms and turned up her nose. “It’s because I’m better’n you are.”
“Dana,” said Jake, “knock it off.”
Chelsea let go of his arm. “What did you say, runt?”
“That you’re stupid and you suck.”
“She’s just being a brat, Chelsea. Ignore her.”
T.B. straightened up, stretched his arms out, and took two steps back. His girls closed around him, cooing and sighing as they snuggled against him. “What is this?” he said. “Jealousy? Squabbling? And on my watch? Young ladies, I think it’s clear you need to have it out. And this is the arcade: there’s only one way to solve your differences here.”
Chelsea rubbed her hands together. “Yes. Yes, the hot guy is right.” She clapped a hand down on Dana’s head and roughly wagged it back and forth. “Okay, twerp, how are you at fighting games? You like Soul Canister?”
Jake rolled his eyes. “C’mon, Chelsea—”
Dana slapped her hand away and said through clenched teeth, “How about Magical Girl Rumble?”
“Dana,” Jake hissed. “You shouldn’t—”
Chelsea cackled. “Oh, really? You think you can beat me at that? You’re on, brat! You are so frickin’ on!”
“It’s decided!” T.B. cried as he pulled no less than five girls into his grasp and gave them all a tight squeeze at once while they giggled and squirmed. “And the winner of this heroic duel gets a kiss on the cheek from yours truly!”
Dana and Chelsea clasped each other’s hands and glared into each other’s eyes. “Now I’m motivated!” said Chelsea. “You’re going down, ginger!”
Jake closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
Yes, he was definitely getting a headache.