JAKE AND THE DYNAMO Chapter 21

JAKE AND THE DYNAMO

CHAPTER 21: PLAYERS

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The cluster of twenty girls, like some kind of giant amoeba with T.B. as its nucleus, oozed through the front door of the arcade. Leaning on his counter, Tim blanched. The girls hadn’t bothered him when they had remained out under the awning, but now he apparently didn’t know what to do once they’d invaded the male-dominated space of the arcade’s interior.

There was an unspoken rule at the arcade: girls, if they came in significant numbers, were to remain near the front end where the merchandisers and ice cream were. Girls were not to enter the arcade’s inner sanctum except singularly, and preferably in male company. Cavalierly violating this unspoken rule, T.B.’s band of jabbering females now threatened the purity of this haven for luckless and socially awkward boys.

The girls cried for ice cream, and T.B. had no shortage of money. Silver credits clattered onto the glass counter, and Tim hastened to fill waffle cones while the excited girls shouted their flavor preferences over the top of one another.

Although they didn’t order, T.B. also bought ice cream for the two combatants, and he turned toward them with a cone in each hand and an expectant smile on his face. But he never left the girls’ circle: as if the amoeba were devouring prey, the cluster expanded momentarily, thrust out pseudopods, engulfed Chelsea and Dana, and drew them inexorably inward. Once they stood before T.B., he knelt and gallantly held up the two cones loaded with vanilla as if he were a knight proffering hard-won treasures to his ladylove. They took the ice cream in silence, and T.B. didn’t even insist on pinching Dana’s cheek.

Now the amoeba, having grown larger through absorption, was on the move again: it slithered deeper into the arcade, and skinny, pimple-faced boys gave it nervous glances, as if afraid they were next to be devoured. Jake and Ralph, left out of it, followed behind. Irritated, Jake tried to move in close to T.B., who smoothly whispered inanities into Chelsea’s ear. But he always found a girl blocking his path. When he stepped to one side to get around her, he ran into another girl. Somehow, no matter where Jake went, at least three girls always stood between him and T.B. He had no way of getting through except by getting rough.

So he stayed back and glowered instead.

By the time they reached the Magical Girl Rumble game, Dana and most of the other girls had already devoured their treats. Chelsea still contentedly dabbed at hers with her tongue, so T.B. slipped an arm around her waist and murmured just loud enough for Jake to hear, “Do you need a little help with that ice cream, my dove? Perhaps we could lick it … together?”

Chelsea giggled.

“Hey!” Jake shouted. He tried to push his way between a couple of the girls, but found Megumi standing stalwartly athwart him and eyeing him with a murderous glare.

“Step aside,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed, and she thrust out her chin for a moment, as if considering. Then she squeezed her eyes shut, bunched up her fists, and shrieked, “Eek! He touched me! He touched me there!”

Jake immediately jumped backwards. Once again enclosed by the amoeba, Megumi ran to T.B., who placed a consoling arm across her shoulders.

“T.B., she moaned, “that boy is such a … such a ruffian!”

“Don’t worry, Megumi,” T.B. cooed. “I’m here for you. I’ll watch over you, and I’ll protect you … because I always use protection—”

“Oh, T.B.!” Megumi laid her head on his chest.

“Jake’s such a pervert,” said Dana as she crossed arms. She looked up at Chelsea. “Aren’t you mad?”

“Actually,” Chelsea answered as she slurped up the remainder of her rapidly melting ice cream, “I’m kind of impressed. Truth is, I was beginning to think he was … well, you know.”

“Hey!” Jake shouted.

With a series of rapid bites, Chelsea crunched down her cone and then brushed her hands together. “Still, he hasn’t even made a move on me yet. I wouldn’t expect him to grab some girl he just met.”

“You’d be surprised,” Dana replied with narrowed eyes.

Jake clenched his fists. “I am getting really tired—”

Chelsea waved a hand in the air. “Relax, sweetie. I was watching. Megumi made the whole frickin’ thing up.”

With that, Chelsea seized Megumi by the shoulders, hauled her away from T.B., and put her in a headlock. Megumi shrieked, and Cassandra pounded on Chelsea’s shoulders, but Chelsea merely reached a hand for Cassandra’s chest and shoved her. She stumbled into T.B., who caught her around the waist. After making sure Cassandra had her feet, T.B. reached for Chelsea, but Chelsea snapped up her free hand and struck his fingers. His dark eyes widened, and he stepped back.

“Ya like that?” Chelsea shouted as she gave Megumi a noogie. “Ya wanna fantasize ’bout somebody grabbin’ you? I’ll grab ya, wench!”

Thinking he’d better break it up before Tim kicked them all out, Jake stepped forward again, but found two more girls in his path.

“Get out of the way.”

“Stand back!” one of them said. “Nobody gets close to T.B.!”

“What are you talking about? You’ve been close to him!”

T.B. placed a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder. “Megumi’s a little high-strung. Why don’t we just let this one slide, hm?”

Chelsea bent down and hissed in Megumi’s ear, “The hot guy just saved your life, sweetheart. Now think twice before you mess with my boyfriend.”

She released Megumi and pushed her aside. Her mussed, frizzy hair falling limply over her face, Megumi burst into tears and clutched T.B., who wrapped her in a tight hug.

“That totally got my blood pumping.” Chelsea cracked her knuckles, and the girls scrambled to get out of her way as she marched toward one of game’s two elevated cages. Once she found the stairs, she mounted and ducked through the PVC pipes. “Prepare yourself, Jake Blatowski, cuz your middle school girlfriend is about to kick your elementary school girlfriend’s butt.”

“She’s not my … y’know, forget it. Just get this over with.”

Dana, arms still crossed, walked toward the other cage. As she passed him, Jake leaned down and whispered, “Have you played this game before?”

She twisted up her mouth. “Well, no. But I figured I might be able to …”

She shrugged.

With sharp elbows, T.B.’s girls nudged Jake and Ralph aside before swarming the game’s central console, where T.B dropped in ten credits.

Immediately, the sound of thunder and trumpets burst from the speakers. On the huge screen, a computer-generated image of the moon swept through space above a ruined, crater-pocked Earth. A lump formed in Jake’s throat at the sight: it was a boldly accurate depiction of the current state of the planet, with blackish oceans and barely recognizable continents scoured yellow and red and broken at their edges. The Indian subcontinent, Australia, and most of South America and Africa were gone, having been wiped out partly by the destruction of Antarctica and partly by the subsequent antimatter bombings. Half of Europe, the coasts of North America, and the island chains of the Pacific were gone as well.

A view of the Earth from space was a rare sight in Urbanopolis. People didn’t like to think about it. The image was a clear statement of this game’s deliberate provocativeness.

A deep voice boomed, “Humanity’s last hope … locked in mortal combat! Behold, Magical Girl Rumble!”

The game was loud. Around the room, kids peered over to see who was willing to pay its steep asking price.

Several generations’ worth of magical girls, frozen in corny poses, flitted across the screen. “Choose your girl,” shouted the voice, “and choose your destiny!”

“Wow,” said Ralph. “So it’s kinda like a dating service.”

Sonorous music rolled forth while the screen displayed rapid cuts of girls performing brutal combo moves on one another. The air filled with high-pitched shouts and taunts as well as the loud cracking sounds that games and movies inexplicably associated with punches and kicks.

Jake sucked in his breath when Grease Pencil Marionette jumped onto the screen. The tails of her green coat stuck out straight behind her as she performed a pirouette and spun her giant pencil in her hands. “Welcome to Magical Girl Rumble!” she shouted in a passable imitation of Marionette’s voice. “Right now, I’ll run through a quick tutorial to get you ready for action! To skip this at any time, press the flashing green button!”

On the console in front of T.B., a big button blinked.

“If you’re ready to fight like a girl,” said Marionette with a wink and another twirl, “please select one- or two-player mode!”

Two more buttons lit up. T.B. pressed the one on the right, and Marionette offered another wink.

“Two-player mode selected!” she said, giggling. “You’re really pushing my buttons!”

Jake shook his head. “Marionette does not talk like that.”

Ralph nudged him. “Hush. I wanna see this.”

Lights in the floors of the elevated platforms flashed blue and red. Marionette spread her arms. “Surrounding these two rumble cages are motion sensors designed to translate your movements into the awesome combat maneuvers of real-life magical girls! The gameplay is based on thousands of hours of news footage, and the moves are as accurate as we could make them! Players one and two, please enter your rumble cage and don your virtual reality headsets and battle gloves!”

After spinning her pencil, Marionette quickly drew images of the gloves and VR sets. She ran through instructions on how to secure the straps while Dana and Chelsea put on the equipment. Dana found that she couldn’t don the heavy, squarish headset over her helmet, so she unlatched the helmet and handed it off to Jake. Static electricity made wisps of her red hair stand on end to form a waving, fiery halo.

“Woo,” said Chelsea as she sniffed her VR set, “these things smell funky. I wonder how many hygienically challenged fanboys have worn this stuff.”

“You’ll notice that your right glove is stiffer than your left,” said Marionette, “because it contains the controller! You can attack and defend using hand and foot gestures alone, but to perform spells and combo moves, you’ll need the controller’s buttons, which you can feel under your fingertips. Keep in mind that each magical girl has a unique move set, so mastering the spells takes time!”

Jake knew Chelsea had never played this game before, but she was a skilled and systematic gamer. Chances were that she’d have several combinations memorized by the time the game was over. He didn’t know how Dana played, but if he had to guess, she was a button masher, which meant she was at a serious disadvantage.

Marionette next ran through the basics of how to control an avatar. The leg movements were particularly complicated: going up on tiptoe would jump, doing it quickly would “spin jump,” lifting a foot off the floor would kick, and hopping would bring an aerial magical girl into “flight mode.”

As the instructions grew more complicated, a broad grin formed on Chelsea’s mouth beneath the clunky VR headset. “What do you wanna bet the sensors can’t even detect half this stuff?”

“She’s probably right,” said Ralph. These kinds of games sound great in theory, but in practice they’re hit or miss.”

“Now,” cried the fake Marionette, “choose your girl … and choose your destiny!”

“Man, this is hammy,” Jake whispered.

“If by hammy you mean awesome,” Ralph replied, eyes glued to the screen. “I mean, Chelsea’s probably right that the gameplay’s gonna suck. But it’s still awesome.”

Jake chewed the inside of his cheek. “Well, it’s quite a spectacle, and it squeezed ten credits out of us, so that’s something.”

The screen flashed “Player 1,” and Dana’s cage lit up with blinking blue lights. A selection window appeared with a bewildering array of girls’ thumbnail images, sorted by decade. A selector box flicked back and forth uncertainly as Dana figured out how to control it, but then it shot forward to the current decade and found the thumbnail for Pretty Dynamo.

Jake slapped his forehead. Dana …

A trumpet blared when Dana made her selection, and Pretty Dynamo appeared onscreen with Tesla hovering at her shoulder. She spun on one foot while flipping her spear around in a whirlwind. “Electrifying the world with love and friendship,” she cried, “and making evildoers feel the wattage of justice—I am Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo!”

Lightning cracked, and the subwoofers thundered.

“Interesting choice,” said Chelsea. Once the screen said “Player 2” and her cage began to glow, she moved the selector down to the tail end of the list to hover over Sukeban Tsubasa.

Dana blanched.

“Hey, Chelsea,” Ralph called, “she’s brand new! You know she’ll only have a basic move set!”

“Good point, Ralph. She’s probably more a placeholder than anything else. Let’s get one who’s been around a while.”

She moved the selector up several rows until she found Sword Seamstress.

Dana’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh, man,” said Ralph.

Once Chelsea made her selection, Sword Seamstress twirled onto the screen with Stitches padding sinuously around her feet. “Though deceivers weave their tangled webs, my warp and weft are always true! A stitch in time stops crime—for I am Magical Girl Sword Seamstress!”

Ribbons and spools of thread flowed across the screen, accompanied by the sound of birds taking flight.

Dana clenched her teeth and raised her fists. “Sword Seamstress!” she hissed.

Keep it together, Dana …

Ralph clutched Jake’s arm, and tears rolled down his cheeks. “I know it’s just a video game, but still … DynaSword! It’s the happiest day of my life!”

Jake sighed.

“Do you think they’ll fight in a mud pit? Do you?”

“Calm down, Ralph.”

“Get ready!” a deep voice roared. “It’s time for … Magical Girl Rumble!”

On the screen appeared an expansive shot of the wastes. Mottling the barren, blasted earth were patches of deep crimson, sickly yellow, and burnt-out black. Sharp fragments of glass littered the ground; neither natural nor manmade, this glass had formed from stone and soil fused by the heat of alien weaponry. The camera zoomed across this dreary landscape until it focused on a vast cinder cone. Lava, glowing a bright red, dribbled down one blasted slope. Smoke billowed into the cloudy sky.

Halfway down the volcano’s steep side, the ground had cracked open, and there the flowing lava formed a small lake. The camera zoomed in further to reveal Pretty Dynamo and Sword Seamstress squaring off on a floating platform of grayish stone in the midst of the bubbling, molten rock. Around them, flaming balls of tar leapt out of the lava and then fell back with a splash.

Boxes appeared on either side of the central image to display the first-person views from Dana and Chelsea’s headsets.

“Interesting arena,” said Chelsea, her view swinging back and forth as she turned her head, “though I’m not sure it’s physically possible.”

Ralph shrugged. “Maybe Pretty Dynamo could take it, but I don’t think Sword Seamstress has that kind of heat tolerance. That would be hot enough to ignite most fabrics.”

“Don’t forget the poisonous gasses,” Jake added.

“Oh, both of them could handle those.”

“It’s a video game,” said T.B. as he stroked his chin. “It’s not supposed to be completely realistic. In games, lava doesn’t hurt you unless you touch it.”

Throughout the cinematic opening sequence, raucous music had played. Though Jake had tuned it out at first, the music now grew more insistent, and a screechy voice screamed unintelligibly over the heavy sound of pounding drums and distorted guitars.

Dana bobbed her head, and the view from her helmet bounced up and down. “Hey, I know this song!”

“Yeah,” said Ralph, “I think I’ve heard it, too! You listen to monster metal?”

“Uh huh. This is ‘Uterus of Destruction’ by Lady/Killer featuring Van Halensing. It’s from their Rigor Magus album.”

“Van Halensing?” said Ralph. “You mean the vampire-hunting magical girl rock idol? I didn’t know she ever sang with Lady/Killer!”

“Just this song.”

“Dude! And they’ve got it on the soundtrack for Magical Girl Rumble? That is metal!”

Jake grabbed the lip of Dana’s platform. “Dana, you shouldn’t listen to music like this! It’s full of all kinds of bad stuff like cuss words and backwards messages and syncopated rhythm—”

“You’re a dork,” she replied. “I bet you listen to show tunes.”

Jake blinked. “What’s wrong with show tunes?”

Dana and Chelsea both sighed.

“T.B.,” whined Cassandra, “this music is so … so … inurbane!” She stuck out her lip and made Bambi eyes.

“Never mind that my, my dear,” T.B. answered, taking her hands in his own. “Perhaps later I’ll stand beneath your balcony and serenade you on my mandolin.”

“I didn’t know you played the mandolin!”

“I’ll learn how just for you.”

“Oh, T.B.!” Cassandra threw herself against him, and he held her tightly.

“Enough of that,” said Chelsea. “Let’s do this thing.” She slid a foot forward. On the screen, Sword Seamstress ran pell-mell toward Pretty Dynamo.

Dana stumbled backwards and smacked into the PVC pipes while Pretty Dynamo performed a flying backwards somersault and landed in the lava. Instead of sinking or igniting, she cried, “Ow! Ow!” as she blinked gold. After a second, a burst of flame knocked her forward onto the stone. Almost a quarter of her health bar disappeared.

“You gotta watch the edge,” Jake said.

Dana grumbled. “I know, idiot.”

Righting herself, she took a cautious step forward and clumsily swung one arm. On the screen, Dynamo jabbed at the air while yelling, “Yah! Yah!”

“Controls are going to be tough,” Chelsea said. “This should be interesting.”

She stuck out her foot, and Sword Seamstress again ran toward Dynamo. Chelsea moved her arms, and Sword Seamstress delivered a rapid combination of hooks and jabs. Dynamo, her head rocking on her neck, slid toward the lava again.

“Hold up your arms up,” said Jake, “and move one foot forward … there you go!”

Dynamo blocked the punches and halted her retreat.

“Okay, now swing!”

Dana swung, and Dynamo delivered a left hook that caught Sword Seamstress in the jaw, knocking her back.

“Oh, man,” whispered Ralph, “I just can’t handle it.” Tears poured from his eyes, and a trickle of blood ran from his left nostril.

“Jake!” shouted Chelsea. “Why the frick are you helping her instead of me?”

“Because she needs it! You’re already good at this stuff!”

“Well, that’s true. Let’s see how you pull a weapon on this thing.” A series of clicks came from her glove as she tested the buttons.

Sword Seamstress slid to the left, then to the right, and then spun in a flashy tornado roundhouse kick. Dana gasped and ducked, and Dynamo ducked, too.

After several more clicks, Sword Seamstress finally pulled her swords from her garter belts. They clattered as they unfolded.

“Dana, try the buttons!”

Dana’s glove clicked, and Dynamo shimmied back and forth.

“Where’s my Lightning Rod?” Dana snarled.

Chelsea chuckled, and Sword Seamstress swung her right arm in a vicious swipe.

After more frantic clicking, Pretty Dynamo shouted, “Surge Protector!” The shield opened on her arm, and she blocked the blow.

“Who designed the moves for this?” said Ralph as he waved at the screen in disgust. “That’s not how Sword Seamstress fights! You don’t just throw your arms around like that when you’re fencing!”

“You’re right,” said Chelsea, “but if this works how I think it does, I should be able to make her fight the way I want.” She spread her legs to shoulder-width, bent her knees, raised her left arm behind her head, and turned her right shoulder toward Dana, forming an en garde position. Sword Seamstress mimicked the pose.

T.B. tilted his head. “Does she fence?”

Jake frowned. “Well, no … I don’t think so. But she does play a lot of sword fighting games, so she’s seen the stance—”

T.B. stroked his chin and said nothing.

Chelsea lunged. Sword Seamstress did the same and thrust straight through Dynamo’s abdomen. Rather than keeling over, Dynamo slid back half a foot and flashed gold.

Dana’s glove continued to click. “Where’s my spear?”

“Okay, don’t get excited,” Jake said. “Have you tried every button?”

“There are only four buttons! This game’s stupid!”

After Dynamo jiggled back and forth for a few seconds, she finally raised a hand and cried, “Ball Lightning!” The resulting blast knocked Sword Seamstress on her back and raised a cloud of dust.

“Do it again!” Jake said.

More buttons clicked. “I can’t!”

“What did you hit before?”

“I dunno! I just hit stuff!”

Sword Seamstress quickly kipped up to her feet. “Scarf of Strangulation!” she shouted. A ball of blue yarn jumped from her belt, and her swords whistled as they slashed the air, producing a long, woolen scarf that snaked toward Dynamo and enwrapped her throat. Dana waved her arms and tapped more buttons, but to no avail. Dynamo scrabbled at the scarf, but Sword Seamstress yanked on it, dragging her across the ground. Once she was in range, Sword Seamstress swung an arm, clocked her in the face with a knuckle guard, and sent her flying backwards. It was an impressive-looking move, though it did only a little damage.

“Oh, yeah!” cried Chelsea. “That was frickin’ awesome!” More clicks came from her glove, and she performed the move again. And again. And again.

“Rrr! I hate this stupid game!” Dana reached for her VR headset, but Jake shot a hand into the cage and grabbed her wrist.

“C’mon! T.B. wasted ten credits on you! At least play it through!”

For a moment, she tried to yank her arm back, but Jake held on until she stopped pulling.

She growled. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll play.”

He let her go, and she clicked more buttons. At last, Dynamo cartwheeled sideways to dodge the scarf. “Lightning Rod!” she shouted. Her wand popped into her hand and expanded into a spear.

“Finally! I have no idea what I hit!”

She moved her gloves through the air. She was hesitant and slow, but her movements looked not entirely unlike those Jake had seen Pretty Dynamo use on the street. On the screen, the spear spun in Dynamo’s hands.

Jake pinched the bridge of his nose. C’mon, Dana, don’t show off—

“Hey, that’s not bad,” said Ralph as he dabbed a handkerchief at his nose. “Is she studying Kung Fu or something?”

Jake tugged his collar. “No, of course not. The game corrects their movements. You can see that.”

Ralph frowned. “Yeah. I guess …”

Dana muttered, “I think maybe I can do this.”

She slid a foot forward, and Dynamo ran. Sword Seamstress ducked and aimed for her legs. To dodge, Dana hopped an inch from the floor, but instead of merely jumping, Dynamo threw the blue rectangle from her belt.

“Circuit Board!”

In a moment, she was airborne.

Dana staggered as Dynamo zipped crazily up and down the screen. Her first-person window became an indecipherable blur of red and blue and gold.

“Dana, stand straight!” Jake yelled. “On your toes is up, bent knees is down, remember?”

“This is stupid!” Dana shouted.

Chelsea jumped, and her cage rattled precariously when she landed. Black wings like a crow’s sprouted from Sword Seamstress’s back.

She shot up, but then immediately plummeted into the ground when Chelsea bent her knees. Chelsea jumped again, but again Sword Seamstress rammed into the ground. Her health bar rapidly dropped.

“This is frickin’ ridiculous!” said Chelsea. “I’m playin’ a fencer, but it’s gonna make me keep my legs straight?”

“Don’t try to fence for real,” T.B. suggested, still stroking his chin. “Just press the buttons and move your arms. Your avatar will make up for what your real motions lack. Think control, not speed. Think big gestures the sensors can read, not finesse. Slow and deliberate.”

Chelsea stood straight, put her legs together, and went on her toes. Sword Seamstress, her huge wings flapping with a rhythmic whoosh whoosh, rose from the ground.

Chelsea grinned. “Yeah, you’re right. That’s doing it!” Bending her left knee slightly, she slid her right foot forward, and Sword Seamstress swooped toward Dynamo.

“Dana,” said Jake, “slow and controlled.”

“Shut up,” Dana replied, but by standing still, she managed to stop Dynamo’s crazy zigzagging. When Sword Seamstress plunged toward her, she thrust up with the spear and knocked her back. Sword Seamstress flashed gold, and her health bar dropped considerably.

“What?” cried Chelsea. “Why did I take such a big hit?”

“Speed of impact,” T.B. suggested. “It probably takes that into account in aerial mode.”

“What the actual frick?”

In the air, Dynamo had an advantage, as her spear gave her a longer reach. She flew toward Sword Seamstress, swiped her across the face with the spear point, and then pulled back before Sword Seamstress could reply. Then she did it again.

“Good,” said Jake. “Good. You’ve got it. See if you can do a combo.”

Dana flicked the buttons. Dynamo fired off her Ball Lightning again, but Sword Seamstress merely slid to the side.

Dana slapped more buttons, and then cried, “Whoa!” as Dynamo shot straight up into the air, rising higher and higher until she jumped from her board and dived straight down with her spear pointed toward the ground.

She chucked the spear, spun in the air, and reactivated her board.

Sword Seamstress merely flew out of the way as the Lightning Rod hurtled past. It crackled with flashes of electricity when it embedded itself in the stone island below.

“Probably not the best maneuver to employ at this point in the game,” T.B. suggested. “I think that’s supposed to be a finishing move.”

“I lost my spear!” Dana moaned.

Chelsea cackled. Sword Seamstress dive-bombed Dynamo and swung her swords back and forth, smacking Dynamo up and down and right and left. Again, Dana’s first-person window became a blur. Even the main window struggled to keep the players in view, and the camera angle changed rapidly as the Seamstress used the Dynamo for a pincushion.

Finally, Pretty Dynamo’s health bar fell to zero, and she dropped limply. She landed right in the lava, where she screamed and flailed as she went up in bright red flames. Burning and shrieking, she slowly sank out of sight, and the last view they had of her was of one hand flaming like a torch as it grasped futilely at the air.

“Magical Girl Sword Seamstress wins!” the deep voice exclaimed, and the heavy metal soundtrack reached a squealing crescendo.

A chill ran up Jake’s spine. “Sheesh, was that ending animation necessary?”

On the screen, the word “REPLAY?” appeared. Underneath, a timer counted down from ten.

“What?” cried Chelsea as she snapped off her VR set. “One round? Not even best two out of three? This game’s a frickin’ rip-off!”

She stripped off her gloves and stepped down out of the cage. Wrinkling her nose, she sniffed her hands. “Ugh. I need to go wash after wearing those things.”

Dana, her lip outthrust in a childish pout, tossed her gloves to the floor and then ripped at her headset.

“Hey,” said Jake, “treat the equipment nice. You don’t want to pay for this stuff.”

“Whatever.” She slammed the headset onto its peg and, arms crossed, stomped down the steps from her platform.

“Well,” said T.B. as Megumi and Cassandra leaned on his shoulders, “it appears we have a victor—and to the victor go the spoils.” He bit his lip and gave a hesitant, sidelong glance to Ralph, who was still trying to clean up his nose. But T.B. quickly regained his composure and flicked his long, thin fingers. A rose appeared in his hands as if by magic. He put it to his nostrils, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply.

Chelsea, when she reached the floor, flipped a length of hair behind one ear. She leaned back against the cage, stretched her arms over her head, and grasped the PVC pipe. “Okay, big boy,” she said in an uncharacteristically husky voice, “take me.”

T.B. chuckled as he toyed with his rose. “I admit I hesitate to give a young maiden her first kiss, as I might ruin you for other men. They say that once you’ve had T.B., you never really get over it.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Are you sure? You might spend your life pining for me. Many young maidens are wasting away on account of T.B.”

“Shut up and plant one on me.” She tapped her left cheek. “Right on the funk from that nasty helmet.”

As the girls formed a protective semicircle around the two of them, he strolled toward her. “Not so fast, my darling, my chickadee,” he said, his voice even oilier than usual. “I am no knavish rube, untutored in the ways of love, to move straight into a cheek kiss like some overexcited schoolboy.”

Jake scowled. But you are an overexcited schoolboy—

With his left hand, T.B. held the rose toward her. She reached for it, but as she did, he turned his wrist so that her hand fell across his. Then with his other hand, he reached up and grasped her right, pulling it down from the pipe.

Dropping to one knee and leaving the rose in her grip, he brushed her knuckles with his full, red lips. “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,” he murmured, and then he kissed her arm near the elbow. “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread”—with his dark eyes, he gazed up at her through his long, delicate lashes—“and this hotness.”

He pointed a thumb at himself.

Chelsea broke into a broad grin, as if she were about to burst out laughing. A similar smile appeared on T.B.’s face. For a moment, they stared at each other, apparently sharing some peculiar private joke. Around them, the girls, eyes shining, leaned forward.

“All right,” said Jake. “That’s far enough, pal.” He put his hands on two of the girls’ shoulders, meaning to push them apart and walk between them. The girls just happened to be Megumi and Cassandra, and they rounded on him.

“Stay back!” Cassandra said.

“Yeah, pervert!” cried Megumi.

“Outta the way!” Jake shouted.

Megumi trembled, but then thrust out her jaw and straightened her back. “You don’t scare me!”

Perhaps it was because of all the time he’d spent recently with girls who could bench-press a Mack truck, or maybe it was simply because he was angry, but he didn’t hesitate or back off. He grabbed Megumi under the ribs, picked her up, half-turned, and put her back down. Then he walked toward T.B. Megumi punched him in one shoulder blade, but then sucked in her breath and squeezed her bruised hand between her thighs. Cassandra ran at him and scratched him with her nails.

“Hey! Hey! Stop it!”

The other girls swarmed. Surrounded by angry, shrieking females striking him from every direction, he put up a hand to protect his face, did his best to ignore them, and continued walking.

Someone’s ankle caught his. Off-balance already from the light but repeated blows, he tripped. Staggering straight into T.B., he knocked him away from Chelsea and tumbled to the ground on top of him in a tangle of arms and legs.

It took Jake a moment to assess what had happened, especially since other things demanded his attention: girls punched him in the back and shoulders and called him by a long list of names creatively demeaning his masculinity. Underneath him lay a boy who was remarkably light and skinny, and who now stared up at him with round, liquid eyes that really were astonishingly pretty, and in which he could clearly see the reflection of his own befuddled face. Besides that, Jake’s left hand had landed on T.B.’s chest, and through his shirt, he could feel some kind of strange undergarment, a tight band of cloth enwrapping his thin torso. And under that—

“Get off him!” Megumi screamed in his ear.

Then T.B. himself released a frightened and decidedly high-pitched wail. He flailed.

Jake leapt up, and the girls quickly clustered around T.B. Cassandra and Megumi both hugged him tight as T.B., shoulders hunched, shuddered and wept.

Jake simply blinked. He stared down at his left hand, gazing at the lines in his palm and at his fingertips as if he couldn’t quite believe they were his.

“Jerk!” Megumi screamed at him. “Pervert! Loser! Creep!” Kneeling over T.B., she brought his head to her chest and rocked him like a frightened child.

Still hurling epithets in Jake’s direction, Megumi and Cassandra helped T.B. off the floor and hauled him toward the front of the arcade. The rest of the girls trailed after. Some cursed at Jake as they passed, but others glanced at him wistfully before following the rest. In less than a minute, they had all left.

Jake still stared at his hand.

Ralph grunted. “That guy’s a total wuss.”

“Yeah …”

“I don’t understand what the girls see in him. He’s like that at school, too: there’s always a bunch of groupies around him. I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah …”

“You okay, dude? What’s up?”

Jake flexed his fingers. “He feels somehow …”

“What?”

“Squishy.”

Ralph laughed. “The sissy boy probably just needs to work out.”

“Maybe that’s it …”

Still leaning against the elevated cage, Chelsea chuckled. “Well, that was certainly entertaining. Thanks, boys. I got my money’s worth today.” She squeezed her eyes shut, stuck her hands behind her head, and stretched. “He’s cute, but players like him aren’t my type. If he’d really tried to kiss me, I would’ve frickin’ belted him one.”

She walked to Jake, draped her arms over his shoulders, and leaned on his chest.

Standing to one side with a fist on a hip and a sneer on her mouth, Dana snorted.

“I think you got more action with him than I did,” Chelsea said as she gave Jake a light squeeze. “Maybe I should be jealous.”

“Maybe I should be,” he replied.

“Maybe. I like you jealous.” She gazed up at him, and a smug smile settled on her mouth. Her ice-blue eyes were small, and they lacked that deep, reflective quality that T.B.’s eyes had, but they were still pretty.

“Oh, Chelsea.” He leaned down to kiss her, but she placed a hand over his mouth.

“I don’t think so. I’m not happy with you today, Jake Blatowski, and I’m not sharing my first kiss with a guy I’m not happy with.” She bent the stem of T.B.’s rose and tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt. “Take me to that movie next weekend, treat me right for a change, and then we’ll see.”

He pulled her hand from his mouth. “Your hand stinks.”

“Yeah, it’s those gloves.” She drew back from him, but raked her fingernails lightly down his arms and squeezed his fingertips before she stepped away. “It’s been fun, boys, but I’m headed out.”

Jake cleared his throat and tugged his collar. “You want me to—?”

“No. I want you to get your act together.” She snapped her fingers toward Ralph. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“You’re going with me?” Ralph asked. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to your house. Celie and Jaime invited me over.”

Ralph sighed and stuck his hands in his pockets. He gave Jake a wry smile. “With her, it’s like I got eight sisters.”

Jake ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah. Have fun.”

“Not likely. I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to evade the estrogen brigade. At least they can’t hold me down on the floor and put makeup on me like they did when I was seven.”

“Do you wanna—?”

Ralph shook his head. “Nah, I really should go do my homework. Got a science project I need to start in on.”

Jake grunted. “Must be nice.”

“Don’t they give you homework in elementary?”

“Yeah, but it takes me all of five minutes. Last one was a word scramble.”

Ralph laughed. “Take care, man.”

“Take care.”

He watched as Ralph followed Chelsea out the front door. After that, he stood in a sea of pops and bleeps and skinny boys hunkered over bright screens. It seemed quiet now that almost all of the girls had left.

He turned to Dana, who stared at him with half-lidded green eyes. “Why are you still here?”

“You’re a loser,” she replied.

“So are you. You lost to Chelsea.”

She scowled and looked down at the floor. “Not yet I haven’t,” she muttered through clenched teeth.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“Hey, don’t worry. Everyone loses to Chelsea.”

Her scowl deepened, and she thrust her lip out.

“What’s wrong? You upset that T.B. didn’t give you your first kiss?”

With that familiar throat rasp, she stomped away from him, but stuck her nose in the air. “That wouldn’t have been my first kiss.”

“Oh? Did some boy peck you on the playground in kindergarten? I guess I’m not surprised. You’re certainly cute enough.”

She shot him a glare, but then stuck up her nose again. “Nope. He was older—way older. And he was much, much cooler than you.”

Jake laughed, and Dana’s ears turned red.

“Okay, sure. So, do you need me to walk you home?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not going home. I’m gonna go skate.”

“But you hurt yourself.”

“It’s just a scratch.”

“Okay, then at least do me a favor and start with something simpler than a half pipe.”

She grunted.

“And put on some sunscreen.”

She snarled.

He chuckled and leaned on one of the stand-up games. “Maybe I really should have kissed your owie, huh? Then I could have been your second kiss.”

The red in her ears spread down to her cheeks. She clenched her fists and rounded on him. “It wouldn’t be my second, either!”

“Oh yeah? Sounds like you’re quite the little heartbreaker. Then third—”

“Not third!”

“Wow, so you get all the boys?”

“It was the same guy,” she said as she crossed her arms. “Bunches of times. Over and over.” She raised one eyebrow. “I lost count.”

Now he bent over the game he was leaning on, and his shoulders shook as he laughed. The red in Dana’s face deepened.

As he wiped at his eyes, he said, “Actually, I’m not sure I should find this funny. Who exactly is this dirty old—?”

“Don’t talk about my dad like that!”

Her eyes widened, and she gasped. She clapped a hand over her mouth.

Jake slid heavily to the floor in a fit of fresh laughter. Once he could breathe, he said, “Dads don’t count!”

Dana ground her teeth, and her face turned so red it was almost purple. “They do too! Dads totally count!”

“Nah, you’re a girl, so only boys count—”

“Dads are boys, stupid-head!” She kicked him in the ribs, and then she donned her helmet and stomped flat-footed toward the front. After she snatched up her skateboard and hugged it to her chest, she spun around and shouted over the din, “And you still owe me a juice box, jerk!”

Then she left.

He winced as he rubbed his sore side. Gamers gave him cautious glances or disapproving glares while he staggered toward the exit. As Jake made his way out, Tim leaned on his counter and said, “You sure are smooth with the ladies, Blatowski.”

He paused in the doorway and nodded. “Yeah. Maybe I should take a few lessons from T.B.”

Tim chuckled.

Jake stared down at his left hand again. Something felt weird, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

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