JAKE AND THE DYNAMO Chapter 22

JAKE AND THE DYNAMO

CHAPTER 22: FATED

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For reasons unclear to him, Jake didn’t want to go home.

After he left the arcade, he wandered around Juban. He watched the people bustling in and out of the shops, watering their lawns, pushing their children in baby strollers. At times, a curve in the road would wind around the shoulder of a hill, where he could look down over the rooftops toward the deep city. He saw stretches of rubble. Columns of smoke rose into the sky and spread into anvils as they reached some change in the atmosphere. Helicopters hovered around the tall skyscrapers in the financial district. The howitzers atop the towers pointed upwards, their barrels silent but vigilant. A submarine sat in port in the distant bay, presumably restocking before returning to the endless patrol of the watery western perimeter where the ocean gun turrets squatted atop their massive concrete pylons.

But Juban looked as it always did: peaceful, quiet. It had suffered damage, of course, but the damage was minimal—a few fences down, a few houses smashed, a few roads bombed, a few people dead. Hardly worth noticing. It was quiet except for a faint hum of traffic, though in late afternoon, Jake thought he heard a siren.

He wandered with shoulders hunched and hands in pockets. He thought about Grease Pencil Marionette with her fierce embrace and warm kisses. He wondered if kissing a real girl would feel the same way. He thought about Rifle Maiden and wondered what it might be like to kiss her with her buckteeth. He even thought a little about Miss Percy and how good it had felt to hold her, even if he’d been terrified at the time.

He thought about Andalusia clutching his hand while her blood poured from her chest and her confession poured from her mouth. He wondered if, had he had his wits about him, he could have saved her.

He also thought about T.B. with his strangely large, dark eyes. Something was definitely wrong with T.B., though he still couldn’t figure out what.

Some of the public terminals weren’t functioning, but he found a working one on a corner near a donut shop and asked it where he could get his zombie monitor removed. The terminal directed him to the nearest police station. The station was busy, and Jake was apparently low priority: once he told the officer at the front desk why he was there, he had to sit in a folding chair for three hours. Finally, a cop walked up to him and, without so much as a word, clamped onto his wrist some clunky device that looked like an oversized garlic press. With a few clicks and a grinding sound, the monitor fell away.

Jake walked out rubbing his wrist, which now felt oddly light and cool. He had escaped infection.

I probably used up a lifetime’s supply of luck this week.

He thought about Dana. If he hadn’t followed her home on Monday, he never would have learned her secret identity. If he hadn’t followed Pretty Dynamo after she transformed, she wouldn’t have had to rescue him from the kaiju. Maybe she would have had time to rescue that poor woman in the collapsing apartment building instead.

Maybe that woman was dead because Jake followed Dana.

Maybe everything had happened because he’d followed her.

If he hadn’t followed her after that breakfast of pizza, Dana might be dead now thanks to Sword Seamstress’s Unholy Christmas Sweater. Maybe, if he hadn’t followed her, Pretty Dynamo would be dead and Lady Paladin Andalusia would be alive.

People died in this city all the time, but before this week, nobody had done it right in front of him. He had experienced a lot of firsts this week.

And in his stomach simmered an uneasy and unfocused sense of guilt.

 


 

When he finally arrived at home, the sun was dipping toward the bay. He pushed open the front door to find his mother and father bustling back and forth in the living room.

“Kosmy, have you seen my purse?” his mother cried as she rummaged in the front hall closet.

His father fumbled with a necktie as he walked out of his office. “No. Have you seen my tie pin?”

After a minute, his mother stuck her head out of the closet. “Jake! Where have you been? And why aren’t you dressed?”

“I am dressed.”

She merely shook her head, sighed, and returned to her archaeological excavation amongst the winter coats.

“Put on a tie,” said his father as he finally gave up on his own.

“Why?”

His mother climbed out of the closet. “What do you mean, why? We’re seeing our city councilman tonight. Do you want him to think I let my son dress like a slob?”

“Huh? When—?”

“They announced it this afternoon,” said his father as he pushed past his wife and retrieved a light overcoat. “After those robot dinosaurs and then the zombies, the City Fathers had an emergency meeting. Our councilman just called a town hall. Everyone in Juban is invited.”

“They’re not going to get everyone in Juban into the meeting hall.”

“That doesn’t matter,” his mother said as she patted his chest in a vain attempt to remove the wrinkles from his shirt. “Get a dress shirt and a tie. And some nice slacks.”

“Why do I have to go?”

“Because your father and I are going, and we want our councilman to know we’re doing our duty and having children—and that we know how to dress them properly.”

 


 

Jake found a serviceable shirt and a tie, but his slacks weren’t ironed. They’d have to do anyway. He carried his uncomfortable dress shoes down to the front door, where his mother insisted that he put on an overcoat smarter than the windbreaker he’d been wearing. When he searched the closet, all he could find was a baggy, double-breasted trench coat his father hadn’t worn in years. He donned it, checked himself in the first-floor bathroom mirror, and concluded that he looked like he was playing dress-up as a film noir detective. All he lacked was a fedora.

“Are we ready to go?” yelled his father, who wore a more sensible sports jacket and sweater vest.

Jake forced his feet into his shoes without bothering to untie the laces first, and then his mother hustled him out the door. He felt foolish in the trench coat, but wearing it was hardly the most foolish thing he’d done lately.

It was only a few blocks to the assembly hall, which stood adjacent to Juban Park. Juban’s designers put in the park to give children a place to play, though it had more than once in the last few decades become a haunt for ghouls and vampires. An evening breeze was blowing, but the big coat made it pleasant. The streets looked inviting and clean, and many people, mostly families walking in groups, made their way on foot to the assembly hall.

The hall itself was a squat, cylindrical building. In keeping with the style of Streamline Moderne popular throughout the city, a chrome fascia adorned the cornice of the roof, below which was a row of porthole windows. Below that, however, the architect had apparently given up: from the windows down, most of the building was a flat, unadorned expanse of tan stucco, though a distinctive one-story lobby jutted out from one side, and topping the lobby was a series of decorative fins set with speed lines.

The evening was mild. The sky was a deep, fiery orange, and a cool breeze rustled the red leaves on the trees. The oaks had turned the same color as Dana’s hair. She’d probably look good in autumn colors; it was too bad she insisted on wearing black outside of school.

Inside the auditorium, plush seats stood in staggered rows above a semicircular stage. The room was large, but the stage was small to produce the illusion of an intimate setting. A harsh spotlight illuminated a wooden podium.

Jake had been to a few of these town halls before. His parents insisted on attending whenever possible, and they insisted on taking him along. It made him uncomfortable, not only because it was boring, but because he knew his mom and dad were showing him off, half in pride and half in embarrassment. Although she didn’t bring it up often, it was a sore point with his mother that she had only managed to have one child.

Near the back, someone had set up a row of tables with ice water, coffee, bagels, and pastries. Jake hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so he helped himself. After he devoured his fourth bagel, his mother ordered him to a seat.

They sat near the front. Looking back over his shoulder, Jake spotted Ralph, with probably half a gallon of pomade slicking down his rebellious hair, ensconced with his parents in the midst of seven girls. Two of those girls, Jamie and Clarissa, waved at Jake, and he waved back.

Ralph’s youngest sister was Alexis, age four. She had butterfly clips holding her pigtails, and she wore a red dress with white flounces, white stockings, and a pair of black Mary Janes. She clopped clumsily down the steps and pushed her way into the row where Jake and his parents sat. Hands clasped before her, she looked up at Jake and lisped solemnly, “I asked if I could sit with you, and they said yes.”

“Sure,” he answered. “Have a seat.”

Clearly pleased, she pulled herself up into the chair beside him, squirmed until she was comfortable, and beamed at him.

He laughed to himself.

The thought crossed his mind that any of Ralph’s sisters might be magical girls, and he suddenly stopped laughing. He had grown up with Ralph and all these girls just down the block. In elementary school, he had crushed on Ralph’s oldest sister Barbara, who was now finishing college, and he had changed Alexis’s diapers. The thought of any of them in mortal danger made him sick.

Polite but muted applause rippled across the auditorium when Juban’s councilman, Hain Järvinen, walked onto the stage. He was young for a politician, only in his late thirties, and clean-shaven with hair in a short and nondescript cut. He wore a simple black suit with a red tie, and everything about him bespoke orderliness and business. He was a living symbol of the button-down community he represented to the Fathers. Just as parents insisted on bringing children to this town hall in order to show them to Mr. Järvinen, Järvinen sought to project an image of wholesomeness and propriety both to those higher up in the chain of government and to the people he represented. Juban was an experiment, and the experimenters were at pains to make it look presentable.

He took to the podium, tapped the mike once to make sure it was on, and said in a pleasant baritone, “Thank you all for coming here tonight on such short notice. Let’s open with a prayer.”

Almost everyone in the room made the sign of the Moon Princess, and Jake did as well, though his opinions on the Princess’s divinity and relevancy remained agnostic.

“Your Majesty,” Järvinen said with head bowed, “we implore you tonight to watch over these proceedings and to grant us wisdom that we may remember those virtues of love and justice that you fought for while still on Earth. May your kingdom come, may you lend strength to your magical girls, and may the forces of evil meet their final defeat. Amen.”

The last word echoed through the auditorium as those gathered repeated it.

Järvinen made the sign of the Moon Princess himself and then leaned heavily on the podium. He spoke quietly, but the PA system made his words crystal clear. “As you know,” he said, “our city just came through one of its worst weeks in many years. Two kaiju struck, first in the Godai District and then right here in Juban. Shortly after that, robot dinosaurs from space, followed immediately by a demon infestation and zombie swarm—”

A hand went up in the audience.

“Yes, I’ll take questions in a moment,” Järvinen said. “Robot dinosaurs from space, followed immediately by a demon infestation and zombie swarm, decimated large portions of Urbanopolis. We lost many good people, and we lost many good magical girls. But as always, humanity stays strong. We band together, and we come through. We put aside all differences, whatever those may be, and we join hands to remember that, no matter what might divide us, what unites us is still greater: we are human. We are one species, one people, and one city, with one Princess.”

Four more hands went up.

“I’ll take questions in a moment. Now, it’s no secret that Juban has been especially blessed. This is one of the newest communities in the city. In the early days, when the fires of the First Invasion raged around humanity’s last survivors, when people crowded together in grimy, over-full neighborhoods with as many as fifty living together in a small room, no one imagined that we might one day be able to expand, that we might be able even to prosper. Some thought we wouldn’t survive. But survive we did, and more than that, we have flourished. We have slowly, inch by inch, begun to reclaim the wastes. People no longer have to live on top of one another. We have houses, parks, neighborhoods. And it is all thanks to the hard work and innovation of those who call Urbanopolis their home. People from many cultures and many walks of life have moved together into Juban to live side-by-side in peace. You are a testament to the harmony of the human race, a harmony that, before the Moon Princess came, no one imagined was possible.”

He cleared his throat, and seven more hands went up.

“In a moment. Now, Juban is prosperous. Those who can afford to move here are those who have been successful, whether through industry or invention or subterranean agriculture, and they have moved into this clean and beautiful neighborhood to raise their families in relative comfort—”

Mr. Yeboah, a retired gentleman, rail-thin and with a heavily seamed face, stood up from his seat. He lived three blocks down from the Blatowskis, and Jake often saw him standing out front and watering his lawn on Sundays. He cleared his throat loudly and boomed in a gravelly voice, “What exactly are you asking us to do, Mr. Järvinen?” Tottering slightly, Yeboah waved a skinny, liver-spotted arm at the people gathered in the seats. “We don’t need all these words. We know what Juban is. What we don’t know is what the Fathers want.”

Järvinen paused. Apparently uncertain of what to make of this interruption, he straightened his tie and then bent a little lower over his microphone before he said, “Very well, Mr. Yeboah. I understand your concern. I met you and your wife at the jichinsai for the public pool, if you recall—”

Yeboah raised two shaky, arthritic hands over his head and then brought them down in a gesture of dismissal. “We don’t care about any of that. We need to know what you want.”

Järvinen cleared his throat and straightened his tie again. “All right. In spite of the attack by the giant kaiju and a few Robosaurs that dropped into our district, Juban escaped the recent unpleasantness largely unscathed. Many of our neighbors, however, were not so lucky. We are going to rebuild as quickly as possible, but a lot of people are now without homes. For that reason, the City Fathers have decided that, on a temporary basis, we would like to move some of those from the most heavily affected areas into the least affected—”

The room erupted with angry shouts. Several shook their fists or rose from their seats.

Jake glanced at his parents. They sat frozen, their backs ramrod straight and their hands grasping their chairs’ armrests. Then he glanced at Alexis. She was asleep, a line of drool running from her mouth. She had a little smile on her face.

“Order, please,” said Järvinen. “Everyone calm down. We can’t make any progress without good order—”

The yelling got louder.

Miss Hatakeyama, a young woman who’d recently moved to Juban after making her fortune improving the efficiency of the hydroponic farms, stood up and cried, “What about our culture?”

Järvinen raised a hand. “Everyone, be quiet, please.”

The shouting died down to a low buzz.

“That’s a good question. An excellent question. The Fathers are very concerned about respecting the unique cultures of each of Urbanopolis’s districts, and about preserving as much of human diversity as possible. Our hope is that this will be a temporary solution. To make this happen as smoothly as possible, we are asking smaller families to consider doubling up. If you can take some of your neighbors into your home, that will free more living space for those who, for the time being, have no home.”

The noise in the room rose in volume again at that last sentence.

“Also, to avoid creating any needless conflict, it is our intent to move displaced people into the nearest possible unaffected district. Some of you may be aware that Little India suffered a great deal during these last few days, so it will be from Little India that Juban receives—”

Mr. Chakraborty, surrounded by his wife, five sons, and three daughters, stood up and shouted, “But Little India is nothing like Juban!”

“Yes, we are aware of the difference in cultures. But Juban is right on the border of Little India, and if we can move people into apartments that were unaffected by the kaiju, that will be relatively painless. We are not interested in eroding or destroying anything. This is a new district, certainly, but the Fathers view it with as much reverence and respect as they view the older—”

Up jumped Mrs. Müller, middle-aged and slightly portly. She shrieked, “Is this because we’re mixed-race?”

The room immediately fell silent.

There it is. Somebody said it.

Jake bent forward and leaned his knees on his elbows. He felt slightly ill and wondered if it were something in the bagels.

Järvinen cleared his throat and adjusted his tie again. “Listen, everyone. The Fathers do not, I repeat, do not view any genetic sequence as better or more important than any other. It is true that there are certain breeding incentives for people with rare traits—pure Mongolians or Afridis or Ashkenazi Jews and the like—but that’s only because they’re rare, not because they’re superior. We are trying to preserve as much of mankind as we can, and that most certainly includes you. There is no eugenics in this city. The Moon Princess was very clear about that. This is not an attempt to replace you or breed you out. This is just an attempt to find housing for a lot of people who need it.”

He cleared his throat one more time. “We’re not asking you to move in with strangers. We’re asking you to move in with friends and family so we can find room. That’s all. Once the repairs and rebuilding are done, everyone will move back, because we want to preserve the integrity of our districts.”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” Chakraborty yelled. “We’re mixed, so we don’t have any of this so-called ‘integrity!’”

The room erupted with noise again.

Now Järvinen’s air of reserved dignity dropped away. He clenched his teeth for a second and then shouted back, “Everybody, quiet! Pipe down! Now, you listen! Everyone wants Juban to succeed! Nobody wants any part of this city, or any part of the human race, to fail! Don’t you understand that?”

He slapped a hand down onto the podium, and noise died. “You really think the City Fathers want to replace you? Want you to disappear? You have this completely backwards! In fact, the real problem is that Juban is not having enough children! This is the fifth wealthiest district in the entire city. It should be full of children! Just because you can afford the small family tax doesn’t mean you’re exempt from your duty! You all make your money, you move up here, and you buy big houses … and they’re empty!

Jake glanced at his mother. Now she was sobbing into a handkerchief.

“The Fathers want to see more of you, not fewer!” Järvinen cried.

He took a few deep breaths, and his voice grew quiet again. “I apologize for that outburst. This has actually been a good year, demographically. It was looking for a while like we might break replacement rate just like last year. It’s been six decades since Urbanopolis managed that two years in a row, but now it looks like it’s probably not going to happen, what with the death toll from …”

He dabbed a sleeve at his face. His voice wavered. “It’s a real testament to our ingenuity and bravery that we’ve managed to expand our territory even as our population has shrunk. It really is …”

His voice trailed off. He rubbed his temples. “Look, this is out of my hands and over my head. The Fathers have made their decision. This meeting is simply to tell you that it’s going to happen. We ask you to open your houses to your neighbors so that we can move others into your neighborhoods. If you do this voluntarily, it will be much easier.”

He fingered his tie one more time. “Also, please note that the Fathers decided—in spite of my objection—that no demonstration permits will be issued to anyone who wants to protest this new policy. Please also remember that demonstrating without a permit is a form of treason, and treason is the one crime that merits capital punishment. That is all for now. You may formally lodge any complaints at City Hall. You’ll receive more extensive and concrete instructions in the mail.”

With that, he turned around and promptly left the stage.

The room erupted again.

 


 

As people shouted and talked over one another, Jake’s mother and father huddled together. They mumbled back and forth in what Jake had come to think of, from an early age, as their “concerned” voices.

His mother continued dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “What do you think, Kosmy?”

His father shook his head. “It’s a big responsibility, Silvia. Who do we know—?”

“Well, we certainly have room—”

“Do we—?”

“There’s the second downstairs—”

“That’s my den. What about the second upstairs—?”

“That’s my sewing room—”

“We’d have to give up something—”

“We’d have to give up both—”

“Should we—?

“We should.”

His mother’s knuckles turned white as she clutched her handkerchief. She said it again: “We should. We should, Kosmy. It’s our duty.”

Holy Princess. Are they serious?

“I think maybe we should lodge a complaint instead,” Jake said.

His parents turned and looked at him, faces blank but expectant.

“I mean, it’s just a thought,” he added.

“You don’t want to do this?” his mother asked. “For the city?” Then she tried what she apparently thought would persuade him: “What would Pretty Dynamo think?”

Jake turned up his hands. “Why should I care what she thinks? If I asked her, she’d probably just say, ‘you’re stupid,’ or something like that.”

His father frowned.

“No, really, Dad. That’s how she talks. Magical girls aren’t the perfect little goddesses they show on TV.”

His father scowled. “Well, that Sukeban Tsubasa certainly isn’t, but I think we can expect better from Pretty Dynamo.” Apparently uninterested in any further comments from Jake, he turned back to his wife and said, “Do we know someone who would want to move in?”

“Well, I’m not sure … most of our neighbors have quite a few kids already. What about the Willikers?”

“Mom,” said Jake, “Ralph has seven sisters. One of them is drooling right next to me.”

“That would be rather cramped,” she replied.

His father said, “What about that … what’s her name? Chelsea?”

His mother lowered her voice. “Dear, Jake can’t live with his girlfriend.”

“Why not?”

“That’s not appropriate.”

“They’d be in separate—”

“Dear, it’s not appropriate.” She turned to Jake again. “Honey, do you know anyone at school? Any kids from small—?”

“I haven’t really bothered to get to know the kids at school.”

“No, I suppose you haven’t.”

Jake interlaced his fingers before his face and stared at the stage for half a minute while his parents continued debating.

He rolled his tongue around in his mouth and, before he realized what he was saying, formed the words, “You know, I do know one kid … sort of …”

His parents grew silent and looked at him expectantly again.

“I mean, I don’t know her real well. And I guess I don’t know how big her family is, but, uh, she’s never mentioned any brothers or sisters, so—”

“She?” said his mom. “It’s a she?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she here?”

“I don’t know.”

But I bet I could spot her if she is.

Jake stood, turned, and scanned the room. The noise had reduced again to an angry buzz as many people had filed out. A few stood at their seats and debated with harsh whispers and wild gesticulations. Some drank coffee and chatted near the refreshment table. Others shuffled in a queue moving out toward the lobby. But almost immediately, Jake’s eyes latched onto a distinctive spot of red near the back.

He swallowed. “I don’t know if she’s here or not, but that’s gotta be her mom.”

He pointed. His parents rose from their seats and followed his finger with their eyes.

“Oh my,” said his mother.

Standing near the back of the auditorium was a tall woman, perhaps almost as tall as Jake was. She looked young. Slender yet well proportioned, she wore a simple empire-waist gown of moss green. The gown was sleeveless, displaying long arms that were slim but well-muscled. A narrow face and a slightly aquiline nose lent her an air of strength and nobility, though that same nose ended in an upturned bulb suggesting girlishness. A cascade of thick, wavy red hair, like a waterfall on fire, tumbled from her head to well below her waist. With large, bright green eyes, she slowly surveyed the space before her, her jaw firmly set.

She dominated the room. The people around her, every few seconds, gave her nervous glances. Every eye drew toward her. She seemed aloof, yet her presence was inescapable. She stood like a queen among her subjects, or like a goddess among men.

Wow. Is that what Dana’s gonna look like when she—?

Jake rapped his knuckles against his temple to halt that thought.

His mother leaned toward him and whispered, “You know her?”

“Uh, no, but I know her daughter.”

“How can you tell—?”

“How many redheads do you think there are in Juban?”

Besides, she basically looks like a big Dana.

“Well,” said his mother as she tried in vain to smooth a few wrinkles out of the sleeves of her dress, “let’s go introduce ourselves.”

Jake’s father scowled. “Now?”

“Yes, Kosmy, now!”

They marched up the steps toward the back of the auditorium. The redheaded woman grew only more majestic and intimidating as they drew nearer, though once they were only one row of seats away, a splatter of freckles across her cheeks became apparent, and it softened her appearance.

“What’s her name?” Jake’s mother whispered.

“Volt.”

She surveyed the woman for another second, took a deep breath, and then went in. “Excuse me, Mrs. Volt?”

It suddenly occurred to Jake that this woman looked too young to be Dana’s mother. She was an adult, obviously older than he was, so he hadn’t thought about it at first, but she was probably only in her early twenties.

But now it was too late to say anything about it.

The woman turned toward them, and her air of haughty aloofness instantly disappeared when her wide mouth split into a decidedly toothy grin. Her teeth were very straight and very white, but they were also rather large. “Oh, hello,” she said. “It’s so nice to see you!”

Perhaps taken aback by the warmth of the greeting, Jake’s mother blinked for a moment before she said, “Uh, shake or—?”

“Oh, we hug where I’m from!” The woman grabbed her in a bear hug. “I’m Mildred, Mildred F. Volt. But you can call me Mil. And you must be—?”

Jake’s mother backed out of the awkward hug. “Oh, I’m Silvia Blatowski.”

The two women took each other’s hands, and what next passed between them was an exchange of breathless pleasantries, gossip, and bright laughter. Jake watched and listened, but this ritual of feminine greeting barely registered on his male brain. He didn’t quite understand what they were saying, and perhaps he couldn’t.

Then he noticed Dana. She stood behind Mil as if using her for a shield. In one hand, like a much younger child, she held a fistful of the back of Mil’s dress. In the other, she clutched a purse that probably contained Tesla. Looking small and shy, she peeked at him from around Mil’s waist. Her green eyes were half-lidded, and her lip was curled in her customary sneer. She had again caked on thick makeup to hide her freckles, and she again had on dark eyeliner. She wore a black dress with a laced bodice at the waist and several layers of ruffled chiffon filling out the knee-length skirt. Around her calves and hanging over her sneakers, she wore black leather leggings held together with several nickel buckles. On her head, she had a fascinator made of black silk folded to look like a cluster of roses, from which hung a transparent mourning veil.

Holy Princess, Dana, why not just slap a sign on your back that says, ‘I’m a magical girl’?

Jake’s mother said to Mil, “I think your daughter knows my son Jake—”

Jake expected Mil to say that she was actually Dana’s sister, but instead she pointed her toothy grin his way, and her green eyes sparkled as she cried, “Oh, so this is Jake! Yes, my little Dana just can’t stop talking about the ‘big kid’ in her class!”

Dana’s face fell, and she tugged at Mil’s sleeve. “Mo-o-om,” she hissed, “noooo!”

So this really is her mother.

Mil put an arm around Dana’s shoulders. Dana leaned against her and stuck out her lip in a pout.

“I just want you to know, Mrs. Blatowski, how much I appreciate what you do. I know it’s not easy”—Mil leaned forward, put a hand beside her mouth, and whispered loudly—“you know, raising a child with special needs.”

Jake’s mother frowned. “But Jake isn’t a special needs child.”

“Oh?” Mil looked down at Dana. “Honey, you told me he was retarded.”

“He is,” Dana replied, now folding her arms and staring at Jake.

“Uh oh, someone’s crabby.” Mil slid both arms around Dana’s neck. “We need to get you home and put you to bed, don’t we?”

Dana, lip outthrust, shook her head. Half-lidded eyes still directed at Jake, she said, “Who are you supposed to be, anyway? Sam Spade?”

“Huh? Oh, you mean the trench coat.” Jake thrust his hands into the coat’s pockets. “Yeah, I’m Sam Spade. ‘Two lonely people on a hill of beans, which are the stuff dreams are made of, but the strawberries, that’s where I had them’ … or something like that. And what are you supposed to be? Are you going to a goth funeral, or are you trying to look like Sword Seamstress?”

Dana’s eyes narrowed, and her teeth clenched. She looked ready to release a barb, but the presence of her mother apparently stopped her.

“Oh, you’re so cute!” Mil cried. “Like two peas in a pod. I have to pinch both your cheeks!” Lightning quick, she clamped a death grip onto Jake’s face and shook him until his brain rattled. Dana, however, she only gave a light pat.

Once she let go, he gingerly rubbed his cheek, certain he’d have a bruise.

Not that it mattered. He had plenty of bruises anyway.

“Mrs. Volt,” said Jake’s mother, “I don’t think there’s a way to say this that isn’t awkward, so I’ll just say it. We were talking about doing what the Fathers are asking—you know, having someone move in with us. We have a large house, and it’s just the three of us, and we were talking about who we might know, and … well, Jake thought of you and your daughter—”

“Oh, there’s an idea.” Mil laughed quietly. Her smile remained, but it became strained. “Truth is, I was thinking about moving out of Juban, maybe into Little Europe. I feel like Dana and I don’t fit in here.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice again. “You know, because we’re white.”

Jake’s mother gasped. “Oh … oh, no, no! We don’t see things like that at all! Why, ah”—she put a hand on Jake’s shoulder—“Jake’s girlfriend is white!”

Sweet Princess, Mom, don’t use Chelsea to show off your open-mindedness.

Mil looked down at Dana, whom she still had caged in her arms. “What do you think, sport? You wanna share a house with the big kid?”

Dana took a few seconds to respond, but then firmly shook her head.

Mil laughed and squeezed her. “It’s past someone’s bedtime. That’s what I think.” She offered another broad smile, but now it looked weary. “We’d be happy to come visit and discuss things further, Mrs. Blatowski. We really would. But I wouldn’t want to impose or make trouble—”

“You wouldn’t be imposing! We’re looking for someone to move in, after all.”

“I’d love to discuss it. It might be a great idea. Our apartment’s quite small, though it’s just me and Dana now since her daddy died.” She gave Dana another squeeze.

A knot tightened in Jake’s stomach. Pretty Dynamo had hinted something like that. Out on the street, shortly after drubbing him, she’d begun to talk about her father, but had stopped herself.

Oh man, and I just laughed at Dana when she bragged about kissing him. No wonder she got mad. Sheesh, I gotta make it up to her—

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Jake’s mother said, her eyes moist. She leaned toward Mil and lowered her voice before she asked, “Was it … was it monsters?”

Mil’s smile fell away. “I wish it were,” she answered. She straightened her back and raised her chin, and her look of power and regality returned. Jake took a step back, momentarily awed.

“No,” Mil said. “It wasn’t monsters that killed my husband and took away Dana’s father. It was that Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo, and I swear I will never forgive her so long as I live.”

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