JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 26: THE MORNING AFTER
After changing back into her magical form, Tsubasa left by the window. Jake had to press himself into the corner at the foot of his bed so she could—with her eyes squeezed shut—dash past him and leap to what she considered safety. Soon after she was gone, he closed the window, finished undressing, climbed into his pajamas, and lay down.
After all the commotion, the room seemed strangely quiet. His heart thudded in his ears, the only sound.
He tossed back and forth for several minutes, but no position felt comfortable. He had been having trouble sleeping for the last few months. Over the previous week, whenever he had slept, he had slept soundly from sheer exhaustion, but now that he had spent a weekend without anything trying to kill him, his insomnia was back.
The bed with its disarrayed and rumpled bedclothes felt desolate and empty. Thanks to Dana, he didn’t even have his Triceratops toy—not that he actually slept with the thing anyway; he just set it on his pillow on the rare occasions when he made the bed. Most of the time, it was buried somewhere under the covers or squeezed between the mattress and the wall.
He rolled over onto his stomach. In an ill-defined way, he had an inkling of why he couldn’t sleep. Now that he had come firmly and irrevocably into his adolescent years, going to bed alone at night had grown into a crushing, almost intolerable burden. It was worse now because he had tackled a girl in this very bed only a half hour earlier, an event that had provoked a bizarre mixture of fear and desire, leaving his nerves frazzled. He could still smell Tsubasa in his bedclothes: she smelled like roses and sweat—heady, salty, and exciting. The scent made his stomach ache.
Girls. He had learned more about girls in the last week than in all his years previous. He hadn’t known before how much one could differ from another when in his arms. His mind wandered to Rifle Maiden, who wasn’t really his type, but would probably be fun to hang out with. Then his mind wandered to Marionette, who was well-muscled and boyish, with an embrace that could leave bruises. Then it wandered back to Tsubasa, who was well-muscled but not boyish, at least when she wasn’t pretending to be a boy. He liked her eyes. He liked the way her shoulders looked. He wondered how she kissed.
And then it wandered to Miss Percy, a full-grown woman, who was soft and warm, and who melted into him so easily. Between the four of them, she might be the best for assuaging late-night loneliness.
He pulled his pillow over his head and drove his nose down into the mattress. Here he was, unable to sleep, and he was fantasizing about his teacher.
Only after all of that did his mind turn to Chelsea.
Back in elementary school—the first time he was in elementary school—he had often seen Chelsea when he went over to Ralph’s house to play. She had looked so strange to him, with her pale skin and pale hair and ice-blue eyes, like a ghost. She usually ran around with Clarissa and Jamie. Sometimes, when Jake and Ralph played video games, Chelsea stood in the doorway of Ralph’s room and stared, her mouth set in a pout and her cold eyes fixed on Jake’s head.
He couldn’t remember if he even so much as spoke to her before fifth grade. She was getting a growth spurt, but he hadn’t had his yet, so she towered over him. Previously, they had been about the same size, but for just one year, she was enormous. In a sandbox at the park, she walked up to him and pushed him down. He got up and pushed her back. He wrestled her to the ground and rubbed sand in her pale yellow hair, thinking it would make her cry.
By the time he was in sixth grade, she no longer towered. Now she looked tiny and skinny. And instead of standing in the doorway to pout and glare, she marched right in, snatched up a controller, and dominated both Jake and Ralph on any fighting game they played. She wasn’t quiet anymore, either. She threw insults, and she already swore like a sailor.
A few days after he started eighth grade, she walked up to him in the hall and ordered him to meet her behind the gym after school. He thought she wanted to fight, but instead she told him, matter-of-factly without any stammering or blushing, that she liked him and wanted him to be her boyfriend.
After that, they stood there and held hands, awkwardly, not looking at each other. He was thirteen at the time, and she was twelve. Her hand didn’t feel any different from other hands he’d held, but it made him break out in a sweat and made his heart pound like crazy.
So he figured that must be love.
He liked hanging out with her. He really did. He liked trading barbs with her, and he liked playing video games with her. He wished that she’d let him kiss her.
But even so, she wasn’t the first girl to come to his mind when it was late and he was lonely.
He sighed deeply and wondered what Dana was doing. He had expected her to transform into Pretty Dynamo and barge back in. He had little doubt that she’d got the wrong idea, but still, surely she had recognized Sukeban Tsubasa. Surely she’d realized something was wrong.
He thought about walking down the hall, knocking on her door, and explaining what had just happened. Of course, he’d have to leave out certain details: it wouldn’t be right to reveal Tsubasa’s secret identity, or to reveal that T.B. was a girl.
But he didn’t want to see her anyway. Just as on Friday night, after his passionate encounter with Marionette, he didn’t want to see Dana. Instead, he simply tossed and turned, unable to sleep.
After half an hour, Jake was on his back, staring at the ceiling. The glow-in-the-dark star stickers had long since lost their glow. The ceiling was a flat stretch of dark gray.
He thought he caught a glimmer of blue out of the corner of one eye, so he turned his head. Nothing. Perhaps the moonlight had peeked for a moment through the blinds.
He turned his eyes back to the ceiling, and that flash of blue appeared again.
From the far end of the room, by the door where Tsubasa had been crouching, came the faint sound of a girl softly weeping.
As he had when as a small child he heard some unfamiliar noise at night, he froze. A film of sweat appeared across his forehead and shoulders.
The weeping continued.
After a minute, he slowly sat up. If he squinted hard, he could almost see a faint hint of pale blue light in the corner—or it was his imagination.
“T.B.?” he said. “Is that you? Why are you—?”
The weeping stopped. Faintly, as if from far away, a girl’s voice sobbed, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
As soon as she had spoken, the blue glow in the corner evaporated, again leaving the room dark. It was silent. He sat in bed for several minutes, listening to his heartbeat pounding in his ears, listening to the hall clock pounding away downstairs.
Sometime during the night, he finally fell asleep. When his alarm rang, he climbed wearily out of bed, took his shower, and went through his beloved shaving ritual. While he scraped his razor over his upper lip, he stared in the mirror at the dark circles hanging under his eyes.
After he dressed, moved by a faint sense of an unease and a foreboding he couldn’t quite fathom, Jake slipped into his parents’ room, found the jar of spare cash on their dresser, and shook a few credits out into his hand.
He slid downstairs and plopped onto his favorite stool at the breakfast bar. As usual, his mom was already frying up breakfast, and his dad was already drinking coffee. It was unusually quiet, however, as the TV was off. Hungry for news, his father reread last night’s paper instead.
“Morning, Mom. Morning, Dad. Hey, Mom, if you’re cooking for Dana, can you do her eggs scrambled? She doesn’t like runny yolks.”
She smiled. “Sure, I can do scrambled.”
“And can you … uh … give her extra? I don’t think she eats enough.”
She laughed. “Why?”
“I just don’t, that’s all—”
On the couch, his father chuckled. “Is she a magical girl? I hear some of them need a lot of calories.”
Jake squirmed on his stool. “No, she’s just a growing girl, that’s all. And she looks really skinny—”
His mother shook her head. “I suppose I can, but you better eat it if she doesn’t.” She looked up from the stove and frowned. “Oh, Jake, are you going to school in those clothes?”
“They’re all I got.”
She sighed. “I suppose we’ll need to purchase another uniform. Can I just get the same size? You don’t need to try it on again, do you? Or have you grown out of it already?”
“No, just get the same.”
“If you’re going to run around with”—she dropped her voice—“you know who, try to do it in some old, ratty clothes or something. I can’t replace your school uniform every week. And how many jackets did you go through?”
“Just the one.”
She sighed again.
“Y’know, Mom, if you’re really bent on the Volts living here, sooner or later they’re gonna find out I’ve fought some monsters with Pretty Dynamo.”
Saying them so bluntly, the words sounded bizarre. For some reason, his forehead dampened.
Did I really fight monsters …? Yeah, I guess I did.
His father slapped the newspaper down on the coffee table. “And what’s this business about Pretty Dynamo and her husband? That can’t possibly be—”
“Cosmy,” Jake’s mother hissed, “we talked about this already! Mildred’s obviously mistaken, but still, the Volts have been through something terrible and we have to be more understanding!”
Jake’s father pressed his lips together and folded his arms. “Love and friendship,” he muttered. “No personification of love and friendship is just going to go kill someone in cold blood. He was probably turning into a vampire or a zombie. I’ll bet that’s it. She’d have to kill him if—”
“Cosmy, we said we wouldn’t talk about it with the Volts in the house!”
The screen door rattled, and Jake looked over to see Ralph waving from the front porch.
“Come in, Ralph!” Jake’s mother called.
Ralph stepped in, dropped his coat on the floor as if he owned the place, slid off his shoes, and joined Jake at the bar. “Mm, somethin’ smells good, Mrs. B.”
“I’ll fix you some, too, Ralph.” She paused in her cooking to pass him a cup of coffee.
“Doesn’t your mom feed you?” Jake asked.
“Eight kids and both my parents work, dude. Cold cereal at my place.”
“So go eat cold cereal.”
“What, you don’t like my bright, shining face in the morning?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Ralph,” said Jake’s mother. “A good, hearty breakfast in the morning raises a student’s test scores by ten points.”
Ralph elbowed Jake.
Jake’s mother flipped an egg and frowned, her greasy spatula poised in the air. “Or did it raise his I.Q.? Well, no matter. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I know that much.”
“Hey, uh, Ralph,” Jake said after clearing his throat, lowering his voice, and casting a wary glance at his mom, “can I, erm, ask you a question about girls—?”
He saw his mother’s ear prick up, but he tried to ignore it.
“Sure, dude,” Ralph answered as he leaned his cheek on his fist. “I am an encyclopedia of girls. I live with the encyclopedia of girls. What do you wanna know?”
“First, the rumor is true: they smell like fish if they don’t bathe—”
“Ralph, shut up. No, I wanna ask, would you, I mean you personally, ever be willing to date a girl who’s … uh … afraid of you?”
Ralph stared at him for several seconds. “What?”
“I mean, let’s say she really likes you, but—”
“Then why would she be afraid of me?”
“Um … because you’re really manly?”
Ralph laughed and clapped him on the back. “Yeah, that’d be nice. No, dude, I don’t scare girls.”
“What if you did?”
“Why would I?”
Jake scratched his head. “Just take it as a hypothetical. Let’s say she’s just the timid type, I guess—”
Ralph carefully tested his coffee with a small sip and then followed that up with a deeper pull. “Doesn’t sound like my type.”
“Really? You don’t think that could be, I dunno … cute?”
“No. Sounds like trouble.”
“Look, Jake, remember back in fifth grade?—I mean you and me in fifth grade, not now with you in—”
“I know what you mean, Ralph.”
“Right. Remember we were playin’ King o’ the Hill, and Jamie fell down hard and started bawling? You went ballistic and ran off for a first aid kit and made a huge deal out of it like she was dying. That’s you. And that’s fine for you. But that’s not me. I’d like a girlfriend, sure, but I don’t need another little sister. I got enough of those already.”
“What’s your ideal, then?”
Ralph laughed. “You already know.” He whipped the photograph out of his inside breast pocket. “My ideal is the tough and sassy Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo!”
Oh, Ralph, if you only knew.
There was clomping and rustling and creaking on the second floor, and then Dana padded downstairs, still in her pajamas with her hair frizzing about her face.
Jake snatched the photo out of Ralph’s hand and shoved it back into Ralph’s pocket. Ralph frowned.
Dana yawned and sleepily rubbed her eyes. As soon as she saw Jake and Ralph, she curled her lip in a haughty sneer.
“Oh,” she mumbled, “it’s Jake’s pitcher.” She sat as far away from Jake as possible, on the other side of Ralph.
“Dude,” said Ralph as he half-turned toward Dana, “what is this?”
“You met her at the arcade, Ralph.”
“Oh yeah … uh, Diane—”
“Uh uh. And she’s here, in your house, for breakfast?” His eyes widened. “Dude,” he whispered, clapping a hand on Jake’s shoulder, “you’re living in sin.”
He raised that same hand into the air. “High five.”
“Ralph, shut up.”
A door opened down the hall, and into the great room walked Millie Volt. Much like Dana’s, her unkempt hair formed a wild and fiery halo about her youthful face. She rubbed her eyes and then, with a yawn, stretched her arms over her head. She wore nothing more than a loosely tied white housecoat that stopped at mid-thigh, and as she stretched, it fell partway open, displaying the ivory skin on the inside of one of her small but well-formed breasts.
Ralph swallowed audibly. Jake’s face heated up. His father leaned forward and made a faint burping noise into his coffee.
Dana lowered her head and groaned under her breath, “Mom …”
Ralph looked at Dana, then at Mil, and then at Dana again. “There’s a big one and a little one,” he muttered.
Mil paused and raked her fingernails through the tangled mass behind her right temple. “Oh my,” she said, “we have guests. If I’d known we were having cute boys over, I would have done something with my hair.”
She flipped a length of that hair with one finger.
Dana dropped her forehead to the countertop.
Ralph immediately clambered out of his seat, stood at attention like a soldier, and blurted, “Can I do something with your hair?”
Jake clapped a hand to his face.
Mil’s smile slowly grew until it somehow showed more teeth than Jake thought the human mouth contained. She slid to her right a few steps, reminding him of some predatory beast stalking its prey on the savannah. “What did you have in mind?” she asked, her voice now holding a decidedly sultry note.
Ralph cleared his throat, and Jake thought he saw his knees wobble, but it took him no more than a second to recover. “Well, I mean, I could braid it for you.”
“Could you, now?”
“Sure. I do my sisters all the time.”
“I bet he does,” Dana muttered.
Mil slid onto the stool Ralph had just vacated. She was uncomfortably close, and Jake could feel her body heat. He thought he detected a hint of roses, perhaps her perfume. It reminded him of Tsubasa, and a lump formed in his throat. He shifted in his seat.
Leaning, he peeked around Mil at Dana’s crazy hair. She still had her forehead down on the countertop. As he looked, she turned her head slightly and met his gaze with one emerald eye. That eye swiftly narrowed, gleaming with pure rage.
The lump in his throat grew bigger. Yeah, that’s what I figured. She’s ticked at me.
“Oh, goodness,” Mil said, having apparently just noticed Jake’s mother at the stove, “Silvia, you don’t have to go to all that trouble for us. Little Dana and I usually just have a bit of rice and miso soup in the morning.”
Dana made a faint grumbling noise.
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Jake’s mother sang. “I’ve got a growing, athletic boy to cook for, after all!”
“Two of them,” Jake muttered as he rolled his eyes at Ralph.
Ralph shrugged shamelessly and combed his fingers through Mil’s luxurious red hair. He started separating it into plaits. In spite of himself, Jake had to admire his chutzpah.
“My goodness, Silvia, a full breakfast, my hair done for me, and two handsome, strapping boys. I think I could get used to this.” Mil leaned an elbow on the bar.
“Would you like some coffee?” Jake’s mother asked.
“Oh, thank you. My, it’s really like you have a little café here. You certainly are making your proposal tempting.”
Dana raised her head, and a few frizzy strands of red fluttered in front of her face. “I don’t wanna live here,” she mumbled.
“Dana,” said Mil, “be polite. What did we say about being polite?”
“Don’t care. Don’t wanna live with Jake.”
Ralph paused in his braiding and looked at Jake. “Dude?”
Jake shrugged. “You know they’re rebuilding Little India, right? Mrs. Volt and Dana are thinking of moving in here so someone can have their apartment.”
“Ah, that’s cool.” Ralph nodded and continued his work. “And I’m sure this kid must be thrilled, getting to live with the guy who runs around with Magical Girl—”
Jake spun around on his stool and kicked Ralph in the shin. Ralph hopped back a step and sucked in his breath.
Jake glanced at his mother. Her face had gone pale, and she stood frozen at the stove.
“Ah,” said Mil with a sigh and a small smile. “Magical girls.” She shook her head. “Well, I suppose we do need them—”
Jake cleared his throat. “I don’t really run around with them. It’s just, this last week, I sort of got caught up in a few things. Uh, it kinda made the news, but they blew it out of proportion. It was no big deal. Really.”
“Oh my. Did you see any of those zombies? Or the dinosaurs?”
“Well … yeah.”
“I … uh … I got pretty close, yeah.”
Mil clucked her tongue. “That sounds scary. I suppose that’s how you got those scrapes on your face. I just figured you played football or something.” She laughed, but now her laugh sounded nervous. “That kaiju on Monday attacked really close to where we live. Terrible. Our building has a mole tunnel in the basement, so I was off to a shelter as soon as everything started, but I was panicking, of course. I knew Dana would be coming home from school about that time—”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I guess it would have been about that time.”
“But I suppose you didn’t see that one, since it was down the hill. You might have heard it, though.”
“I heard it, yeah.”
Ralph stared at Jake, his mouth turned down. Then he stared at the back of Mil’s head. Then he stared at Jake again.
Then he shrugged and continued braiding.
Mil laid an arm across Dana’s shoulders. “Ooh, I’m just so glad my little Dana’s not one of those girls! Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I’d be terrified.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Jake’s mother as she continued with her frying.
“My Dana’s just too sensitive for that kind of work. She could never, ever become one of those rough-and-tumble magical girls.”
She smiled at Jake. “She told me you patched her up when she fell down at the skate park.”
Jake rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess I did—”
“Well, thank you. Thank you for looking out for her. She got it into her head a few years back that she wanted to learn to skate. I could never understand why. She’s always falling down, and it worries me. She’s delicate, you know.” Mil vigorously rubbed a hand between Dana’s shoulder blades. “Aren’t you, sugar?”
“So no magic for her,” Mil continued. “I just say to my little darling, if one of those talking animals comes up to you and asks you to sign something in blood, you tell it no. Isn’t that right, sweetheart? You’d say no, wouldn’t you?”
With her eyes turned down to the countertop, Dana nodded again.
“And if you saw a fairy or a space alien, and it said it could grant you any wish if you agreed to fight monsters for it, you’d say no. You’d tell it no, no matter how cute it was, no matter how nice it seemed, no matter what it promised. Right, precious? You’d just say no.”
“I’d just say no,” Dana whispered. Her voice was faint, almost impossible to hear.
Mil hugged her tight, rocked her back and forth, and rubbed a cheek against the top of her head. “Ooh, of course you would. I know you would, because you’re going to stay my sweet little baby forever.” She pulled Dana’s hair back and kissed her forehead.
Jake felt another lump in his throat.
“But I still don’t wanna live here,” Dana said, crossing her arms.
“Oh, sweetheart,” said Mil. She paused to kiss Dana’s cheek and then continued, “I know it’s hard to give up our home, but just think: we’d have more room up here, and the neighborhood’s nicer, and you could play with Jake—”
“I don’t like Jake.”
“Sweetie, stop that.”
“I mean it. I don’t like him. Don’t wanna talk to him. Don’t wanna look at him. Don’t wanna even think about him. I hate him—”
“Dana, we don’t say we hate people.”
Dana squirmed out of her mother’s grasp, bunched her fists, and brought them down on the counter with a loud thud. Jake’s coffee cup rattled. “But I do hate him! And I don’t wanna live here!”
She hunched her shoulders, scrunched up her eyebrows, and thrust out her lip in her most determined pout yet.
Jake’s mom slid a full and steaming plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast in front of her. Silently, lip still jutting, Dana stared down at it for almost a full minute.
“We should live here,” she finally said.