92. Murphy’s Likelihood

@jan

The instant it happens, I’m reminded of one of Ernie’s more philosophical tweets:

It’s an inevitability of every friendship that you’ll one day see each other’s wangs. #cockwisdom

For me, that day is today. One minute I’m safely in a stall in the boys’ restroom, the next I’m standing back in Theo’s bedroom, pants down and čurák out.

The classic NES Konami pause jingle sounds.

Beta and Mini, sitting cross-legged on the floor, had been playing Super Smash Bros. before my untimely arrival, but now they’re frozen in place, gawking, jaws hanging open.

I yank up my pants, smile, wave, and say, “Hi, guys.”

The Konami jingle sounds again.

Beta and Mini unpause.

Mini wastes no time in asking the obvious: “Why did you show us your wang just now?”

“I think I dropped my phone in the toilet,” I reply.

“Is that a European thing?”

“Dropping phones in toilets?”

“No, peeing with your pants down.”

Beta glances sideways at Mini. “What’s wrong with a dude dropping his pants to take a leak?”

“Nothing. It’s just…unorthodox.”

“And you know this how?”

“Common knowledge,” Mini says. “Only freshly potty-trained toddlers making poo or high-school jocks about to get their knobs polished lower their pants in a public restroom.”

“Again, you know this how?”

Mini gets a far-away look on his face. “To quote Neil Peart, ‘the joy and pain that we receive each comes with its own cost—’”

“Okay, new topic, please,” Beta interrupts with a frown. He sets down his controller. “Jan, exactly how did you drop your phone in the toilet?”

I hang my head. “I forgot I didn’t have a shirt pocket.”

Beta smiles, amused. “Oh, Maurice Moss. What is it with you and phones?”

“I think I’m cursed.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Mini says. “Statistically speaking, you’re right on track. Murphy’s Likelihood.”

“Murphy’s Likelihood?”

“You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law, right?”

“Yeah.” I think for a moment. “That was the eighties movie where Eddie Murphy played a cop.”

Beta glowers at me, murderous. “Meanwhile, as I add Beverly Hills Cop to a VLC playlist titled, ‘all-time classic unseen eighties movies preventing Jan from ever attaining proper manhood…’”

“Murphy’s Likelihood,” Mini continues, “is an offshoot of Murphy’s Law. Where Murphy’s Law dictates that what can go wrong, will go wrong, Murphy’s Likelihood states that what goes wrong will occur sooner rather than later. Let’s say you get a new pair of glasses. The odds are high that you’ll damage them in some way at least once in the first year of ownership. The odds are even higher that you’ll damage them in the first half of said year rather than in the second half. Especially if you can only afford to replace your glasses once a year. That’s Murphy’s Likelihood.”

“But I don’t wear glasses,” I say.

“Phone, glasses, laptop, car—it doesn’t matter. You’re less likely to incur damage at the end of the term of ownership. It’s always at the very beginning so that you wind up having to use a damaged product for the remainder of ownership. It’s part of the universe’s ongoing cosmic stand-up comedy routine.”

“That sounds made up.”

Mini looks at Beta. “I’m not wrong, am I?”

“You’re not not right, is more like it,” Beta replies.

“Don’t be so double negative.”

“Good one.” Beta and Mini bump fists.

I shake my head. “Murphy’s Likelihood can’t be a real thing, can it?”

Beta glares at me. “Just ask anyone who’s ever dropped their new smartphone in the toilet the first day they got it.”

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91. No Substitutions

@ernie

Look at Jan 2.0. The jockettes are all over him, oohing and awing and squeezing his biceps, palpitating his pecs, literally absorbing him like two giant girl-shaped amoebas. I’ve let them have that side of the table—not because they ousted me or anything, but because I prefer this side. Always have. And anyway, I don’t need to be all up in Janny Boy’s shit. So with his fancy new skin he’s ditched his ridiculous orange frizz for a natural brown buzzcut. So he’s sporting a pair of earring studs. So his physique is all American Ninja Warrior. I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s not like he can turn water into soda or feed the entire cafeteria with a single loaf of Hawaiian bread.

Crap. I could go for a loaf of Hawaiian bread right about now.

“Are you bigger than before?” I ask, watching Jan’s shoulders flex obnoxiously as he squirms between Summer and Lily’s incessant coddling.

“A little,” he replies. “I think Beta exaggerated whenever he wasn’t sure about something. Plus, he seems to be a fan of big muscles in general.”

“I hope he gave you a nice foot-long, at least.”

“Sandwich or wang?” Mini asks, having crawled from out of nowhere to perch on Theo’s shoulder.

“Both.”

“I’m happy with my current size,” Jan says.

Mini adds, “Six inches and a Brad Pitt.”

Summer and Eva blush.

“Who’s Brad Pitt?” Lily asks.

“You do not have six inches,” I insist—wait. That sounds like I’m jealous. “I mean, only six inches? I guess it’s a start.” I nudge Eva. “You two have fun breaking in the new skin tonight.”

Eva’s blush goes full-tomato.

I wink at Jan. “Oh, you are so getting laid tonight!”

“Why, are you offering?” Jan says to me in a moment of uncharacteristic cunning, diverting attention from the smoldering Eva.

“I’m not gay!” I shout—

—just as an older student happens to walk by our table. He gives the six of us (especially me) a curious look before moving on.

“I was joking,” Jan assures me.

“I know,” I lie.

Theo snickers. “This is your head.” He grasps the top of my head with his hand. “This was the joke.” He mimics hurling a baseball over it.

Everyone laughs.

“Yeah, yeah,” I say, unwinding my middle finger and presenting it in panorama. “Fat kid doesn’t get anything that’s not food or porn-related, or otherwise doesn’t power his fat. Har-har.” I dig around in my backpack for dessert: a box of Junior Mints that won’t talk back.

Mini nudges Eva when he thinks none of us are paying attention. “So, you’re here.”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Eva replies, quietly.

“I would’ve thought you’d be eating lunch in the gym or something after last night’s shenanigans.”

“What shenanigans?”

“You know, you and Theo making out in your bedroom.”

Theo suddenly forgets how to breathe, goes into a choking fit.

“We didn’t make out—is that was he told you?” Eva glares at Theo. “Is that what you told everyone?”

Theo waves his hands back and forth—as much a gesture of denial as an urgent visual plea for someone to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him.

“Ugh. Don’t answer. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve decided not to hide from my embarrassments. Once you’re finished dying, you might want to take a hint and do the same.”

“Wow,” Mini says to Theo. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she just called you an embarrassment.”

Theo gets to his feet, and, taking several controlled breaths to restore proper respiration, starts digging around in his pants. “I’m going to the vending machine. Does anybody want anything?”

“Potato chips,” Eva says, and starts to reach into her backpack for change.

“My treat,” Theo clarifies, holding up his wallet.

“I’ll have a Coke,” I say. “Skittles, too—and some Funyuns.”

Theo nods and holds out his hand. “Change, please.”

“But you just said your treat!”

“Jan’s going through some tough times. Summer and Lily are guests—”

“And so that leaves the fat kid to fend for himself?” I bang my fists on the table, throw my head back. “Reverse racism!”

Mini sighs. “Here we go—”

“Once again an ordinary white boy is discriminated against because of the color of his skin, the notches in his belt!”

“No,” Theo says, “I’m discriminating against you because I know you. If I buy you snacks once, I’m going to be doing it every day for the rest of the school year regardless of whether or not you have change on you. You just want free snacks, or double the snacks.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing! “Okay, Jan I get. He’s poor and pixelated and totally fucked. But Summer Breeze and Butt Crack? Jockettes don’t snack! And Bug Eyes here…” I narrow my eyes at Eva. “What unholy hold does she have over you? I’d say it’s a good pair of tits, except she hasn’t got any.”

Eva glares at me with all the intensity her bulbous chihuahua eyes can muster. “Not everyone is lucky enough to be as big-bosomed as you.”

“I don’t have breasts!”

And fuck me, that same student who’d overheard me deny my homosexuality a few minutes ago is passing by our table again—and is now no doubt thinking I’m a flaming fat-ass wallowing in denial.

“Context!” I bark over my shoulder as I dig around in my pockets, finding a fiver with a piece of bubble gum stuck to it. I peel off the gum and hand the money to Theo, who holds it at arm’s length, between thumb and index finger. “I want all my change!”

Summer and Lily mention something about vitamin water and granola bars.

Jan requests a “Mr. Goodyear or Babe Ruth. Anything with peanuts.” Friggin’ Czech.

Theo nods and, stuffing Mini into his pocket, leaves the table.

I turn to Jan. “What happens to the food you eat?”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Does it upload back with you, or do you leave behind a pile of poop whenever you go virtual?”

“How about I sit on your lap, and we can find out?”

“Oh, you’re hilarious, pixel boy.”

“And you’re gross,” Summer replies on Jan’s behalf.

“You’re just jealous because I can do this…” I empty the box of Junior Mints into my mouth. “…without having to vomit afterward.”

“Whatever. You’re still gross.”

“She speaks the truth, Leviathan,” Jan chuckles, and gets to his feet. Prying the girls from his torso, he sets them down, one at a time; their bodies morph from chibi form back to regular ol’ gurl form.

“Where are you going?” Lily asks.

“Bathroom break,” Jan answers. He leaves the table.

I give Summer and Lily an annoyed look. “Why are you two even here? Boca Linda is a closed campus—and a high school. This is no place for little kids unless you’re special, like us.”

“Oh, you’re special, all right,” Summer says.

Lily giggles.

“What’s so funny?”

She giggles some more.

Eva sighs. “Head. Joke. And so forth.”

I chew my Junior Mints with extreme prejudice.

It takes forever, but Theo eventually returns bearing an armful of junk food. On noticing Jan’s absence, he asks, “Where’d Jan go?”

“To the shitter,” I reply, beckoning for my snacks with both hands.

Theo dumps everything onto the tabletop—and it immediately becomes obvious that he does not know how to take people’s orders. I specifically asked for Coke, Funyuns, and Skittles, but did he get me Coke, Funyuns, and Skittles? Fucking nar! He got Pepsi, Lay’s sour cream and onion, and M&Ms!

“What’s this?” I hold up the bottle of Pepsi. “What are these?” I wag the Lay’s and M&Ms in the air.

Theo glares at me. “Dude, they didn’t have exactly what you asked for, so I substituted.”

“No substitutions!” I wail.

“What do you care? You’re going to eat it all anyway.”

“That’s beside the point! If I’d sent you to the pharmacy for toothpaste, would you have come back with Bengay?”

Theo shakes his head, flings a dollar and some coins at me. “Here’s your change. Next time get your own junk food.” He sits, takes out his wallet, starts organizing his own change.

“What’s that for?” Lily asks, noticing the folded pink slip hiding between a pair of dollar bills.

“While I was buying food for five,” Theo replies, “Thrill-Kill happened to be standing in line behind me, and decided that I’m trying to fill some kind of bottomless emotional void by overeating. She wants me to come see her tomorrow afternoon. So, thanks for that, Your Fatness.”

“Hey!” I yell. “I’m not the only one you were getting snacks for!”

“No, but you definitely put me over the top.”

“You guys get pink slips for counseling stuff?” Summer asks.

Theo shrugs, pulls out his phone to answer an incoming call. “Hey. What? Where are you calling from? I thought you were just going to the bathroom. How come you’re in my room? Oh. Um…sure. No problem.” He ends the call, pockets his phone, and face-palms himself.

“What was that about?” Eva asks.

“Jan dropped his phone in the toilet, and he wants me to go get it for him.”

My arm drops onto the table and, of its own accord, starts moving slowly toward the Baby Ruth.

Contribute to the glorified swear jar that is #FeedErnie.

90. Where in the World is Jan Kounicova?

@theo

I’m planning on spending lunch alone. Not because I’m specifically trying to avoid anyone, but because after this morning I doubt there’s going to be anyone to avoid. Obviously, after the Kiss, Eva’s out. Jan’s probably knee-deep in The IT Crowd with Beta. Ernie’s probably working on getting back up to his optimal weight of two-thirty by lying in bed and playing Xbox while scarfing several large pizza with everything. Mini…well, plush dolls don’t count. But look on the bright side: in my current sleep-deprived state, a half-hour power nap in the cafeteria will offset the solitude nicely enough.

Too bad Ernie’s already seated at our table.

“Whaddup, Made in China?” he asks placidly, as if he’s just an ordinary, unsuspecting fat kid whose psychotic grandmother was not defeated atop an eight-bit girder palace the night before.

Made in China?” I repeat, removing my backpack and taking a seat.

“Take pride in your Asian heritage.”

“How come you never bring up my Russian half?”

“Because there’s nothing overtly Russian about you. But those Asian eyes of yours—you could totally get a job at Daiso, no sweat. Where’s Pixel Boy and Bug Eyes?”

“I saw Eva this morning,” I reply. “Jan’s with Beta, I think. Why?”

“Duh,” Ernie says, funneling Cheetos into his mouth. “That’s what you do when you’re friends with people—you ask where they are, how they are, how their dicks are doing.”

“Dicks?” I swallow, glancing quickly at my crotch and checking for signs of autonomous erection.

“Or tits, if you’re a girl. What’s got you all coffee-mode?”

I look up again. “Mini was on the news this morning.”

“Really? Which channel?”

“KTLA.”

“Was he doing a plush charity run or something?”

“He’s the suspect in a snapgrabbing investigation.”

Ernie looks impressed. “Cool!”

I sigh. “You would say that.”

“It’s not my fault that in today’s social media-centric society going viral is the coolest thing you can possibly do.”

“Even if it means assaulting a police officer in the middle of the night?”

“You worry too much, white boy.”

“Dude, a minute ago you were calling me Made in—”

“No one’s going to arrest a doll.”

“Who just happens to look exactly like me.”

“Or maybe you look exactly like him. Ever think about that?”

“Ernie, that doesn’t even…” I trail off, watching him finish off his Cheetos bag, then suck the life out of a Capri Sun pouch. He genuinely seems oblivious to everything that’s happened in the last twenty-four hours. I feel like this is Star Trek: Voyager. At the end of one episode, the ship is all damaged and in need of serious repair; at the beginning of another, everything is inexplicably hunky-dory despite the fact that the nearest Federation star base is seventy-thousand light years away. My life has lost all continuity.

I lean in close and, in a conspiratorial tone, ask, “Are you, you know…okay?”

“Sure.” Ernie shrugs nonchalantly as he struggles to open a pudding cup. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Friggin’ Voyager. I want to push the issue, I want to grab Ernie by the shoulders and demand that he acknowledge the events of last night, but instead he just looks past me and frowns.

“Aw, you two?” he moans.

I glance over my shoulder. Eva’s arrived, and she’s brought Summer and Lily with her, which is kind of weird considering they live all the way in Wisconsin—oh, right. SuperMegaNet.

The girls sit beside me—Eva to my right, Summer and Lily to my left—forming a sort of jockette-geek-jockette sandwich.

“Hello, Ernie,” Summer says, returning Ernie’s scowl.

Looking outnumbered, Ernie says, “Yeah, hi, Summer Breeze.” He nods at Lily. “Hi, Butt Crack.”

(Lily casts a backward glance at her baby blues, as if for the first time becoming aware of her own butt cleavage.)

“To what do we owe the unpleasant surprise?”

“We thought Eva could use a little company,” Summer replies.

“She’s already got company—” The lid pops off of Ernie’s pudding cup; banana cream spurts into his face, infiltrating eyes, mouth, and nostrils.

Eva’s jaw drops.

“I meant company in the non-satirical sense,” Summer snickers.

Ernie sets down his now-empty pudding cup and, with as much dignity as one can muster while wearing impromptu facial food, asks, “Did you practice that in front of your mirror this morning?”

“Nope. Made it up on the spot.”

“Charming. Get me a napkin.”

“I’m not a napkin dispenser.”

Lily frowns at Summer, removes her (Nintendo-shaped, I now realize) backpack, and fishes a napkin from the outer pocket. “Here, Ernie.”

Ernie takes the napkin, starts dabbing at his face.

Meanwhile, I’ve suddenly and inexplicably become immensely interested in talking to Lily. “That’s a cool backpack. Where’d you get it?”

“GimmeGimme,” Lily replies.

“Oh, that store at the mall?”

“Yeah. They’re all over Wisconsin. Have you been to one? They have everything.”

“Theo doesn’t go to malls,” Ernie offers. “He says they’re social capitalism run amok.”

Okay, that’s totally out of context! “What I said was, you can usually find cheaper online what you’d pay more for at the mall.”

“No, I’m pretty sure you used the exact phrase ‘social capitalism run amok.’”

“I just think there’s value in being discerning with your money.”

“Like it matters to your kind, rich white—”

I kick Ernie under the table.

“Hey!” he wails.

“So, Lily,” I say, “you’re, um, an eight-bit kind of girl, huh?” OMFG—you’re an eight-bit kind of girl? Who says that?

“Someone kicked me!”

Lily looks completely lost.

I continue to jam my foot (and much of my leg) in my mouth: “You know, you’re an NES fan. The NES was a third-generation video game console, which means it had the characteristic eight-bit CPU…”

Ernie face-palms himself on my behalf—or else he’s merely trying to dab more effectively at the pudding on his cheeks. I can’t tell which. “Dude. If that’s how you hit on girls, you’re going to be a virgin until you’re thirty.”

Eva smirks.

Summer shoots her a discouraging look that reads something like, “Don’t feed the walrus. You’ll make it lose its fear of humans.” Ernie being the walrus.

“I’m not hitting on anyone,” I insist.

“Oh, please!” Ernie exclaims. “All you need is the leisure suit and some hair on your chest, and you’re that creepy guy who tries to score at his friends’ kids’ birthday parties!”

Summer looks at Eva. “Is lunchtime always like this for you?”

Eva sighs. “No. Sometimes it’s awkward.”

That’s code for Monday through Friday.

Thankfully, Jan, now in super high-def, sits beside Ernie at the table, his mere presence distracting the girls, diluting the awkwardness.

Hi, Jan!” Summer and Lily coo in unison, so charmed by his brooding Czech countenance, so smitten by his bulging biceps that their eyes have literally been replaced with throbbing anime hearts.

“Hello,” Jan says, aware of the extra attention he’s getting, but evidently unsure of what to do with it. He takes off his backpack, folds his arms on the tabletop, looks at Ernie. “What happened to you?”

“Pudding attack,” Ernie replies matter-of-factly, and wipes a dollop of banana cream on Jan’s bare shoulder. “Looks like you’re whole again, Janny Boy. And baby-smooth.”

Jan stares at his puddinged shoulder in disbelief.

“Are you, you know…okay?” I ask him.

Ernie waves a sticky hand at me. “Why do you keep asking everyone that?”

“Beta wrote me a doctor’s note,” Jan answers, still staring at his shoulder.

“He can do that?” Eva asks.

“He can do anything, apparently.”

“Except remember to charge my Wiimotes after he’s used them,” I mutter under my breath.

“What?”

“Nothing.” I tap Jan’s arm to get his attention again. “I’m talking about the whole pixelation thing. Did Beta find your missing bytes?”

“No,” Jan says, “but he’s letting me live on his server for a while. And he made me a skin.” He lifts and rotates his arms. “He also gave me a special phone that lets me go actual wherever there’s a wireless signal. Does anyone have a napkin?”

Lily to the rescue once again.

Ernie gawks at one of Jan’s armpits in fascination. “Wow, that’s a skin? Your pit hair looks so real.” He reaches out to touch it—

Jan quickly lowers his arms, nudges Ernie away as he dabs at his shoulder.

“Missing bytes? Skin? Armpit hair?” Summer looks exasperated. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

“Oh, the closet jock here lost his bytes downloading to Robbie the Friendly Pedophile’s phone,” Ernie explains.

“He what his what when downloading where?”

“It’s a long story,” I say.

“So, does this mean that right now you’re virtually actual,” Eva asks Jan, “or actually virtual?”

Everyone looks at me expectantly.

“It’s…a long story,” I say again.

“Hey, I have a question.” Ernie wags what’s left of his napkin at Summer and Lily. “It’s lunchtime here. You girls live in Wisconsin, right? That’s two hours ahead—how can it be lunchtime there, too?”

“Because it’s not lunchtime,” Summers says, “and we home school, remember?”

Lily smiles, nods proudly. “We set our own schedules.”

I feel Eva pinch me in the side. “When were you guys going to tell me about Jan?”

“Er…after lunch?” I smile sheepishly.

She shakes her head, leans forward, pokes at Jan’s arm. “Does it hurt?”

“It kind of pinches when people poke and prod me.”

Eva frowns, but doesn’t stop poking him. “Are your parents upset?”

“Actually, they don’t know.”

“How can you keep something like losing your bytes from your parents?”

“I’m not sure where they are. My apartment got towed yesterday.”

Aww!” the girls all coo together, their bodies going full-on minimalist chibi style, their eyes becoming throbbing hearts once again as they levitate from my side of the table to Jan’s. They settle beside him, coaxing, coddling. In unison again: “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!

Ernie sends me a dire look, grabs onto the tabletop and braces his soft bulk in an attempt to prevent the jockette ambush from ousting him off the bench completely. “The future is now, Asian Adjacent. Economy in the shitter, everyone’s apartment towed, the rest of us poor slobs living on a server in your bedroom.”

I resist the urge to work out in my mind exactly where in my room I’d place all those extra hard drives and server racks should the SuperMegaNet apocalypse arrive, and instead pretend to be busy searching for something in my backpack—when I unexpectedly find this certificate-looking piece of paper wedged between two of my textbooks.

“What’s that?” Ernie asks.

“The deed to my spunk,” I murmur, reading the title.

“What?”

Blushing, I quickly stuff the certificate back into my backpack. “Don’t ask.”

“Don’t tell,” Ernie replies.

Contribute to the glorified swear jar that is #FeedErnie.

89. Bacon Maple Bars

@jan

When a hacker promises to help you find your missing bytes, you figure that means he’s going to spend the rest of the morning holed away in some darkened bedroom with an army of ThinkPads at his disposal—not sit outside a Mag’s Donuts and share a box of maple bacon bars with a gluttonous puppet and a pixel monster. Yes, Beta has his laptop with him, and he seems to have a lot of terminal windows (and one Photoshop window) open, but I can’t help wondering if his hacking would be more effective using both hands, and not just the donut-free one.

“So, this is where you do your computer work?” I ask.

“I like to get out occasionally,” Beta replies, keeping his eyes fixed on his laptop screen, his hand, on autopilot, hovering over the donut box, pulling out a maple bar, cramming a good third of it into his munching mouth.

Mini, sitting on the tabletop and lapping the icing off his own maple bar, scowls and says, “I don’t understand how you keep that LA Fitness ass of yours in business.” To me: “All this guy eats is tacos, Top Ramen, and donuts. I feel fat just talking to him.”

“I’m virtual, remember?” Beta says.

“Oh. Right.”

“And I’m wearing a skin. I don’t have to worry about what I eat.”

“So, what do you really look like, then?” Mini pauses. “Please don’t say Jeff Albertson.”

“Does it matter?”

“Who’s Jeff Albertson?” I ask.

“And isn’t that the point of the Internet? To express yourself when you’re virtual the way you can’t when you’re actual?”

“Comic Book Guy,” Mini says, answering my question. “You know, from The Simpsons?”

Beta looks floored. “That’s Comic Book Guy’s real name?”

“Google it.”

“I believe you. It’s just that he looks so much more like a ‘Stuart Bloom’ rather than a ‘Jeff Albertson.’ If anything, Stuart should be called ‘Jeff,’ and Jeff should be called ‘Stuart.’”

“Don’t dodge the question.”

“Sorry, I’m just trying to wrap my head around—what was your question?”

“What manner of male pattern baldness and chronic eczema are you hiding behind that pretty-boy skin of yours?”

Beta shrugs. “Besides the need for a disguise, my real body bailed on me. Working with what I had didn’t work out, so I figure I’ll work with what suits me.”

“Ever worry about the whole ‘people only like me for my looks’ thing?”

“Nope, because people can also not like you for your looks.”

“So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”

“I get the whole ‘be yourself’ thing,” Beta says. “But who’s really content just being himself or herself?”

“People who post those annoying ‘be yourself’ inspirational memes on Instagram, apparently—”

“Like it or not, we live in a very superficial society. We do judge books by their covers. All the time. We shave, we pluck, we change our hair, our clothes, we lose weight, we gain weight—we’re constantly changing ourselves to affect a certain image. Skinning’s no different.”

Mini waves a maple-covered mitt philosophically in the air. “I’m not saying it is. I just think there’s the risk of it becoming a cop-out. You—and Jan here, soon enough—playing into the whole ‘looks matter’ paradigm does nothing to solve the underlying issue—that modern society erroneously assigns social values based on physical appearance.”

“Society’s always going to do that. I’m neither adding to nor taking away from the problem. Realistically, what incentive do I have to be the only person in the entire world who, if given the choice, would pick being a cripple in a wheelchair instead of a hot piece of meat?”

“I don’t know. The Archduke of Self-Confidence?”

“Pass.”

End conversation.

I fumble with my maple bar. I’ve been working on it for the last fifteen minutes, trying to get my pixelated hands to do what I want them to do, and only half succeeding. You don’t realize how complex a process it is manipulating and eating food until your fingers become giant blocks (breakfast at Ernie’s taqueria was a nightmare). But I guess I’m glad for the distraction. If you think about it, losing your bytes is scary. You kind of take it for granted that in today’s connected world, if you break your phone, you can just buy a new one and re-download all your stuff from the cloud. But what happens when your data doesn’t even make it to the cloud in the first place?

Yeah, I’m trying real hard not to think about it.

“I’m going to be late for school,” I say, more as a simple grouping of words to break the silence than a complaint about the speed or quality of Beta’s hacking.

“Better late than as a preteen pixel monster,” Mini says.

“Relax,” Beta assures me. “This is Newport Beach, not Anaheim. Truancy works differently when it’s assumed you’re affluent.”

I look down at my low-res scuffed jeans and tank. “I don’t feel very affluent.”

“You will in just a sec…” Beta types out a few more commands, hits Enter…and beams proudly at me.

“What?” I ask.

“Check out the bod, little dude.”

I look down at my hands, my arms, the rest of my torso. I’m no longer pixelated. “Did you find my bytes? Am I fixed?”

“I’m still working on finding your bytes. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait it out like as some eight-bit video game reject.”

I get to my feet, still checking myself out. “How’d you do that?”

“Custom skin,” Beta replies. “Regular SMN users can only install skins for video chat, or when they’re virtual, but I’ve got a hack that lets you keep your skin when you’re actual. I designed yours using a technique similar to the one that’s used to un-blur bank account or credit card numbers, only I applied it to you instead, with your Facebook and Instagram photos serving as visual references. Unfortunately, since you’ve never posted any nude selfies or dick pics online, I had to approximate the details of your ass and wang. I went with what I thought were reasonable defaults for your height and build—six inches and a Brad Pitt.”

“A measly six inches?” Mini scoffs. “Why don’t you restrict him to using just one leg while you’re at it? And is Brad Pitt’s ass even relevant anymore?”

Beta glares at him. “By all means, if you want to tweak anything, just let me know.” He reaches into his laptop bag and pulls out a smartphone, hands it to me. “This is a prepaid to get you started. Keep it handy, and you’ll be able to go actual wherever there’s a signal. Just watch your airtime, and switch over to Wi-Fi whenever you’re near a hotspot. That’ll cut down on your data usage. Oh, and for shit’s sake, keep the thing charged. You don’t want to wink out in the middle of some random street, because then you’ll have to go back and find your phone later—if someone doesn’t outright steal it the moment it hits the ground.”

I swipe through the phone’s app screen, spotting the familiar SuperMegaNet icon. “Do I have to use the phone all the time?”

“No,” Beta says. “It would only be for when you want to go actual in high-res. You can also do the same by downloading via any computer, tablet, or phone that’s got SuperMegaNet installed, but this lets you keep your resolution without having to stay within a Wi-Fi hotspot. Like, without the phone, you’re the Doc in Star Trek: Voyager before he was outfitted with his mobile emitter. Wander too far from a hotspot, and your signal will degrade until you’re dumped back onto the server. With the phone, well, that’s your emitter, so to speak. City-wide Wi-Fi is coming sooner rather than later. In a few more years you’ll be able to walk down the street like anyone else, with or without your phone.”

“Wait—a few years?” I look at Beta. “How long is it going to take to find my missing bytes?”

He gives me a sympathetic look. “Sooner rather than later, hopefully. In the meantime, there’s no reason you can’t lead an ordinary life. Well, nearly ordinary.”

“As a hologram.”

“Actually, SuperMegaNet doesn’t use holographic technology at all, but instead captures, compresses, and transmits matter as a data stream—”

“What I mean is, I’ll be a copy. I won’t be me.”

“Oh, you’re still you,” Beta says. “You’re just augmented by SMN tech.”

“I guess.” I pick up my maple bar without trouble, take a bite. It tastes so much better now that I’m high-res again. Everything feels better, in fact. Everything sounds better, everything smells better. But it’s still weird knowing I’m not entirely myself.

Beta seems to sense my uncertainty. “Hey, what if you went off to war and came back with an arm missing? Would you still be you?”

“Well, yeah,” I reply.

“What if you had two arms missing? What if you were just a torso?”

“Would he still have a dick?” Mini asks. “Or are we talking just a torso? Because that would make a huge difference.”

Beta ignores Mini. “You’re still you, Jan. Not to worry. It’s just that more of you is now represented digitally. It can be a little freaky—we get attached to our actual bodies. We identify with them, we rely on them as extensions of our personalities, our souls, and all that. Then something happens that makes you question how much of you is physical, how much isn’t, and how much you can shift from the physical to the mental before, well, you cease to be. For me it was MS. You, a botched download. The point is, it’s only when you lose some or all of your body’s functionality that you realize the possibility of being more than just the sum of your parts. You start to question whether you can interchange your parts without losing who you are. Glasses. Hearing aid. Wheelchair. Prostheses. SuperMegaNet.”

“Geez,” Mini says, shaking his head. “Who writes your dialogue?”

Beta grabs another maple bar, leans back in his chair, and stuffs his face. “I make it up as I go along.”

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88. Wang Shui

@theo

My English teacher once warned that starting a story with your protagonist waking up in the morning is the hallmark of a novice and/or lazy writer, and that any student doing so would automatically earn themselves a severe grade point deduction. I guess whoever’s writing the story of my life just got bumped from a possible B to a definite C, because that’s exactly the kind of cliché I’m currently enacting, roused from sleep by the incessant beeping of my alarm clock, reaching for the snooze button, fumbling for my contacts, for my phone. I roll haphazardly out of bed and onto the floor, where I remain curled in a fetal position as I squint at my phone’s cracked touchscreen, trying to make out the time. I could just as easily have glanced at the alarm clock on the way down, but for reasons of sleep deprivation, my brain’s currently in safe mode, with only a bare minimum of drivers loaded.

That’s why, on opening the case to my contacts, I freak out when I find it’s empty—and then immediately realize (duh) the very fact that I can see it’s empty means I’m already wearing my contacts. I’d inadvertently left them in overnight. But as I’m not showing any symptoms of eye rot, I push any related worry to the back of my mind and force myself to get ready for school.

After this morning’s chaos, my room is conversely serene as I wrangle clean clothes, deodorant, textbooks, my backpack. Morning sun tousles the curtained window; Ernie’s absence has freed up half a dozen cubic feet of floor space; Beta’s server quietly hums away on the floor. I’m assuming that’s where Mini, Beta, and Jan are at the moment, hopefully looking into how to fix the missing bytes issue. Unless they never left the taco stand.

Downstairs, Mom and Dad are almost finished with breakfast by the time I stumble into the dining room. Mom makes eye contact with me briefly, awkwardly—

—oh, that’s right.

I wanked in front of her last night.

Sitting and staring fixedly at the tabletop, I wonder if she’s told Dad. Oh, God, what if she’s phoned Chandelier already and asked that we explore my budding sexuality during my next head session?

“Good morning, Rip Van Winkle,” Dad says to me, looking oblivious enough. He’s watching the morning news on his smartphone while he finishes off a cup of green tea. “We were just about to send a recovery team up to your room.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” I say quietly.

Dad nods. “Did you feel the earthquake?”

Feel it? I caused it! “No.”

“Just before dawn. It was a real shaker. Nothing on the news about it, though. They never cover San Angelico.”

Mom disappears into the kitchen, returns with my breakfast: oatmeal, yogurt—and a big yellow banana. “Eat up, sweetie. We leave in five.” She sets the oatmeal and yogurt in front of me, fiddles with the banana in a vain attempt to make it look as non-phallic as possible, finally just lets it go and returns to her seat.

I stir my oatmeal, poke at my yogurt…glare at the banana.

“Wow. Listen to this.” Dad turns up the volume on his phone:

Local authorities are looking for a police officer who went missing early this morning during an apparent traffic collision. Eyewitnesses say the officer was driving erratically after someone threw a mechanized puppet at his squad car…”

I choke on my food, sputtering oatmeal across the table.

Mom frowns at me. “Are you okay, honey?”

I wave her away, clutching at my throat, my eyes now transfixed on Dad’s phone.

…the puppet, resembling a naked twelve-year-old boy with a disproportionately large penis, was reportedly seen holding a smartphone while clinging to the hood of the officer’s car, leading police to believe the officer may have been the victim of a drone-controlled snapgrabbing attack using the popular SuperMegaNet social networking software…”

“What’s ‘snapgrabbing?’” Mom asks.

The newscaster, as if in reply: “Snapgrabbing, the act of uploading someone to a random phone or SuperMegaNet server without their prior consent, has been making headlines recently as the prank of choice among young SuperMegaNet users. However, this morning’s altercation underscores growing concerns about the possibility for malicious use of the technology. How and why a preadolescent puppet was used has yet to be determined at this time. Take a look at this cell phone video shot by an early-bird commuter who witnessed this morning’s snapgrab attack first-hand…”

Holy crap.

Mini’s made the morning news.

I glance worriedly at Mom and Dad, fully expecting them to turn to me and ask, “Why in the world is there a snapgrabbing puppet on the news who looks just like you?”

Instead, Dad just shakes his head and says, “Wow, that is a pretty big dick for a puppet.”

Mom doesn’t say anything, but I’m certain a flashback image of me sitting splayed on the toilet last night has just popped into her head, and she’ll now be forgoing the rest of her breakfast as a precautionary means of dealing with her sudden nausea.

Indeed, she gets to her feet, steps beside Dad, gives him a kiss on the cheek, and, with a preoccupied look in her eyes, says to me, “Time to go, Theo.”

I take one last mouthful of oatmeal—mostly for show—and wave goodbye to Dad, follow Mom out into the hall, grabbing my backpack and putting on my shoes as we go.

During the car ride to school, the two of us sit in silence. My junk is tucked inconspicuously away in my jeans, but paranoia has me obsessing over every crease, every bulge—every indicator that there’s a burgeoning young erectile organ just waiting for any old excuse to show itself off in the grandest fashion possible. I can get bigger! Want me to get bigger? I can go from zero to sixty in under six seconds! I slump a little further into the passenger seat and stare out the window. This is silly. I’m silly. Mini’s snapgrabbing escapades should be first and foremost on my mind, but instead I’m obsessing over my dick. How ridiculous is that? And how ridiculous is it that my mom should be obsessing over it as well? I’m totally overreacting as usual. Mom’s not thinking about my wang, she’s paying attention to traffic, going over her day’s schedule in her head, remembering something funny she saw on Netflix the other night—

“I’m just going to say this one thing,” she says, clearing her throat, “and be done with it.”

Oh.

Dear.

God—

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation. As long as it doesn’t interfere with school or work, family or friends, masturbation is a healthy, perfectly natural way of exploring your sexuality.”

Please, please, God, make her stop saying “masturbation!”

“Now, you’re obviously an early bloomer—”

Obviously? How obviously?!?

“—sometimes certain parts of a person’s body will get a growth spurt before certain other parts. Maybe it’s the nose or the ears. Hands or feet. Arms or legs. Breasts. The penis.”

Kill me.

“But the rest of you will catch up, don’t you worry. Whatever stage of development you’re at, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The human body is beautiful—”

Put a gun to my head and blow my brains out.

“—and I want you to know your father and I are here for you if you have any questions at all about your body, masturbation, sex—”

That’s it. I can’t take anymore of this—I’m literally hemorrhaging. Boca Linda is just down the block, but I absolutely can not spend the last thirty seconds of this car ride listening to my mom talk about puberty. It’s wholly unnatural. A mother helping her preteen daughter deal with her first period or an abruptly pubescent rack = wholesome bonding experience. That same mother telling her son that he has a big penis = creepy incestuous porn story. I yank off my seat belt, open the passenger door, grab my backpack, and hurl myself out, yelling, “Bye-Mom-love-you!” My intent is to land gracefully on my feet and to take off running purposefully toward campus, but instead I flop out onto the ground with exactly zero poise and roll onto my face on the grass flanking the curb.

Mom stops the car. “Theo! Are you all right?”

I lift my head, spitting grass and dirt. “Just fine. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

“Are you sure?”

I get to my feet and close the car door. I wave cheerfully.

Still, Mom looks worried. For a split-second there’s a very real chance she’s going to get out and coddle me for good measure, but I make darned sure to keep smiling and waving until she’s placated enough to be on her way.

Once her car is out of sight, I immediately crumple back onto the grass and stare blankly at the sky, waiting for the warning bell to ring.

Momentarily, Eva—properly ponytailed, track-suited, and sneakered, her backpack slung over one shoulder—comes to stand over me. “Are you okay?” she asks, looking concerned. “I saw you fall out of your mom’s car.”

I wave my hand dismissively. “Oh, that? Naw. I was just doing a new, uh…yoga move.”

Eva narrows her eyes. “What’s it called?”

Wang shui, I think to myself.

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87. 4 – 7 Hz

@theo

Like when your friends talk about you when they think you’re asleep:

“Pre-dawn nachos are the best kind of nachos.” Fart! “Where’s Theo’s shitter again?”

“Out the door and to the left.”

“See y’all in twenty, then. I’m about to give birth to a food-baby.”

“Food-baby?”

“What, people don’t take atomic shits in Brno, Janny Boy?”

“Not radioactive ones, no. Maybe in Chernobyl.”

“That’s nice—now out of my way before I soft-serve all over the floor…”

“Wow. Look at him. I’ve never seen the little dude so tuckered out.”

“Whackin’ it will do that.”

“What now?”

“While you guys were at the taco stand, Theo’s mom walked in naked on him while he was jerking off in the bathroom.”

“Wait, was Theo naked? Or his mom?”

“A little from column A, a little from column B.”

“Yikes. What the heck goes on in this house while we’re away?”

“Yep. Fate worse than death.”

“Years of therapy.”

“Legions of inbred babies.”

“Would make for a good incest story, though.”

“If you’re a third party, sure. But otherwise there’s nothing kinky about masturbating in front of your own naked mom. Mother-son incest stories only work because you’re reading about someone else’s mom. It doesn’t matter if it’s written in the first-person, or if you imagine yourself as one of the characters—it’s not your mom. Not really.”

“And you know this how?”

“Theo consumes an unholy amount of hentai. Like, if hentai had calories, he’d be as fat as Ernie.”

“Strange it hasn’t desensitized him to seeing his mom in the buff.”

“Well, there’s really no right way to prepare oneself for that kind of trauma.”

“Meh. The way his mom goes for those teensy compression shorts and sports bras all the time, she may as well be wearing nothing but a layer of spray paint anyway.”

“With the shorts and sports bra it’s all kinds of contour, yeah, but without it’s details, physiology, landing strips.”

“Whatever. Have you seen European TV shows? It’s just nude family members having breakfast, sharing the shower, stumbling into each other at all hours of the night. They sleep naked, take their tea naked, they do the laundry naked, and have long, drawn-out conversations while having sex naked.”

“They do not.”

“Jan, back me up.”

“I don’t watch a lot of TV, to be honest.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re a modern American family. Nudity is something that’s only permitted behind closed doors or a tightly-drawn shower curtain.”

“Which is probably why Theo sees that therapist once a week. But that’s a whole other discussion.”

“Right. Can you do anything for Jan? It’s going to be twenty kinds of awkward sending him back home all pixelated.”

“If I even have a home anymore.”

“I still can’t believe they towed your apartment.”

“That’s the city for you. A hundred bucks says they put up a mini-mall where your digs used to be and deny there was ever any wrongdoing.”

“Really?”

“Don’t listen to Beta. He likes to exaggerate. About Jan’s missing bytes, if you please.”

“It depends on how they were lost during transfer. They may be gone, they may be sitting on an SMN server somewhere, marked as deleted by the file system, but not yet overwritten. Trouble is, the more time passes, the more likely it is your bytes have been overwritten.”

“So, this is it, then. I’m stuck like this.”

“Let’s not hit the power button before the game’s over. Let me look at the error logs, nose around the Taurus servers a bit. I just don’t want to pull a Jen Barber and tell you I speak Italian when really I’m just winging it so that people will pay attention to me.”

“Who’s Jen Barber?”

“Oh, for fuck’s—come hell or high water, at some point today we’re binging on The IT Crowd. In the meantime, I’m sure Theo won’t mind me adding a few more hard drives to my rig over here so that I can set up a personal server for you to chill on until we figure this all out.”

“You want me to live on a computer?”

“You said it yourself, your apartment’s been towed, your parents are MIA. Unless you want to bum around town in pixelatia or do the orphanage thing, going virtual for a while is probably your best bet.”

“Wow. Most responsible adults would contact a relative, or the police, or Child Protective Services.”

“Sarcasm? Or are you just coming down with a sore throat?”

“Oh, and in pixelatia is not a real phrase.”

“Dude, Mini. It’s Latin for ‘in pixels.’”

“Says who?”

“Unimportant. Look, Jan. I may be biased because of how shittily the government has treated me since the Taurus Labs fiasco, but I say go virtual, lay low for a while. Install a skin—it’ll look and feel like the real thing, and you can wear it when you’re actual, too. Granted it’ll only work when you’re in range of an appropriate Wi-Fi hotspot or a cell phone with SuperMegaNet installed, but at least it’ll let you walk around the ’hood without looking like some kind of Minecraftian cosplay gone bad.”

“I guess…but is it safe?”

“I’m still here, right?”

“I hate when people say that. It guarantees nothing beyond simple coincidence.”

“Shut up, Mini.”

[Insert brief moment of blissful REM sleep here.]

“…don’t worry, though. This isn’t permanent. You’re not living on a server, you’re spending a few days there. The Internet never forgets. Your bytes are still out there. We’ll find them, we’ll find your parents, and by this time next month it’ll just be one of those things you laugh about over drinks and pizza at Oggi’s…”

[Insert second brief moment of blissful REM sleep here.]

“Ugh—what’s that smell?”

“Hey, guys. Does anyone know where the plunger is? I think I broke Theo’s toilet.”

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86. Post-Traumatic Schlong Disorder

@mini

I push the bathroom door open.

Inside, Theo’s put his clothes back on…more or less (his shirt’s inside out, and his pants look like they’ve found extra joints and crevices between his knees and hips). He’s kneeling slumped over the toilet bowl. His hair is mussed. There’s vomit running down his chin.

“What the hell happened to you?” I ask, stepping between puddles of puke (and what I sincerely hope is hand lotion) as I make my way to Theo’s side.

“I threw up,” he mumbles, dazed, half asleep, strung out on endorphins and rich, potent embarrassment.

“A less common way of finishing off a wank, I’ll give you that. You did finish, right?”

“Yeah.”

Mazel tov.”

“I’m going to die.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I mean, what kind of mom sleeps naked in this day and age?”

“New Age crossfit moms, apparently.”

Theo lifts his head from the bowl, glares at me with bloodshot eyes. “I hate you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“You suck.”

“Dude, lots of guys get caught jerking it. Fact of life. Rite of passage. You’ve just earned your first merit badge.”

“I didn’t just get caught. My inexplicably naked mother walked in on me with my pants around my ankles and my dick in my hand. It was worse than the bathroom scene from Grandma’s Boy.”

“It was not.” I think for a moment. “You didn’t, er, finish on your mom…did you?”

Theo rests his head on the toilet again. “I may as well have. She saw everything. Moms aren’t supposed to see their sons’ everything once the diaper years are over and done with. They’re definitely not supposed to see their sons’ everything while it’s activated and in the fully-upright position.” He spits; a viscous thread of saliva and puke hits the inside of the bowl with a loud plop! “Oh, this is it. The is the end of all life as we know it. I’m going to hell. Mom’s going to therapy. Dad will probably drive his car through a convenience store window or jump off a bridge or something.”

“Okay. You very well may be the only dude in the entire world whose first wank turned into some kind of socially apocalyptic nightmare, but there’s a silver lining here: you’ve now scored three out of three on your mom’s parental checklist.”

Theo lifts his head and looks at me suspiciously. “What parental checklist?”

“You know,” I say, “the three basic things every parent wants for their son: good grades, wholesome friends, healthy wang.”

“I highly doubt my parents have a checklist on which my dick is an item.”

“Oh, but they do. It’s not a physical checklist. It’s not something they’ve scribbled on a piece of paper and stuffed into their wallet or purse between their driver’s license and health insurance cards, but it exists all right. Your parents, like all parents, want to be grandparents someday, and your dick is the delivery system through which their future offspring will be released-to-manufacturing. So, naturally, they have a deeply vested interest in its working state.”

“Enough about my wang.”

“Second silver lining, then—”

“Mini, no more silver linings, please—”

“—ever since the New Eyes incident, you’ve been having to deal with your mom’s excessive mothering, her continuous butting into your business, looking over your shoulder—trying to keep tabs on her darling little boy. Except now her little boy isn’t so little anymore. Now he’s a hormone-ridden preteen toting a giant, god-knobbed weapon of mass insemination.”

“Your point?”

I kick Theo in the shin. “You’ve got your privacy back, dumbass. I can guarantee you from here on out your mom will never, ever enter your bedroom without knocking or making an appointment first—”

“—because she’s now going to assume I’m masturbating furiously every time my door’s closed! It doesn’t matter if I’m doing homework or listening to Asia or gaming or just taking a nap, the image in my mom’s head will always be the naked, sweaty, out-of-breath version of me fapping myself into oblivion.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“No, the fact that instead of thinking about my New Eyes my mom will now be thinking about my wang is not a good thing.”

“You’re missing the fine print. Your mom walking in on you while you’re jerking it means she’s got you. But your naked mom walking in on you while you’re jerking it means you’ve got her too. She can’t tell the story to anyone without risking embarrassing herself in the process. Hence, she’ll never, ever bring it up. You’re off the hook.”

For the first time, something like hope flickers behind Theo’s eyes. “I never thought of it that way.”

“Obviously. Now, hand me a washcloth. I stepped in some hand lotion.”

Theo gives me a blank stare. “What lotion?”

Oh, dear God.

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85. The Fappening

@theo

I should’ve uploaded back into Ernie’s hospital room, or back to my bedroom, but instead I’m at this dinky taco stand out in the middle of absolute nowhere. Like, it’s literally nothing but dirt, tumbleweeds, and cactus stretching all the way to a tentatively brightening horizon. At first I think there’s been some kind of mistake—then I spot Beta, Ernie, Jan, and Mini seated at the cramped counter, and I realize that they must have come here while I was at Eva’s.

On noticing my arrival, everyone claps politely.

Beta starts strumming Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” on an acoustic guitar.

“What, er…what?” I ask, not sure if I’m referring to the taco stand, the guitar performance, or the fact that everyone’s regarding me as if I’ve just gotten some kind of promotion.

“‘Night Moves,’” Beta replies. “Dean played it for Sammy that morning he found him and Piper in the backseat of the Impala, and now I’m playing it for you.”

Again, “What?”

“You presented Eva with the gift of a boner,” Mini explains. “She kissed you back, all was made right in the world.”

“I didn’t present it to her—I mean, yeah, we kissed, but it was just—wait, how do you know about me and Eva?”

Ernie, whose giant, Cartman-like butt has poked its way out of the back of his flimsy hospital gown, holds up my cell phone. “We watched while I was being discharged.”

I scowl, grab my phone from him—but before I can scold him (and the others) for the blatant voyeurism, the group absorbs me via a flurry of high-fives and pats on the back. And ridiculous chatter:

“So, when’s the first date?”

“Will she be moving into your place or you into hers?”

“Don’t worry about the stains. That’s not your real cell phone, it’s just a virtual copy for the purpose of curing Ernie.”

“What’s the baby’s name going to be?”

“Bathroom? Just go behind a tumbleweed—no, that one, with the roll of toilet paper next to it. Watch out for dickfoxes.”

“Was she on top, or were you? Because I’ve read that when the guy…” That last comment is from Ernie, who trails off when he realizes we’ve all stopped talking and are now staring at him. “What? I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking.”

I wasn’t thinking that,” Beta says.

“Neither was I,” Jan also says.

Mini hesitates. “I was—but only a little bit.”

Jan parts from the group to relieve himself amongst the tumbleweeds and dickfoxes.

I wriggle my way back to the edge of the group, pretend to be interested in the ancient, grease-spattered laptop sitting at the far end of the counter. Its webcam is aimed at a tacky, equally grease-stained handwritten sign: SUPERMEGANET USERS WELCOME!

Momentarily, a middle-aged, thickly-mustached Mexican dude wipes his way down the counter. Between copious squirts of Windex, he nods at us, says to Ernie, “Buenos días, mi gordito.

“Buenos Aires, Tacoman,” Ernie replies. “The usual, please. And something special for my friends.”

Tacoman (almost certainly not his real name) nods, scratches his back with his spatula. “Si. I make heart attack for you, and map to hospital con carne asada for tus amigos.” He turns, wipes his way back up the counter.

“Buenos nachos,” Ernie says.

I shake my head.

“What?”

“I can’t believe you have a taco dealer.”

“He does good work.”

“He also calls you his little fatty.”

Ernie blinks. “No, he doesn’t.”

Mi gordito means ‘my little fat one’ in Spanish.”

Ernie blinks again, considering. Then, “That’s reverse racism!”

“All racism is racism,” Beta points out.

“No!” Ernie screams. “Racism is knocking another race just because they’re another race. Reverse racism is knocking another race because you assume they’re knocking your race.”

“That would be preemptive racism.”

“Revenge racism,” Mini adds.

Ernie frowns. “Whatever you call it, he’s being it!”

“Maybe,” I say, “he’s being reverse racist because you keep calling him Tacoman instead of taking the time to learn his real name.”

“Fuck him. Fuck you.” Blinking warily at Jan, who’s back from his bathroom break, Ernie asks, “What did I miss while I was under?”

“Jan got pixelated,” I reply.

“So, that’s what that is.”

“And his apartment was towed.”

“It’s about time.” Ernie looks unsurprised. “What else?”

Beta nods at Mini. “Little dude’s got a doll.”

“Oh, and Theo beat up your grandma,” Jan adds.

Ernie nods appreciatively at me. “Thanks, hamster eyes. I owe you one.”

“Uh…you’re welcome, I guess,” I say, wondering if I’m the only one who thinks any of the aforementioned shenanigans are the least bit weird.

“Seriously,” Ernie continues. “I owe you. You downloaded porn for me.”

“Whatever.”

“That means we’re friends forever.” He holds out his hand.

I sigh and slap it. “Don’t mention it.”

@mini

“All right,” I say to Theo. “Enough touchy-feelies. It’s time.”

“Time for what?” he asks, playing dumb. “It’s almost dawn. There’s, like, an hour left before I have to get ready for school.”

“There’s still the matter of your spunk.”

He frowns. “What about it?”

“Um, hello? The agreement we made at Ernie’s grandma’s?”

“I was hanging from the top of an eighty-two-foot girder palace!”

“A promise is a promise.”

“Yeah, but under the circumstances, I think a postponement is in order.”

“This is only the beginning. You keep suppressing your spunk and there’ll be worse things down the pipeline. Things involving stolen vehicles, flaming convenience stores, excessive use of smarty-pants words like ‘postponement.’”

“What does playing with myself have to do with any of that?”

I glance over at Beta, who’s explaining the intricacies of SuperMegaNet technology to Ernie and Jan while Ernie pokes at Jan’s pixelated form with a plastic spork. Assured that we’ve got a moment of relative privacy, I toddle up Theo’s arm and whisper into his ear, “Remember a few months ago when you were taking your morning shower and you spotted those first few short and curlies down below?”

Theo blushes. “Yeah.”

“That was the beginning—my beginning. That’s why I’m here. Like it or not, you’ve just dived headfirst into puberty. Like it or not, my power grows with each passing day, and if you keep suppressing me you’re going to explode like Emil Antonowsky in Robocop.”

Concern crosses Theo’s face. “Wait, really?”

“Well, maybe you won’t explode,” I say, ignoring the temptation to lie outright, “but you’ll certainly run the risk of becoming one of the pubescent undead, an animated body without a single spark of life inside. You’ll spend your teenage years lurching around the Boca Linda cafeteria, trying to hit on girls, but instead just drooling on their tits and leaving behind fetid chunks of boy-flesh in their Jell-O fruit cups.”

Theo looks totally grossed out.

Good—that means I’m getting to him. “Come on. It’s really no big deal.”

“If that’s true, then let it drop.”

“Hello—I’m your pubescence. The only way I let it drop is if your dick gets mangled in some kind of freak dressing room zipper accident.”

Theo hangs his head, mutters something under his breath.

“What?”

I don’t know how.

“You don’t know how to what?”

“I don’t know how to…you know…do it.”

“You mean…you’ve never choked the chicken?”

“No.”

“Flogged the dolphin?”

“No.”

“Tossed the salad?”

“No.”

“Buffed the bologna?”

“No.”

“Tamed the shrew?”

“No.”

“Spanked the monkey?”

“No.”

“Not even once?”

Theo shakes his head.

“Why the hell not?”

“I…have this thing.”

“This isn’t about you somehow jizzing out all your chi, is it?”

“Well, a little bit, yeah. But the main reason is, I’ve, er, always been afraid that I might lose control and…spontaneously combust.”

OMFG. “Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“Where did you get a ridiculous idea like that?”

Coast to Coast AM.”

I might have known! “No—fuck no. There’s no way I’m letting George Noory and his super-beta prostate disinform you into keeping your joystick in its original packaging for the rest of your life.” I grab Theo by the hand and pull him toward Tacoman’s shitty laptop.

“Where are we going?” Theo asks.

“Yeah,” Beta says, noticing our exit. “Where are you guys going?”

“Home!” I reply.

“Aw, stick around. We’re going to see The Force Awakens after we eat.”

Theo starts to say something, but I respond on his behalf, cutting him off: “And I’m going to see that Theo’s Force awakens this instant!”

I click the “send home” button, and we’re back in Theo’s bedroom. Wordlessly, I walk him out into the hall. He faces the bathroom door at the other end. “You can do this,” I reassure him after whispering a few last-minute instructions into his ear.

“I can do this,” he whispers back.

“The sleeper must awaken.”

“The sleeper must…are you quoting Dune?”

“Not important.” I give him a firm shove toward the bathroom.

He takes a tentative step, then another, followed by another—all the way down the hall and to the bathroom door, where he stops, glances one last time over his shoulder.

I mouth the words, “You can do this.”

He goes in, closes the door behind him.

I make my way down the hall and sit on the floor beside the bathroom door. It’s quiet on the other side. At first I’m thinking that’s because of good walls, but after several minutes I start wondering if Theo hasn’t just fallen asleep on the toilet bowl.

Then I feel it.

The silvery link between us, trembling like a plucked guitar string.

An animated GIF of the original Pong fills my head, with a pixelated ball being whacked back and forth, back and forth. The image shifts, becomes security camera footage showing an impeccably-dressed business executive crossing his legs during an interview with a gorgeous young intern whose breasts are on the verge of popping out of her blouse. Then I’m watching Goten from Dragon Ball sweating bullets as the mother of all erections tents the crotch of his gi during meditation—and suddenly that magical switch is tripped. It’s all momentum from here on out. Theo’s socked feet knock together; “Movement 4” from Vangelis’ Mythodea, has just been cued to about 12:30, and is now blasting out of invisible amplifiers; the floor starts to tremble, the windows rattle, a framed picture crashes to the floor—

—then something totally and completely unexpected happens: Theo’s Mom, naked as a jaybird, comes rushing out of her bedroom, confirming that one, she sleeps nude, and two, she’s clearly misinterpreted Theo’s urgent grunts as some kind of cry for help in the midst of a raucous California quake. Yes, he could be lying draped over the side of the tub with a fractured spine, a cracked skull, or worse, and yes, it’s her parental instinct to put the well-being of her son ahead of her own modesty—but it’s also her parental duty to acknowledge the puberty clause, which is as follows: earthquake, fire, flood, or otherwise, if you hear your pubescent son gasping and moaning in the bathroom, better to let him expire than to risk walking in on him during an orgasm.

Which is exactly what happens here as bathroom doors are flung carelessly open, as bare-bottomed crossfit mothers are frozen in place and sweaty, flushed, feral Goten-cosplaying versions of darling little sons are presented sitting splayed on innocent toilets, pants around ankles, hands gripping comically oversized hentai wangs in violent death grips, about to go Super Saiyan—

—Theo’s mom yanks the door closed, lurches backward and slams against the opposite wall as if she’s been drop-kicked in the abdomen.

Vangelis fades; the earthquake subsides.

“Oh, my,” she murmurs, invoking the universal phrase used the world over to encompass every tumultuous thought that no doubt goes through a mother’s head when she sees her son’s wang in horrifyingly crystal-clear, high-definition detail for the first time since he was in diapers, years ago, inches ago, back when an erection was just an accidental oopsie and not this circus freak show attraction unwinding in her bathroom.

Straightening, she clears her throat and, with as much dignity as one can muster while naked and bleeding from the eyes, retreats into the safety of her bedroom, locking the door behind her.

Contribute to the glorified swear jar that is #FeedErnie.

84. Suspected Crush

@eva

Theo suddenly appears beside my bed. It looks as if he’s accidentally downloaded himself into my room by hitting buttons on his phone at random.

It also looks like he’s got a giant boner.

I’d been half asleep, but now I jolt upright, scooting into a sitting position with my back against the headboard, my knees tucked against my chest. With one hand I hold the blanket up to my chin; with the other I aim my phone light at Theo. “Ew! You did not just download into my bedroom with a boner!”

“Huh?” Theo blinks in the semi-darkness, glances down at the comically-oversized pup tent pitched between his legs—and sort of creates his own real-time fail video, making as if to cup his hands over his groin, stumbling away from the bed and across the room, tripping, and falling into Jack Skellington and Co. He takes down my entire collection with a muffled gasp and a soft thud.

“Theo?” I whisper, muting my phone entirely so as to banish the sounds of fucking still blaring from his phone on the other end.

“Um, yeah?” he whispers back, lying crumpled between Jack and Sally.

“What in the world are you doing?”

Theo sighs. “Oh, just having some kind of twisted nightmare. Before Christmas.”

I reach beside my bed and flick on the lamp. “Har-har. Close your eyes.”

“Why?”

“I need to get my robe.”

“What for?”

“Um, hello? Bedtime, underwear, unscheduled boy in my bedroom, etcetera?”

Theo blushes, looks away. “Oh, right.”

Truthfully, I don’t really care if he sees me in my undies. If his little doll was telling the truth, he’s probably spied on me as much as I’ve spied on Jan, and even when it’s not on purpose, we’re always accidentally catching each other just out of the shower or when getting dressed for school, undressed for bed. It’s just the inconvenience of being on each other’s buddy lists for life. We’re not exhibitionists. Well, Lily is. Not intentionally. She’s…clumsy. She forgets things, and has lately gotten into the habit of falling asleep with her phone wedged against her butt crack. This is Lily we’re talking about, so, with the way her parents let her dress, who hasn’t seen her butt crack? But leaving it out overnight for all her SuperMegaNet friends to see? I know she’s a gymnast, and was supposedly a beauty pageant contestant when she was younger, so I’m sure she’s used to being ogled by strangers—but I can tell you right now she’ll change her tune when that first creepy fanboy hopscotches from buddy list to buddy list and right up her behind. She may think she’s been careful adding only people she knows or trusts to her list, but I don’t think she’s been as careful in considering that each of those people has their own list, and each of the people on those lists has their own list, and so on.

Watching Theo to make sure he doesn’t peek, I quickly get out of bed and pad over to the door. I grab my bathrobe from the hook and slip it on, cinching the waist. “You can look now.”

Theo nods, gets to his feet. “Uh, sorry for waking you up. I guess I’ll be getting back.”

I fold my arms and give him a smirk. “Back to watching porn and breaking into little girls’ bedrooms at four in the morning?”

“Don’t tell me what time it is!” Theo hisses miserably, covering his ears. “I’m not supposed to know what time it is!” He crumples back into the Nightmare pile.

(On the plus side, his boner appears to have taken leave.)

“Sorry,” I say, and sit at the edge of my bed. “I forgot about your BLT—”

“CBT.”

“—or whatever you call it.”

Theo sighs. “That’s okay. I guess it could be worse.”

“Yeah?”

“It could be five in the morning.”

“So,” I yawn, “since when are you an obsessive-compulsive porn addict?”

Theo shifts into something vaguely resembling a sitting position. “Ernie’s dying wish was for you to catch me downloading porn on my phone.”

“Ernie’s still pretending he’s dying?”

“I don’t think he’s a good enough actor to pull off what I saw in that hospital bed.”

Wait—the hospital? “Ernie’s in the hospital?”

“It’s more of an online urgent care kind of place.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

Huh. “All right. Let’s say, theoretically, that Ernie’s really sick, and that, theoretically, I’m worried about his well being. What’s the matter with him?”

“He wasn’t inhaling enough food or watching enough porn or something. But he seemed to be getting better right before I, uh, downloaded on accident.”

“Porn. Seriously.”

“See for yourself.” Theo points at my phone.

Keeping the volume muted, I pick up my phone, peek at the screen. Ernie’s sweaty, flushed face fills his SMN window. He seems to be concentrating intently—on what, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know. “He looks like his usual bloated self.”

“That’s because he’s watching porn.”

“Prescription porn. On your phone.”

Theo shakes his head in shame. “On my phone.”

“How is that even a thing?”

“The doctors said there wasn’t anything physically wrong with him, and that it was all in his head, but Mini suggested—”

“Wait, Mini? That little doll version of you that came to visit me earlier?”

“He came here?” Theo swallows hard. “I mean, er, doll? What doll?”

“The one that dropped by unannounced and said that Ernie was sick, and that you liked me. Then he showed me his penis. That was a joke, right?”

Theo looks like he wants to die. “I’m so sorry. He’s this…weird kind of, uh, perceptive flux manifestation thingie. He says he’s supposed to represent my suppressed ego or whatever. I don’t see the resemblance. If anything, he’s more like a miniature, non-fat yogurt version of Ernie. Only instead of food, he’s got girls and sex on his mind 24/7.”

Uh-huh. “Was he telling the truth?”

“About what?”

“When he said you have a crush on me—is that true?”

Theo stumbles to his feet. “I should get going.”

Do you have a crush on me?” I ask again, suddenly very interested in the topic for no discernible reason.

Theo shifts from foot to foot; he nibbles his lip, picks at one of his cuticles.

And oh, my gosh, even without the immediate awkwardness, it all seems so obvious now. Well, I guess it’s always been obvious, hasn’t it? I just never paid any attention, never even thought to look at Theo as more than a classmate or casual friend. I was always too busy trying to get Jan to notice me. At my old middle school, I had several crushes on several boys—but none of them ever returned the interest. They made fun of my eyes, or my resolutely flat chest—or they ignored me altogether and went for the cute girls, the precocious girls, girls that were skimpy on clothing, heavy on makeup, exploitive of their burgeoning curves. This is my very first crush from a boy rather than the other way around—and it’s from Theo, of all people. Little someone’s-younger-brother-looking, plush-doll-carrying, computer-programming, Glass Hammer-fanaticizing Theo.

Okay. Not that I’m even considering considering it at this point, but…what if? I picture a thought bubble above my head, and in that thought bubble Theo and I are together at the mall, the movies, holding hands, maybe kissing, and I’m thinking dating Theo might not be so bad. Then suddenly the thought bubble wavers, and the two of us are crammed naked in a bathroom stall, and we’re doing all the naughty, scandalous things I’ve been wanting to do with Jan, and—

—so, so wrong.

“Listen, Theo,” I say, clearing my throat, forcing the naughtiness to the very back of my mind. “I’m super glad that you’re my friend. Really. But I’m just not interested in dating right now.”

Theo continues to nibble his lip, which starts bleeding. “You like Jan.”

Heck yeah, I like Jan—or any boy, for that matter, who’s older, bigger, more mature-looking, and has a prize at the bottom of his cereal box. “He doesn’t like me.”

“Still.”

“It takes two to make a thing work.”

Still.”

Ah, crap. I was hoping Theo would go all bashful on me, and that would be the end of it, but he’s standing his ground. “Yeah, I like him. But I can’t make him like me back, so it is what it is, I guess. He’s my friend. You’re my friend. Ernie’s…some kind of gaseous anomaly. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten past that first week of high school without you guys. I care for you. Just not in that way. You know?”

Theo shrugs without conviction. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m not one of those creeps who’s going to stalk you until you say yes. I can act mature about this.”

Regardless, there’s blood trickling down his chin.

“Let me clean you up,” I say, sighing and getting to my feet. I grab a cotton pad and some witch hazel from my dresser, then motion for Theo to sit beside me at the edge of my bed. I moisten the pad, dab it against his chin, his lips. Nice lips, I guess. Not as full and pouty as Jan’s, but nice now that I’m noticing them. And those big brown eyes—and that absolutely smooth complexion. I may not be swooning with passion, but I will admit to being jealous.

Finishing up, I replace the witch hazel on the dresser, toss the used cotton pad into the wastebasket, and return to the edge of the bed—and before I realize what’s happening, I’m saying, “Okay, how about this: a simple test. One kiss. No tongues. If it’s a creepy little brother kiss, we go our separate ways and never ever speak of it again. If, on the other hand, it’s not an incest kiss, then…well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Agreed?”

Theo swallows, stammers, “Are you sure? We don’t have to—I mean, it’s okay if you just…I mean—”

I cup my hand over his mouth and close my eyes, puckering up. “Whenever you’re ready, Casanova.”

“Mmf.”

I remove my hand and await first contact—which Theo clumsily makes, first with his nose, then with his forehead.

“Ow!” I pull back, opening my eyes and glaring at him.

“Sorry,” he apologizes.

“Do over.” I close my eyes once again, and this time it goes better. Our lips actually meet, and we kiss, briefly, politely before separating and looking at each other expectantly—

—I shrug and get up. “Nope. Little brother.”

Theo does likewise. “Agreed.”

“Sorry.”

“No worries.”

“See you at school.”

“Yep.”

I grab my phone and tap the “send home” button.

Theo winks out of the room.

That was my first kiss, I think to myself. My first semi-serious, boy-girl kiss, anyway.

And I gave it to Theo.

Contribute to the glorified swear jar that is #FeedErnie.

83. Theo Downloads Pr0n

@beta

“Your nephew’s dying,” Doctor Pain says as Theo and I take a seat in his office.

Theo tries to look concerned, though I can tell he’s trying even harder not to make it obvious that he’s sneaking glances at the nurse’s boobs as she leaves the room—a ridiculous move on his part considering how much of his manga collection is downright hentai. He’s no stranger to oversized racks, luscious bottoms, and epic genitalia; he should be about as desensitized to Nurse Double-D’s chest as your average American teenager is to cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption. Instead, he’s gone all fifth-grader.

For shame.

“So, what’s the problem?” I ask Pain while nudging Theo in the side.

Pain scratches his non-existent beard, looks over Ernie’s test results on his iPad. “X-rays, blood work, EKG…there’s definitely some very bad stuff going on due to poor diet and a total lack of exercise. In a few years, it’ll be diabetes, morbid obesity, heart disease. But that’s not why Ernest is sick right now…” He trails off, raising his arms and literally grasping in the air as if for an explanation.

“Er, what are you doing?” I ask.

Pain blinks at me. “Stretching exercises. I like to keep limber.” He pushes his iPad aside, clasps his hands, faces me full. “Anyway, as I said, a few years from now, I’ll be able to tell you exactly why Ernest will be sick, but in the meantime, well, it’s as if he’s simply lost the will to live.”

I exchange glances with Theo.

That’s it?” Theo asks. “That’s what’s wrong with His Puddingness? He just doesn’t feel like living anymore?”

Pain shrugs. “Essentially, yes.”

“So, you’re saying it’s all in his head.”

“Essentially, yes.”

Theo frowns. “Can we see him?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Is it, uh…normal for you to always repeat yourself like that?”

“Essentially, yes.”

* * *

Cut to me and Theo standing side by side at the foot of Ernie’s bed.

The little dude looks flabbergasted. “What. The. Fuck.”

My sentiments exactly. Ernie’s looking bad. Real bad. Like, Michael Deighton at the end of the “Blood Brothers” episode of The Outer Limits bad. His eyes are sunken; his skin is pale and shriveled; his hair’s fallen out; he’s breathing in shallow gasps. We’ve asked the nurse to give us a moment alone so that we can stare dumbfounded, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

“At least he’s lost some weight,” I say.

“He’s lost all his weight,” Theo clarifies.

“A Kardashian’s wet dream. Agreed.”

More staring. After a while, the door opens behind us. I glance over my shoulder, expecting Doctor Pain or one of his many buxom nurses. Instead, the little dude’s talking puppet, dressed in scrubs, toddles into the room. He’s still scorched underneath, but at least he’s no longer naked.

I nod at Theo, pointing at the floor. “Your mini-me is here.”

Theo turns and glares at Mini. “Why are you wearing scrubs?”

“When in Rome,” Mini replies.

“What about Jan? Shouldn’t you be back home, er, consoling him or something?”

Mini shakes his head. “Dude, when your brah comes down with a severe case of pixelitis, you don’t stay there with him. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

“How is comforting someone in a time of need a bad thing?”

“Jan needs to feel like he’s going to get better,” Mini explains, putting on his best doctorly air. “He needs to feel that there’s something to be done. Speaking from a psychological standpoint, if I just sit there with him, it’s all kinds of awkward because unless I too am pixelated, there’s absolutely nothing I can say or do that will make him feel better. It’s just the two of us recycling the usual clichés. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll get better. We’ll figure this out. I’m sure it isn’t permanent. I’m sure this hasn’t affected your ability to get and maintain an erection.’ But if I politely excuse myself under the guise of figuring out a solution to his problem, well, I’ve given him hope, haven’t I? I’ve taken action. It doesn’t matter if I’m just putting dingleberries in a bowl in the bathroom down the hall—his belief in my efforts will give him something to look forward to.”

“Yeah—a bad smell afterward.”

“No, dork supreme. Motion. Momentum. Action.”

Theo looks suspicious. “What kind of action?”

Mini makes a motion to be picked up. The little dude hoists him onto his shoulder, where he perches, studying Ernie and shaking his head. “Jesus. I’ve seen puddles of puke that look better than him.” He studies Ernie some more. “Okay, I have a theory, but it’s going to take a commitment from you.”

Theo looks even more suspicious, but nods.

Mini goes on: “When did Ernie start getting better?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think.”

After a pause, Theo says, “When he was watching porn, I guess.”

“When did he start getting worse?”

“When he broke my phone.”

“In other words, when he stopped watching porn, right?”

“Coincidentally, maybe—”

“Remember our little field test at the top of Mrs. Womack’s eight-bit girder palace?”

“What field test?”

“We cued up some porn on your phone—”

“Where are you going with this?”

“If your friend was dying, would you do whatever you could to save his life?”

“I’d fight his grandma on top of an eight-bit girder palace,” Theo says, “if that’s what you mean.”

“Follow me here. Would you spend your life savings?”

All of my savings?”

“Wil Wheaton say, ‘Don’t be a dick.’”

“Fine. Yes. Whatever.”

“Would you sit bedside 24/7?”

“Sure.”

“Would you slurp your friend’s sausage?”

Theo momentarily forgets how to breathe. “Huh?”

“Seriously,” Mini says. “Let’s say he’s really sick. Like, he has inoperable cancer or something, and he only has weeks, maybe days left, and his dying wish is for a blowjob from his best friend. Would you do it?”

“No!”

“Come on, it’s his dying wish. Are you saying you’d send the poor devil off this mortal coil without ever having known the bliss of his best friend’s lips wrapped lovingly around his—”

“Dude, no.”

Mini shakes his head. “Tsk-tsk.

“What? If he’s really my best friend, then he wouldn’t want my final memories of him to be of me doing something I’m not into—something he knows I’m not into.”

“It’s no different than donating a kidney.”

“It’s very different!”

“Okay, let him sample your meat instead.”

Theo scowls. “Simply making me gay in your little scenario is not a solution.”

“You don’t have to be gay,” Mini insists.

“I sort of do.”

“Not at all. Allowing him this one opportunity to partake of your scrumptious nether regions could hardly be equated with a revamping of your entire sexuality. You’d simply be doing him a favor. Dying wish.”

“No—no oral sex! No sex of any kind between me and another dude!”

“Okay. Consolation prize. Would you let him watch porn on your phone?”

“I, er…I guess. If that’s what he wanted.” Theo clears his throat. “Again, where are you going with this?”

Mini shrugs. “Oh, nowhere. I just wanted to start with something audacious first so that when I asked you to download porn it would seem tame by comparison.” He holds up Theo’s phone. “Cue up some skin, por favor.”

Theo looks none too pleased as he takes his phone, swipes, starts tapping out his passcode—and does a double-take. “My phone! It’s…in one piece again!”

“Dude, SuperMegaNet,” Mini and I reply, both at once.

“But I thought you said the whole upload a blond, download a brunette thing was still in the works.”

“Cell phones are easy,” I reply. “It’s humans and baby seals that are tricky.”

Mini tugs at Theo’s shirt. “Porn, please.”

This is Ernie’s dying wish?” Theo exclaims. “For me to download porn for him?”

“To you and me, it’s just porn, but to Ernie, well, somewhere along the Goodale/Womack evolutionary line the libido got crossed with the digestive system. Ernie’s incessant eating is the result of generations of unnatural selection. He eats food to feed his libido, and consumes porn to feed his body.”

Theo pays Ernie another glance. “That actually makes more sense than it should.”

Mini looks pleased. “Of course it does. You and I are pretty sharp when we want to be.” He nods at me. “Now, if you’ll excuse us.”

“Oh, don’t mind me,” I reply. “I’m a fly on the wall.”

“It’s nothing personal. It’s just the whole creepy grown man watching porn with kids thing—”

And I’m out the door.

@theo

This is dumb. This is not going to work. I know what’s going on here: Ernie’s dying wish isn’t to watch porn on my phone, it’s to embarrass me by making me think he wants to watch porn on my phone, and he’s somehow coerced Mini into going along with it. I try to be helpful, and before you know it there are reaction videos of me watching porn circulating on the Internet. People will laugh at me on the street; prospective employers will do background checks and find nothing but numerous, looping videos of me getting all hot and bothered over random Internet couples having miscellaneous sex—

“What’s the delay?” Mini asks impatiently. “Kickstands or coin slots—it couldn’t be any simpler. Pick something.”

“All right, I’m looking. Don’t rush me!” A bead of manga-styled sweat trickles down my forehead. I don’t want to yield to the joke, but neither do I want to be blamed for Ernie’s death should Mini’s unnatural selection theory pan out. The path of least resistance is to simply browse Ernie’s history, which is all YouPorn URLs, and a few sites with genitalia-rhyming domain names. I tap at random and move beside Ernie’s bed, quickly aiming the phone at him as soon as the video starts playing. A man and woman stumble through an introductory minute or two of unbelievably bad dialog, then they start doing their thing…

…and a change comes over Ernie. It’s like someone’s switched from blue LED murder light to energy-inefficient incandescents. It’s like a window being opened to let a spring breeze into a stuffy classroom. It’s trying Del Taco’s dollar menu for the first time after years of subsisting on Taco Bell’s shoddy equivalent. The color’s returning to Ernie’s face; his breathing has steadied; his eyes, opening a crack and focusing on the phone, are no longer bloodshot.

This can’t be.

And yet it is.

“I’m really proud of you,” Mini says, “and am pleasantly surprised that you uploaded so readily considering Jan’s recent bad luck. You’ve got balls.” He winks at my crotch. “And shaft.”

I swat him away—

“Theo?”

—and freeze on hearing Eva’s voice cutting through the carnal mix.

Of course.

SuperMegaNet.

Always (friggin’) on.

Under the circumstances, logic suggests I should keep the phone aimed away from my face so as not to incriminate myself, but what does Idiot Horndog Theo do? He immediately turns the phone around to look at the screen and confirm that Eva has indeed messaged him—in the process framing himself, both literally and figuratively. Yep. There’s Eva all right, all groggy and bedraggled in her little SuperMegaNet window that’s placed strategically over the porn stars’ sweaty, frenetic groins. Understandably, she’s got major WTF all over her face.

“Theo,” she sighs, “are you watching porn again?”

I jab my finger at my phone’s touchscreen, trying to stop the video, suddenly forgetting everything I know about user interfaces, and somehow opening a slew of other SMN windows all at once—and the horror washes over me as I realize that Eva and everyone else on my buddy list is now peeking at their respective phone and wondering why l33t_master is watching therapeutic porn on a school night.

My brain farts audibly, instinct kicks in, and I desperately try to provide context using the only words at my disposal, those same tried-and-untrue words used the world over in situations of underaged drinking, drugs, sex, and overall shenanigans:

“It’s for a friend, I swear! It’s for a friend!

Contribute to the glorified swear jar that is #FeedErnie.