It could have been much worse. I mean, being grouped together with three idiotic boys to collaborate on homework assigned by a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking guidance counselor should have resulted in a total disaster. On any other day in any other town, it would have been a skewered reiteration of the obvious fact that the four of us are “gifted” and in dire need of lives. But we’ve beaten the odds. We’ve bypassed all that is awkward and uncomfortable about the First Day of School—and in a way that has completely changed my regard toward computers. I mean, I’ve heard of Moore’s law, I know the power of modern-day computer circuits is increasing exponentially, but a program that can turn people’s webcams into teleportation devices—that’s genius. Inconceivable. As mind-boggling as it was a hundred years ago to imagine that one day entire symphonies would be stored on cheap plastic discs.
SuperMegaNet is that next amazing thing. I don’t know how it works, but it does. I was there. In Theo’s home and, later, in Ernie’s…in Jan’s. And now I’m back at school, blinking in the dim, smoky light of Mrs. Thrailkill’s office as she goes over our questionnaires. My ordinary, mediocre life has become a dream within a dream. I don’t think I mind. I don’t think any of us minds. Each of us is tired, swollen from lack of sleep, but nevertheless beaming as we sit and wait. We’ve gotten to know each other by now, and not just because we finished our paper assignment. That came later, once each of us had finally returned home to get what little sleep there was to be had (I actually scribbled in my answers during breakfast). The real assignment lay in the populating of our respective buddy lists. I filled mine with friends from my old school: Susie, Summer, Maria, and Lily. The SMN “invite” feature let me e-mail each of the girls a copy of the installer. Once they got past the “this is a prank, isn’t it?” phase, they added me, too, and set up dates and places where we could meet in person. Theo did the same with several of his friends; Ernie (I know his name is Ernest, but he’s cool with the nickname—and besides, his maturity level is more “Ernie” than “Ernest”) and Jan followed suit.
Oh, Jan. I think of him now, tuning out whatever Mrs. Thrailkill is saying as I recall last night. For a moment I’m back in Theo’s bedroom. We’re all dressed down for the night. Sadly, Jan has put a shirt on. I felt so bad when Ernie pulled his pants down, but I enjoyed it, too. I mean, he really looks good all over, and I’m replaying the memory back in my head every chance I get. The whole night Theo’s being really nice to me, probably because I’m the girl. He seems to have some sort of obligation to put me on a pedestal—it’s flattering and annoying, and I find myself mostly ignoring him, mostly watching Jan. I can do this uninterrupted because Theo’s parents respect his privacy—but he’s a boy. I’m my daddy’s little girl, so I’m always being checked on, my dad sticking his head inside my bedroom at regular intervals and asking me, “How’s my little girl?” I always have to pretend I’m doing homework—it’s a hassle, and I wonder how I’m going to manage my SMN time without getting caught.
For now I’m allowing the risks. You’d do the same if you were me. At midnight I tell everyone goodnight, and download myself back home. It feels naughty, like I’m swimming naked in a pool full of ice cubes—not that I’ve ever done anything like that before. And not that I’m a prude either. I have nothing against those old people who run the nudist camp down at Moon River. Swimming naked in a pool filled with ice cubes is merely an approximation. I wouldn’t mind if Jan were with me.
I can’t believe what I’m about to do. Surely I’m going to get caught. I don’t even know why I’m doing it, sitting here at the computer in my mind’s eye, physically at school but mentally curled up amongst the dozen or so life-sized The Nightmare Before Christmas dolls that fill my bedroom. I’m watching, waiting for Jan to return home. When he does, I totally feel like a voyeur, for he leaves his webcam on as he shimmies out of his clothes and plops himself into bed. I wait for him to fall asleep before clicking “Visit.”
At first I think I’m in a large bedroom, but then I realize it’s a living room—Jan’s room is his parents’ living room. He has a futon tucked beside a small desk, with a dresser acting as a makeshift privacy screen (his parents get the bedroom, I’m guessing). I stand very still; my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I can see him laying sprawled between the sheets, his darling bottom clad in lime-green briefs.
My goodness. The Internet has brought out the worst in me. Here I am standing over an almost-naked boy I’ve just met, and yet I’m not caring as I’m imagining him a man, watching him sleep with his arms around his pillow—I’m wishing he was cuddling with me instead. I have to force myself to look away. Go back home, I tell myself. This isn’t right.
I can’t budge, though. In the glow of the computer screen I can make out the murky details of Jan’s space. There are dumbbells on the floor beside his backpack. I move closer to the desk and spot a variety of bodybuilding magazines stacked atop a dozen or so black and white printouts of some naked female bodybuilder named Rivieccio. Ernie had made fun of his affinity for Amazonian women, but I think it’s cute. Jan likes his women strong. I’m strong. Not musclebound, but sturdy. I’d always considered my build an unfortunate side effect of being on the wrestling team, but now…
My mind merges itself with the present-tense once again. I look at Theo, Ernie, and Jan through the carcinogenic haze of Thrailkill’s office. Everyone looks like hell. It’s been a long night. I don’t know how we’ve managed to get our assignment done. I glance over Ernie’s shoulder; his list on Jan reads:
- Has a girl’s name
- Likes to bone steroids chicks
- Has a shitty DSL connection
That fat-ass. What does he know? Jan is gorgeous. Sure, he’s frizzy, clothes loose-threaded—even his dollar store dye job has made his hair look orange instead of blond—but he’s still gorgeous. I think I’m in love. I shouldn’t feel like this, should I? I’m only twelve. It’s wrong and it’s right and I don’t know what to make of it.
“My ex-husband loved Asia,” Thrailkill snorts, bringing me back into focus. “Loved it so much he decided to marry a flight attendant after one weekend in Shanghai.” She glares at Theo. “But it’s not your fault your favorite band chose such a pretentious name.”
* * *
The euphoria wears off around lunchtime. Part of it is the fact that I’m really starting to feel the effects of last night’s SMN binge, but mostly it’s the dawning audacity of me being a ninth grader. Everyone else is taller than me. The girls have hips, boobs—and boyfriends. Their clothes are too small. I step into the Boca Linda cafeteria and it’s bare midriffs and butt cracks galore. I’m quite out of place in my jogging suit and sneakers. I feel like an uninvited guest at a masquerade party.
Walking past the jocks staging arm-wrestling matches with each other, past the nerds playing Nintendo DS, the theater queens rehearsing their lines, past the Goths counting down the minutes until their next act o
f self-mutilation, past the svelte California boys wearing the form-fitting “I was fucked over by Prop 8” T-shirts, I find my friends.
Theo waves to me, makes room for me to sit.
We’re no longer on assignment, but we stick together anyway because we know it’s pointless to try to make friends with the older kids—or to sit alone at opposite ends of the cafeteria while brooding over our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“We must look like fetuses to the others,” Theo says.
With peanut butter smearing his chin, Ernie adds, “Or circus freaks.”
Jan rests his head on the tabletop. Behind him, at the next table, a group of shaggy senior boys is giving us a “Who are you supposed to be?” kind of look.
“Fuck them,” says Ernie. “Let them smoke their cigarettes and feel each other up between class—we don’t need them. We’ve got SuperMegaNet.”
It’s a silly thing to say. Ernie looks like he means it, but I can tell there’s a trace of resentment in his voice. I want to change the subject, talk about my classes, my teachers. It won’t do any good, however. Physically we’re here, but socially we’re not. I’m feeling it through and through. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if I’m someone’s younger sister, or if I’m lost. When I show off my class schedule, I get a stupid smile in return. I’m cute, they all say. I’m special.
“I noticed last night that you all left your webcams on,” I mention after several minutes of quiet eating. “What time did you guys go to sleep?”
“Sleep is for the dead,” Ernie says, and pops open a Red Bull. (That’s his lunch: Red Bull—and Doritos.)
Theo looks curious. “Did you guys have trouble shutting off your computers, too?”
Jan lifts his head, concerned.
“Yeah,” says Ernie. “I was too tired to figure it out, though.” He glares at Theo. “Well?”
“You’re the geek, aren’t you? What’s wrong with our computers?”
Theo looks thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe SuperMegaNet is an ‘always on’ kind of thing. Like how certain games or media players disable your screensaver when you use them.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t just disabling our screensavers,” I say, “it’s keeping us from turning our computers off.”
“It could be a failsafe.”
“How’s that?” asks Ernie.
“Well, it’s probably not a good thing to have our computers turn off during a download—or before we’re able to return home.”
“So…so we have no more privacy, then?” asks Jan.
Theo adjusts his glasses. “Not as long as we’re using SuperMegaNet, I’m guessing.”
Jan swallows hard. “You mean…?”
“Yes,” says Ernie. “I’m afraid we’ll be seeing a lot more of your lime-green undies.”
I laugh, but it’s a forced sound, now that my brain is entertaining the possibilities. Oh, God—what if Theo or Ernie had seen me sneaking into Jan’s room? I study them both from behind my juice box, looking for hints, clues—thankfully Ernie starts talking about himself.
“I’m throwing a party,” he announces, emptying the rest of the Doritos bag into his mouth. “You guys are invited. You too, Eva.”
“When?” asks Jan.
“Your parents are cool with it?” asks Theo. “Or are we going to have to whisper the entire time?”
“I live with my grandparents,” says Ernie. “They stay out of my business, I stay out of their medicine cabinet.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Nothing special. Just a buddy list party.”
“So, that’s…me, Jan, and Eva.”
“For your information,” says Ernie, “while you losers slept like little girls—no offense, Eva—I was networking.”
Jan asks, “How many buddies do you have?”
“You don’t know 213 people!” Theo exclaims.
“No, but after this weekend’s shindig, I’ll be the talk of the town.”
I shake my head. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous adding random people to your buddy list—especially now that we know you can’t just turn off your SuperMegaNet connection?”
Ernie waves his hand dismissively. “Hey, you’ve got to meet people to make friends. I’m networking. And if worst comes to worst, I can always unplug the fucking power cord.”
“I suppose you’re right,” says Theo. “Still…”
“Oh, there he goes again with the worrying!” Ernie rolls his eyes and winks at Jan. “Just wait till he’s getting a lap dance from a busty college chick with a thing for bottle-end glasses. Then he’ll understand the true power of the Internet.”
What a pig. I want to chide him for being so crude, but I’m too busy scolding myself over last night’s transgression—
—I hope to God I haven’t been caught.