Ernie’s sour attitude is sucking the life out of an otherwise sunny, blue-skied Friday afternoon.
“What kind of school is this?” he cries, and plops himself across the table from me. Beside him, Theo scowls and makes room.
“What’s the matter?” asks Jan.
“A couple of idiot boys in my English class stole my cell phone and were looking through my pictures. They saw the Playboy chicks I have on there and told the teacher I was looking at porn during class! So the teacher took my phone away and told me to behave!”
“That’s your fault,” Theo points out, “for keeping pictures of naked women on your cell phone.”
“It’s my phone,” Ernie says. “I should be able to keep anything I want on there!”
“All I’m saying is—”
“No one questioned those ass-wipes stealing my shit! They’re the ones who misbehaved. Just because I have naked chicks on my phone doesn’t mean I look at them during class time. I had those pics on there at my old school, too, and no one ever took my phone. Kids were mature about things like that. These goddamned high schoolers…they just want to make it obvious that I don’t fit in.”
“None of us fits in,” I say, trying to be comforting simply because I don’t like the other students looking at our table whenever Ernie yells something. This first week at Boca Linda has been easy for me. The boys have been busy hitting on girls their own age; the girls treat me as one of their own. From a distance, yes—but no one has bullied me. That’s a guy thing. “Tell me it was any better when we were with kids our own age.”
Ernie seems not to hear. “They think I’m so fucking amusing because of my weight. Theo’s probably picked on because of his glasses, Jan because of his accent. And if you had boobs, Eva, they’d probably be too saggy or lopsided. Everyone’s a critic around here.”
I nearly choke on my apple juice, that uppity voice in the back of my head exclaiming, “He did not just make fun of my flatness!”
I clear my throat. “You’ve got boobs—is that what they say about them?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Theo tries to hide his laughter.
Jan (perhaps on purpose, perhaps not) draws attention away from my insult: “Did you do anything to provoke the boys who stole your phone?”
“No!” Ernie pauses. “Well, I might have said something beforehand.”
“What did you say?” asks Theo.
Ernie rolls his eyes. “They were talking nonstop about their girlfriends. Annoying shit like, ‘I swear I was doing her so hard I ruptured her cervix when I came.’ So I turned around and said, ‘Maybe if you didn’t stick your dick into every random girl who breezed by it wouldn’t burn when you pee in the morning and you wouldn’t have to spend your weekends waiting in line at the free clinic.’”
Jan giggles. “That’s pretty funny.”
“That’s rude,” I correct, though I’m charmed by Jan’s laughter, intoxicated by his toothy smile. And, truthfully, Ernie’s statement isn’t without merit.
“Yeah,” Ernie says, “but they were asking for it—and I’m the one who gets punished. Apparently talking about monster cocks and cervices during class is far more acceptable than my having some inappropriate pics stored away on my cell phone.” He digs into his backpack, pulls out a box of peanut butter wafers, a bag of M&Ms, and a can of soda. He slams each item on the tabletop in succession. “Fuck them all.”
Theo looks at the snacks with a worried expression. “That’s your lunch?”
(Theo’s what you’d call a health nut. When it comes to food, he shops exclusively at the local Vitamart, where everything is organic—which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except that he tends to fret way too much over other people’s eating habits. Sort of a “you shouldn’t eat that because it’s bad for you” thing. It bugs me.)
“Did you rob a convenience store?” I ask Ernie.
“Har-har,” he replies, flicking me off. He faces Theo and Jan. “Actually, check this out. This pedophile guy downloads into my bedroom, right? He’s got a privacy screen with him, but it isn’t working—the fucking perv is standing there naked and trying to get his jollies watching me sleep. I catch him in the act and he loses it, starts groveling at my feet not to tell. So, I strike a deal: he has to supply me with unlimited snacks or else I’ll go to the police.”
I don’t usually resort to metaphorical descriptions, but dead silence literally falls over the table like an oppressive fog (Theo even waves his hand in the air, as if trying to chase some of it away). Ernie’s beaming with pride, but the rest of us are aghast.
After a moment I find my voice: “You’re blackmailing a pedophile?”
Ernie shrugs, pops a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. “We have an agreement.”
“Even though he’s a sexual deviant.”
“His problem, not mine.”
“Ernie, you’re twelve years old. You’re his type. It might very well become your problem!”
“He wouldn’t dare touch me.”
“That’s all good and well,” I say, “but we’re on your buddy list, too. What if he takes a liking to one of us?”
“Relax. He only likes boys.” Ernie ruffles Theo’s hair; Theo swats back. “If Robbie takes a liking to anyone, it’ll be Theo here.”
The dire expression on Theo’s face says it all: I don’t want to wake up with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile snuggled up beside me!
“You’re an idiot, Ernie,” I say. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”
Ernie snorts—and catches me completely off guard with his next statement. “No more so than your sneaking into Jan’s bedroom the other night.”
Ernie is gorging himself on wafers, taking them two at a time; this spectacle is secondary to what Theo and Jan are shooting me: two perfectly composed expressions of, “What the hell?” Gradually I hear a slight choking beside me. Jan is reaching somewhere deep inside his impeccably placid facade for a handful of outrage.
“I can’t believe you spied on me!” he cries.
I disregard him out of necessity, aim my wrath squarely at Ernie. “I can’t believe you said that!”
Ernie, between gulps of carbonated corn syrup: “I can’t believe you’re a voyeur.”
Ugh! I want to leave this instant, but I won’t give Ernie the pleasure of knowing he’s pissed me off. Suddenly the rest of my turkey sandwich is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted, and I avail myself of it, head bowed, eyes on my napkin.
The others are talking about me as if I’m not even here:
“Are you serious? She was…she was in my room?”
“Yeah, man. That first night we all got together. But don’t worry, she didn’t take photos or anything. Not that I noticed. Nice undies, by the way.”
“Wait—you were watching her watch me?”
“Your webcam was on.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up or something?”
“I was captivated by your undies.”
“Ugh! You’re as bad as she i
An uneasy silence passes between us. No doubt we’re all thinking the same thing: SuperMegaNet has turned us into a bunch of voyeurs—and Ernie is friends with a pedo.
And Jan will probably never speak to me again.
Ernie belches loudly, and I look up. “You guys are still on for tonight, right?”
“What’s tonight?” Theo asks.
“Duh. My buddy list party.”
“Are you sure there’s room for us and your 213 friends?” I ask, bitter, unable to help myself.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s going to be great. Tell Summer to come—her and any other lovelies on your list. Theo, you can bring that Beta fellow.”
Theo cringes. “You were spying on me, too?”
“Oh, come on, guys!” Ernie exclaims. “This is the nature of the program! Of course we’re going to see each other changing for school or blasting farts in our sleep. So what? We’re roommates. What if we were in college together? Would you still be overreacting like this?” When he gets nothing from the others, he taps my hand, smearing peanut butter on my knuckles. “Are you coming tonight, Eva?”
I grab my things and leave the table.
Fuck you, Ernie.
I never wanted to be your friend anyway.