Note: This episode is a little longer than usual to make up for my absence last week. Influenza sucks. Anyway, I’ve thrown together some leftover characters from Heroes’ Day and an insight into how Ernie and Eva get along. Deep stuff.
* * *
The party’s going to suck. I’m sitting here at my computer, my SMN window glowing dutifully in front of me…and I’m marveling at the odds. 213 friends on my list and not a single one has responded to my invitation. What’s up with that?
Earlier in the afternoon, my grandparents had caught me sneaking the extra folding chairs from the garage to my bedroom. Once they realized I was setting up for guests, it was all over. They grounded me to my room for the night to repent my sins. Still, I’d had hope. My computer’s here in my room; my friends could have all downloaded without trouble. As for snacks, I was going to hit up Robbie anyway, so again, the show would go on. Sure, we’d all have to keep our voices down, but…well…aw, shit. Who am I kidding? It’s almost five o’clock and there’s no sign anyone’s coming. Even if they did, it would be a totally lame affair.
I lean back in my chair, rub my eyes. I’ve nearly emptied a 2-liter of Diet Coke, but it hasn’t made me feel the slightest bit better.
Five thirty creeps around.
On my screen, Theo, Jan, and Eva’s SMN windows are still empty.
This sucks hairy wet ass. Where the hell is everyone? Being a jockette, Eva can explain her absence—she’s probably at wrestling practice. Jan, well, he’s poor, and so probably has to walk home from school (meaning he might not be due home until seven or eight, depending on which chain gangs are working his neighborhood). But Theo, he’s all nerd. He has no excuse for not going directly home to study. Unless…unless Eva, angry at me for spilling her “secret” during lunch, somehow got the others to boycott the party. Maybe everyone’s hiding off-camera, avoiding me, going about their routines as if I don’t even exist.
Now I’m curious—and paranoid. Without thinking, I upload myself into Theo’s bedroom. He’s not there.
I tell myself he’s decided to hang out in his parents’ living room or something. Maybe he’s making a sandwich in the kitchen. I cross the bedroom, opening the door and stepping out into the hallway of some kind of Zen monastery. Everything’s clean, proper, uber artsy. It looks like an Asian family lives here. At the end of the hall is a staircase (so, Theo’s parents own a two-story house, apparently). Down I go, with two choices of direction once I reach the bottom: the dining room—and a converted shoin, complete with grass mats, sliding doors, bonsai, wall hangings, and incense.
I’m wondering if Theo’s parents adopted him when I make the transition into the dining room—and there they are, sitting at the dinner table. Theo’s blond-haired, blue-eyed mom and his 100% Chinese-looking father.
I stop dead in my tracks, caught. Game over. The gig’s up.
“Er, hello there,” says Mrs. Smole. She sets down her mug. “Who might you be?”
My usual eloquence escapes me—so I make my shit up as I go along. “I’m Theo’s friend. From school. I hope I didn’t startle you. I’m from back east. We all leave our front doors open.” I think. I hope.
Mrs. Smole smiles. She doesn’t look like a mom. She looks like a college girl. She’s trim, athletic—hot. Hot enough that I’m guessing her Chinaman beau fell in love with her so hard he took her last name when they got married. “Theo’s friend, eh?”
“Um…yeah. Well, I mean, we only met on Monday ’cuz we’re in the same program and all, but I consider him a friend, yeah.”
“Funny. He’s never mentioned you before.”
“Or anyone else, for that matter,” adds Mr. Smole.
Mrs. Smole clarifies: “Theo’s not very, ah, social. He rarely brings his friends over. You’re the first, actually.”
“Do you have a name?” asks Mr. Smole, smiling, gesturing for me to approach the table, “or do we simply call you ‘Theo’s friend’?”
I step forward, my tensions easing a bit. “Oh, I’m Ernie.”
We all shake hands; Mrs. Smole offers me a seat, a cup of tea.
“That’s very kind of you,” I say, “but I’m more of a hot chocolate kind of guy. Say, is Theo still on for our little get-together tonight?”
Theo’s parents look questioningly at each other.
“Get-together?” asks Mr. Smole after a moment.
I shrug. “Yeah. A DVD, some popcorn…maybe a few scoops of ice cream, if you’ve got any laying around. But I totally understand if tonight’s not a good night. That’s why I wanted to touch base with you first, make sure Theo’s got all his homework done and the like. You know how boys can be.”
Mrs. Smole laughs. “Such an old soul you are!” She rises from her chair, smooths her skintight T-shirt (which doesn’t need any smoothing whatsoever, I can tell you). “Theo’s with his therapist right now, but I’m actually going to pick him up in, like, ten minutes or so. Dr. Chandelier is always talking about the benefits of friends and activities—I’m sure Theo would love to have you over. I know I would.”
Love’s an apt word. I’m definitely feeling it. I wonder how Theo manages not to sport a raging hard-on at all hours of the day and night with this fine piece of ass living under the same roof. His mom’s trying to be dignified, but I can see in her face that she’s thrilled her son’s supposedly demonstrated a semblance of normality. Who cares if it’s a lie? It’s a productive lie.
Mrs. Smole leaves to pick up Theo. Meanwhile, Mr. Smole invites me into the den, where we set out cups, plates, snacks. It’s all healthy junk food, but it’s better than nothing at all. So I smile and nod and say “thank you” and “yes, sir” and all the other things an adorable little fat boy like myself should say when he wants to charm his way into the hearts of an unsuspecting family.
Five minutes in, I ask to use the bathroom. Mr. Smole cheerfully waves me upstairs; I take the opportunity to duck into Theo’s room and upload myself back home. The timing is beautiful, as Eva is just walking into her bedroom.
I adjust my webcam, clear my throat. “Hi, Eva.”
She ignores me for a moment, sets down her shopping bag and fiddles with her computer—I can tell she’s trying to figure out a way to turn me off, but she can’t.
I say, “I’m sorry for what happened at lunchtime.”
Eva frowns. “Yeah, well, it’s a little late for that now.”
“It would have come out sooner or later. I just wish I hadn’t blurted it out like that.”
She says nothing. She knows I’m right.
“Our cams are on 24/7. We’re linked together for good. Did you think no one was ever going to peek?”
“I don’t know what to think,” Eva says, finally looking at me. “I never planned on finding a program like this, or meeting people like you.”
“You mean fat and obnoxious people?”
She sighs. “You don’t think before you speak. You don’t take anything seriously.”
“If that’s true, why am I talking to
you right now?”
“I don’t know. That worries me. So does the Robbie thing. And telling everyone I was in Jan’s room.”
“Because you can’t run away and hide from it like you’d normally be able to.”
I’m being serious, but Eva takes it the wrong way. “You’re such a jerk, Ernie.”
“And you are a pessimist. You automatically assume everything I say is meant to harass you.”
“I’m not a pessimist!” Eva exclaims.
I hold up my hands. “Okay, you’re not. But let’s just…let’s just put it past us. We’re stuck together. For better or for worse. We have to be accountable. We all knew what you did, Eva—well, everyone besides Jan—and now we all have to deal with it. We have to move on.”
Eva’s face pales. “Theo knew? Why’d he act so surprised?”
“Theo always looks surprised.” I pause, wondering… “You like him or something?”
“I meant Jan.”
Eva looks away, bites her lip—and holy shit, I see it now. She totally digs Jan; she’s out for more than just a glimpse of him in his undies.
“Come to the party,” I say, trying to sound gentle, supportive. “It’ll all work out, you’ll see.”
“I can’t,” Eva replies. “Even if I wanted to. It would be awkward.”
“Yes, but not impossible. He’s asking about you.”
I’m lying, actually. “I talked to him earlier, and he said he doesn’t want one mistake to ruin a whole school year of possibility. He’s totally willing to forgive and forget. If you don’t show up, it’ll look like you don’t care. He’ll see you online every day after school and he’ll wonder why you’re ignoring him.”
“Oh, he’ll know why I’m ignoring him.”
“That won’t solve anything, Eva.”
She plays with her mouse. “Geez…”
“We’re really stuck together, aren’t we?”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“It can be.”
“If you think negatively.”
Eva sighs. “I can’t go to the party.”
“My parents would never approve of me downloading into a boy’s bedroom.”
“Ah!” I exclaim. “So you admit maybe it’s not so bad meeting with Jan again after all!”
“Maybe. But the timing would never work.”
“Lock your door,” I say. “Tell your parents you’re studying for an hour. If it makes you feel any better, we’re going to be in Theo’s living room. No sex or drugs or anything.”
“Really?” Eva looks surprised. “How’d you manage that?”
“I’m friends with his parents. They set up the whole thing. Please come.”
“Wait, so they know about SuperMegaNet?”
“Well,” I say, “they know that Theo’s having some friends from school over.”
It takes her a moment to decide. I can tell she’s oscillating between responsible daughter and naughty little girl—and even though she’s embarrassed by what she did to Jan, she so wants to see him again.
Eventually, she says, “If I go to the party, you have to do something for me.”
“You have to cut Robbie off from this point forward.”
“But SuperMegaNet doesn’t let you delete friends—”
“I know. Just don’t go to him for junk food anymore. Ignore him.”
“Now wait a minute,” I say. “Why shouldn’t I take advantage of the guy who wanted to use me as his own personal masturbatory aid?” But I can see it in her eyes: One more sugary deal with that pervert and I won’t be your friend. I guess I should be flattered; a cute girl (bug-eyed, yes, but still cute) is willing to work things out with me. My only problem is snacks. It’s been a good week in that department, and I’m hesitant to give it up. Theo’s fridge and pantry are loaded with wheat grass and tofu products; Jan’s probably too poor to afford more than beans and tortillas (or whatever the Czech equivalent is); Eva’s a possibility, though her parents may or may not be as athletically inclined as she is, and they may or may not eat shit and work it off afterward. They could be just as prudish with the groceries as the Smoles.
Goddamnit. Time’s passing. Theo’s dad is probably wondering where the hell I am. I make a mental note to raid Eva’s fridge before agreeing to her terms—and insisting that she bring two friends with her to the party.
“Why two?” she asks.
“Why not? You don’t have two friends?”
“I have more than two friends.”
“Fine, then. You should have no problem bringing a pair.”
Eva smiles. “It sounds like you’re trying to make up for an empty guest list.”
I’m starting to get annoyed. “Come on, Eva. We’re wasting time here.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll see if Summer and Lily want to come. That way we can talk to each other instead of having to talk to you.”
“When do we download?”
“Um, ten minutes.” That should be enough time for Jan to trickle in. I switch SMN windows; he’s sitting at his desk, slurping soup.
“Jan,” I say.
He blinks, reaches out and taps his keyboard. “Oh, hey, Ernie.”
“Upload to Theo’s place.”
“Because he wants us to help him with something. I don’t know exactly what, but he seemed pretty insistent about it.”
Jan’s expression turns grave. He sets down his bowl. “Is he okay?”
“I don’t know. Me and Eva are uploading there now. Hurry.”
I don’t wait for an answer. Hopefully my urgency will supplant the need for a proper explanation. I upload myself back into Theo’s bedroom—just as Theo himself arrives home. Before he can say a word, I slam the door and lock it.
“Why are you home so friggin’ late?” I ask, grinning.
“I always get home late,” Theo replies, setting down his duffel bag. “Five on Mondays through Thursdays, six on Fridays.”
I notice out of the corner of my eye a pair of sneakered feet slowly materializing beside Theo. “Where the hell do you go?”
Theo looks embarrassed. “My mom’s gym.”
“The gym? You work out?”
“Nothing. It’s just I’m the only fat-ass in a quartet of hard-bodies.”
Theo sighs, steps further into his room and looks around for any signs of tampering on my part. “It’s therapeutic, actually. I have trouble sleeping at night. My doctor recommends daily physical exercise to help burn off excess energy.” He turns around and faces me, folds his arms. “What’s this about a party?”
I start to explain, but at that moment three distinct shapes begin to materialize in Theo’s room.
Eva and her friends.
(Jan’s made it up to his knees.)
I only have a moment to reassure Theo, so I step forward, take him by the shoulders, and say, &ld
quo;We’re in high school now. Make this work for me, Theo. For us.”
Theo starts to answer—
—I cut him off: “I don’t want to be the fat kid with no friends. You don’t want to be the geek who’s never had a gaggle of cute girls over his house.”
“But you didn’t even ask me, you just invited yourself over—”
“Then I’m asking now.” I give Theo a hug. “Friend to friend, pal to pal. I need you, man. You need me.”
Shit. That wasn’t Theo clearing his throat. I peek around his neck and see that the girls have finished downloading. They’re looking at us with amused, slightly grossed-out expressions on their faces.
I immediately let go of Theo and face them wide-eyed. “Theo’s, uh, pet hamster died. I was just…being there for him, that’s all.”
Eva shakes her head and introduces her friends. I give Summer the look-over. Blond, bright gray eyes, she’s one of those gymnast-cheerleader types whose hand print P.E. shorts, tank top, and thong sandals do well to showcase her bod in that typically careless way girls seem to prefer. She’s got a Shawn Johnson-during-the-2008 Beijing Games thing going, small, husky, but certainly not fat—and without the Topo Gigio look. She’s cute as a button, hot as a summer day, but the look behind her eyes is cold as ice. Already she’s written me off as a blundering fat-ass, which may be a fair assessment, if somewhat premature.
Lily’s poofy-haired, and is wearing fetching baby-blue sweatpants and a midriff-baring sweatshirt. She’s a non-Asian version of Amy Wong from Futurama. When she sits or squats, the top of her butt crack shows. I guess that answers the age-old question: Do gymnasts wear undies? This one doesn’t, and it makes her look kind of slutty—which shouldn’t bother me. I mean, I look at slutty women all the time on the Internet. But when I see girls my age dress like exhibitionists at school I start imagining myself as the older brother. They don’t even have tits yet and they’re showing it all off. It just irks me. Like when boys sag. I want to go up to them and demand, “Who the fuck asked to see your boxers, dude?”
We all shake hands. I gesture at Theo. “This is Theo, the smart one.”
“And this is Ernie,” Theo shoots back. “The fat one.”
Summer chuckles, notices Jan, who’s waist has just appeared. “Who’s that?”
“Jan,” Eva offers, looking the slightest bit nervous.
“The poor one,” I add. I’m trying to be charming, but instead everyone just glares at me. “Er, maybe we should wait for him downstairs.”
Theo stops me before I reach the door. “What about my parents?”
“I told you, they’re cool.”
“About the party, maybe, but what about the idea of a bunch of people downloading into my bedroom?”
“Hmm. You’re right.” I rub my chin. “Can you create some kind of diversion?”
“I don’t know…draw your mom and dad away from the den so we can sneak in?”
“And later, when it’s time for everyone to go home?”
Damn it, does he have to worry about every last detail? “We’ll figure that out when the time comes.”
Lily puts her hands on her hips. “You two haven’t thought this through, have you?”
Theo jabs his finger in my direction. “This is all his work!”
“Quiet!” Eva hisses. She turns to Theo. “Why don’t you check out the situation downstairs so we know what our options are?”
He nods, sticks his tongue out at me, and leaves the room, closing the door behind him.
The rest of us sit on the floor, waiting. Beside us, Jan quietly continues downloading.
I nod at Eva. “So, how’d you girls meet?”
Eva shrugs. “We met while my old wrestling team was competing in Wisconsin. Lily’s mom was putting us up for the weekend.”
Summer, to Eva: “How’d you meet Ernie?”
“A school project,” answers Eva, rolling her eyes. “It’s kind of snowballed, thanks to the SuperMegaNet thing.”
Lily nods. “I know. Isn’t it freaky?”
“You know what’s really freaky?” asks Summer. “This room. I’ve never seen a boy’s bedroom so neat and clean.”
We all fall quiet for a moment, appreciating the Zen, using it as an excuse not to look at each other. It’s hard, because Summer is chewing gum, smacking her lips—all but demanding attention.
Eventually I open my big mouth: “So, you guys think Theo was adopted?”
Eva raises her eyebrows. “Why would he be?”
“He looks nothing like his parents.” I get up and go over to Theo’s desk; sure enough, there’s a small framed family portrait resting beside one of the computer speakers. I hand it to the girls to pass around.
“Wow,” Summer says, “you’re not kidding.”
“His mom looks like Elena Zamolodchikova,” says Lily.
“I can’t believe she’s a day over twenty-one,” says Eva. “I hope I look that good when I’m her age.”
“Must be all the homeopathic remedies and organic foods,” I say.
“Seems to work,” Summer says. “Theo has one of the nicest complexions I’ve ever seen—”
The bedroom door flies open; Theo stumbles in. He looks freaked out.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, getting up along with everyone else.
“This isn’t going to work,” Theo says. “My mom and dad want to meet everyone’s parents and set up trips to the mall, the movies—if they find out how you all got here…”
“Dude, relax, we’ll figure it out. How about this: You tell your parents that—”
“What’s going on?”
I look over my shoulder to see that Jan’s finished downloading and is now looking at everyone with a quizzical expression on his face.
“I think,” Summer says, “it’s time for everyone to go home. Oh, I’m Summer, by the way. This is Lily.”
Jan and the girls shake hands. Summer whispers something into Lily’s ear, causing her to giggle.
“But we haven’t even gotten to the snacks!” I cry.
“There’ll be other times,” Eva assures me. “For now it’s enough that we’ve met each other.”
“Could someone please tell me what’s going on?” asks Jan.
I sigh. “It’s time to go home. That’s what’s going on.”
He blinks at me. “But I just got here.”
In answer, I walk over to Theo’s computer and click the “Send Home” button.
“Hey!” he yelps—but it’s too late. His head has already begun to pixelize.
“Was that really necessary?” asks Eva.
I shrug. “Meh.”
“He’s been in transit for the last ten minutes,” Theo points out. “You could have let him go last.”
“Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Party’s over.” I retreat to my own corner of the room and slide down onto the floor. I hold my head in my hands and try to figure out where I went wrong. Was it the timing? The lies? Does God merely hate me?
The others whisper goodbye to each other, eventually uploading home. Eva’s the last the go. Before she does,
she comes over to where I am, squats beside me.
“You didn’t want to have a party so that me and Jan could patch things up, did you?”
I look up. Theo is fidgeting over by his desk.
“You did it,” Eva continues, “because no one on your buddy list responded to your invitation. You couldn’t stand not being popular, so you convinced yourself even if it was just the six of us, you could forgo the failure of not having a party at all by calling us here for an impromptu.”
My insides recoil. How the fuck does she know this shit? “And you only came to keep me from seeing Robbie again.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”
“Thanks. That makes me feel so much better.”
“You don’t need to be sarcastic.”
“I’m the fat kid. Of course I do.”
Eva sighs, straightening. “Goodnight, Ernie.” She steps in front of Theo’s computer, nodding at him to send her home. In a moment she’s gone.
“Your turn,” Theo says softly.
I get up. I assume the position.
“If it’s any consolation, my parents seem to love you.”
“It’ll work out better next time.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, though I don’t care if there’s a next time, because no matter what the possibilities are, we’re all still kids subject to our parents’ rules.
We’re all still stuck.
“Goodnight,” I mumble.
Theo sends me home.