No one says anything during the drive home. Dad’s pretending he’s focused on the road; Mom’s quietly fuming in the passenger seat; I’m slumped in the back and wishing for things that can never be. Like time travel. But what’s done is done. No sense crying over spilled milk—or spilled eye drops, as the case may be. The secret’s out. My parents know about SuperMegaNet. They’ll probably rush into my room first thing when we get home; Mom will start dismantling my computer while Dad hauls all my furniture out into the hallway. Next will be my music, manga, and video games—everything but a blanket and pillow. The blinds will be nailed shut, the light bulbs removed from their fixtures; I’ll be instructed to remain in my room until Monday morning, at which time I’ll be allowed a shower and two slices of burned toast before I’m driven off to school in my parents’ shiny new paddy wagon.
Dad turns onto Poinsettia. Admittedly, the pine and cypress canopy at the end of the cul-de-sac looks magnificent through my new lenses. We pull into our driveway, and Dad shuts off the car engine without saying a word.
Okay. I see. The silent treatment. Fair enough.
I start to get out of the car, but stumble as I miscalculate the distance between my sneaker and the concrete. Not because of the eyesight thing, mind you, but because I’m dead tired. It makes no difference to Mom, though. She does this Xena battle-cry thing and very nearly jumps through the passenger window so that she can steady me.
“Honey, careful!” she cries. “Let me help you.”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I insist, and shrug her off. I head up the walk, taking off my shoes and setting them aside before entering the house and sitting on the guest sofa. I await my fate.
Mom and Dad come in after a while. Mom sits beside me while Dad slowly paces back and forth with his hands in his pockets. Both of them look bewildered.
“What a jerk that Dr. Kim turned out to be,” Mom says. “I can’t believe we’ve been going to him all these years.”
“Well, to be honest,” Dad says, “we haven’t been going to him. We’ve only used him to sign doctors’ forms and to keep Theo’s vaccination records up-to-date.”
“He’s a glorified stamp of approval. A checker of temperatures, a signer of forms—”
“He’s also bound by certain laws, certain rules and regulations.”
“Nuts to rules and regulations! This is my little Theo we’re talking about!”
(I hate it when Mom refers to me like that!)
Dad clears his throat uncomfortably. “I’m hungry. You guys hungry? I’m going to fix us lunch.” He goes into the kitchen.
“Are you going to ground me?” I ask quietly.
A moment passes in which Mom looks to be on the verge of tears. “Your father and I, we trust you. We know that you made a mistake, but there’s nothing that can be gained from hindsight except a lesson learned. Punishment won’t get you your sight back, nor will sitting in a corner and thinking about what you’ve done. But thinking about what you will do from this day forward, that’s worthwhile. I’m guessing you’ll be much more careful from now on?”
I give my mom a hardcore deadpan look. I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Can you believe it? She’s being so New Age right now. In fact, she’s very nearly condoning my actions! That, or she’s indeed so rattled about her little boy having lost his eyesight that she can’t bear to make him more miserable than he already is. Any other mom would’ve ripped me a new one by now. But not Mom. She feels I’ve suffered enough—I hate her for it. I hate her for not stopping me from destroying myself. I want her to yell at me, to punish me, to beat the fear of the Internet into me so that I’ll no longer want anything to do with SuperMegaNet.
Instead, she hugs me and presses me into her arms and weeps for a few minutes. In the end, I’m the one doing the consoling, the coaxing, the coddling.
“Don’t worry,” I say, smoothing her hair, trying to calm her down enough so that I can extricate myself from this totally awkward moment. “We’ll get through this. We will.”
She continues crying for a while longer before finally letting go of me, leaning back, and patting at her cheeks with the backs of her hands. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be freaking out like this, now should I?”
Yes! Please, freak out! Use your anger! It makes you stronger! “It’s okay.”
“You poor thing. You look so tired. Why don’t you go upstairs and take a nap?”
I nod, getting to my feet.
Mom stands, too, and grips my shoulders. “In the meantime, I’m canceling all my appointments and parking myself in front of the computer for the rest of the afternoon. If Dr. Kim won’t fix you, I’m sure I can use Google to find someone who will. Don’t you worry.”
I let her kiss my forehead; I let her smooth my hair; I let her drift down the hall on high hopes. I should be at least marginally happy that I’ve not been reprimanded, but I’m not. In fact, I feel all the heavier as I climb the stairs and shuffle toward my room.
Inside, I close and lock the door behind me. I want to snuggle up in my bed, but am too tired to clear off Beta’s junk, so I head for my sleeping bag on the floor—and stop two steps in, sensing that something’s not right. Someone’s been here recently, someone beside Beta. There are chocolate smudges on my desktop, there’s a residue of fat in the air—Ernie’s sitting cross-legged beside my dresser. He’s got a large pizza box in his lap and the most pathetic expression on his face.
“Hey,” he says, smiling wanly.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“I came to bury the ratchet.”
I stare at him.
He stares back.
He really does look pathetic.
I sit beside him with my legs drawn up, my chin resting on my knees. “I think you mean, ‘bury the hatchet.’” Pause. Then, quietly: “Fat-ass.”
Ernie slides the pizza box in front of me. “I got you a little present. I know you’re a vegetarian and all, so I ordered half with sausage and pepperoni, half with bell peppers, olives, and onions.”
I lift the cover, peek inside. Two remaining slices are swimming in a pool of grease. “Ernie, you’ve practically eaten the whole thing.” (Not that I’d care to clog my colon anyhow.)
“I know. I ate my half…and some of yours. I didn’t know how long it would be before you got home.”
“Well, I’m here. What did you want?”
Ernie pouts at me. “Don’t tell your parents.”
“I already did.”
“Fuck.” Ernie splays his legs, stares sullenly at his feet. “So…I guess you got your eyes fixed?”
I shake my head. “My doctor won’t look at me. I have to wear these special contacts if I want to see.”
“I heard they have X-ray contacts that let you see through a girl’s clothes. Do yours do that?”
“Can you watch 3D movies on them?”
Ernie looks disappointed. “Oh, well. I guess they’re still kind of cool anyway.”
A moment of silence.
“So, I bet you’re grounded, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think my parents are using some kind of guilt thing against me. My mom says she trusts me. My dad’s making me lunch.”
“Fucking rich people. Afraid to get your hands dirty with a good old-fashioned ass-spanking, so you turn everything into psychological timeout.”
“I’m not rich.”
“You’re well-to-fucking-do, then.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve seen your house, and I’ve seen Eva’s, and Jan’s. Me and Eva are middle-class. Jan’s mud-hut poor. You, you’re a fucking rich white boy.”
“Dude,” I say, “I’m half Asian.”
“Okay, so you’re a rich, white, Asian.”
I shake my head. “Ernie, is there a point to this conversation?”
Ernie shrugs. “Not really. I just wanted to get in some quality time.”
“Okay, well, it’s been a blast. Now, can you go away and let me take a nap?”
Ernie starts to get up, stops, plops himself back down and blurts out, “I don’t want to go.”
Oh, geez. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t know if I’ll ever come back.”
“We live in the same town, you know,” I remind him. “We don’t need SuperMegaNet to hang out.”
“But we don’t. Hang out, I mean. You’re always at your mom’s gym, or at that shrink of yours. Eva’s always at practice. Jan…well, he’s always home—but his Internet connection is so shitty I may as well not know him at all.”
“Maybe that’s the point.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe SuperMegaNet started something that wasn’t meant to be.”
“That’s dumb,” Ernie says. “You’re over-analyzing.”
“I’m just saying that the Internet makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do. We treat each other like screen names instead of like actual people. The Internet makes us weird.”
“Dude, we’re already weird.”
A look of denial accidentally crosses my face for a second.
Ernie catches it, jabs his finger at me. “You especially, Biclops! I mean, a Russian-Chinese half-breed who listens to Asia, a band that has no Asian members and whose music has nothing to do with the actual continent besides the fact that they once played in Japan in 1983? Come on!”
“We need to make non-Internet friends,” I say, choosing to ignore the Asia comment. “Real friends.”
“I see what’s happening here,” Ernie says. “You want to force-feed Eva your meat, she’ll have none of it, and so now you’re going to take your epic fail and fuck off for a while.”
“Meanwhile, me and Janny Boy are collateral damage. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career after he made Collateral Damage.”
“I don’t understand why it matters so much to you. You’ve got your 213 SuperMegaNet friends, right?”
Ernie sighs, long and low, causing the air around him to smell like Skittles. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.”
“I don’t have any friends. Those 213 losers on my buddy list…they’re just screen names, people I added to make my list look cool. I don’t know any of them.”
“Big deal,” I say. “I already knew that.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t know anyone else, either.”
“What about offline friends? From your neighborhood, your old school?”
“Dude, no one wants to hang with a loud-mouthed fat-ass who, until I was assigned to you guys, spends all his time gaming and eating and doing homework just so he can keep his grades barely above the threshold that allows him to keep his ‘special’ status.”
“But…what about…?” I trail off. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, well, now you do. That’s why SuperMegaNet is so important to me. You guys are all I have.”
I narrow my eyes. “You’re lying—this is just some scheme to trick me into changing my mind.”
“I’d never lie about being this pathetic.”
“That’s probably true,” I say, considering.
Not waiting for me to work it out in my head, Ernie play-hugs me, pretends to kiss me. “Come on. Let’s stay friends, ’kay?”
I push him away—but not before I hear Jan’s voice through my computer speakers:
“Hey, what are you guys doing?”
“Trying to have make-up sex!” Ernie screams. “Fuck off, Czech!”
“Ew, no!” I gasp, and jump to my feet, brush myself off (because that’s what you do when your fat, same-sex friend tries to make out with you).
Ernie laughs. “Dude, I was kidding. I don’t even like Asians. Especially not half-breeds—”
Mom knocks on the bedroom door. “Theo?”
Ernie wobbles to his feet, makes as if to hide.
“No,” I tell him. “It doesn’t matter. She knows.” I go over to the door, unlocking and opening it.
Mom steps inside.
Ernie’s red in the face…though I can tell by the way he’s sneaking glances at Mom’s legs that he’s not entirely averse to her presence.
“Hello, Mrs. Smole,” he says.
Mom nods at him. “Ernie, right?”
“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. It’s my good pal Theo here I’m worried about.” He puts his arm around my shoulders and squeezes. “I hear he’s going through some dark times.”
I glare at him. “Time to go home.”
He nods sheepishly, goes over to my computer, clicks the “Send Home” button—and starts shrieking horribly as he begins to upload.
Mom cups her hand over her mouth—
—and just as suddenly as he started screaming, Ernie starts giggling as the last of him fades away. “Just kidding! Later, Mrs. S!”
I glance over at my mom.
“My goodness,” she says after a moment. “What computers can do these days.”