Wow. I’ve never seen anyone’s grandmother turn into a winged beast before. That was totally and completely…wow. I now understand the source of Ernie’s crude, crass behavior: the pressure of living in the lair of a shape-shifting babička has driven him partially insane—
The front door opens, closes.
Mom and Dad are home.
I’d been staring, mesmerized, at Ernie’s video feed on my computer screen, but now I quickly minimize all my SuperMegaNet windows and resume my homework, watching my parents peripherally. They whisper something to each other. Then Mom disappears into the kitchen, and Dad crosses the living room, steps into my nook, folds his arms.
I pretend to be so absorbed in my bookwork that I don’t notice him.
He raps on the desktop. “Jan.”
I look up. “Hi, Dad.”
“Have you been using your computer to upload to other people’s houses?” he asks, displeased.
Uh oh. He knows. “Houses?”
“Yes. Houses, homes, structures in which your friends reside.”
I hate lying to Dad, partly because it’s lying, but mostly because I know I’m dead meatballs if he finds out I’ve been doing something I shouldn’t. So, I try a diffuse answer first (just so you know, it’s not a lie, it’s a non-denial denial): “With our Internet connection? That would take forever. DXL Pro guarantees between 1.5 and 3 megabits per second, and we get exactly 1.5.”
Dad stares me down, waiting, the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepening.
In the kitchen, Mom starts slicing carrots. Loudly.
“Oh, yes,” Dad says with his eyes. “Your mother’s only a holler away. And you know how she likes to handle these kinds of things.”
Swift and severe. I know.
“Well,” I say, “I let my friends, um, download here once or twice, and I may have tried uploading, er, once or twice too—but it was only so that we could work on an assignment for school.”
Dad nods. “I thought it was odd, that time your computer was left running with you nowhere to be found, pillows stuffed under your blanket.”
“I never used it to do anything bad,” I say, hanging my head.
“It’s enough that you felt you had to hide it from me and your mother.”
“I wasn’t hiding it. It just…never came up.”
“It’s a chat program that lets you transport yourself between computers,” Dad says. “You’d think something as amazing as that would come up during the many times I’ve asked, ‘How was your day?’ I mean, we’re not just talking MP3s and Jay Pigs here.”
“JPEGs,” I say, correcting him.
Dad steps back, points at the hallway leading into the bedroom. “I want your computer—the tower, monitor, keyboard, and mouse—unplugged and in my room.”
“You know why.”
Because he’s afraid I’ll try uploading into a bank vault or something? “How will I do my homework?”
“There’s an old Czech technique called ‘pencil and paper.’ It’s from way back, when there weren’t any computers, when apples were eaten and windows were scrubbed. Now, get moving.”
I shut down my PC, then crawl underneath the desk, moving my dumbbells out of the way so that I can reach the power strip. I’m upset with Dad. Not so much because he’s grounding me off of SuperMegaNet (like I keep telling Ernie, we all live in the same city—we can visit each other without it), but because he doesn’t trust me. He’s lumping me into a category with the kinds of kids you hear about on the news, the ones who say “yes” to strangers. I’m mad at him for that, I’m mad at Ernie for insisting we all install SuperMegaNet in the first place—I’m mad at myself for going along with it.
I lug the computer into my parents’ room. Dad nods approvingly and tells me to go study quietly until dinner is ready.
I go back out into the living room and sit on my bed with my back against the wall, my schoolbooks spread out beside me. My desk looks so barren without the computer on it. I can see the spots where the faux-wood laminate is peeling off the pressboard. The monitor had also served as a makeshift partition between my nook and the rest of the room. Now I can see across the hall and right into the bathroom. Lucky me.
A few minutes pass, during which I try to focus on my schoolwork while Mom bangs away in the kitchen (she was the loudest cook in Brno, and now she’s the loudest in San Angelico). It doesn’t help that Dad has started puttering about in the bedroom, moving things, plugging something haphazardly into the wall outlet—my PC, I realize with a pang.
My PC with its vast collection of naked female bodybuilder pics stored conspicuously in a folder labeled “Naked Female Bodybuilder Pics.”
I hear the welcome screen chime. Dad’s set up my PC, turned it on, and is no doubt poking through my files, looking for trouble. Ježiši, if he stumbles on that folder I’ll just die. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe he’s going to reformat the entire hard drive as part of my punishment. No more Annie Rivieccio or Selena Vascularo…no more Atrocia Rivulet.
I lie down and roll onto my side, facing the wall.
This is bad. This is really bad.
After a while, I hear Dad come out of the bedroom and go into the kitchen, where he murmurs something to Mom. I’m assuming she follows him back into the bedroom, because I don’t hear anymore pots and pans clinking, and it smells like whatever she’d been cooking has started to burn.
I continue to stare at the wall. Mom and Dad come and go several times without mentioning my muscle babes—without speaking to me at all, actually—once, to take care of whatever’s burning on the stove, and then again to fetch something (beer, it sounds like) from the refrigerator. Back in their room, they start talking loudly. No, they’re laughing. And telling jokes. And getting pretty rowdy about it, too. And it sounds like there’s a third person in the room with them.
I sit upright, eyes wide. I’m sure I didn’t hear anyone come through the front door. That means…but no. My parents wouldn’t—they couldn’t be using SuperMegaNet, could they?
Tiptoeing into the hall, I press my ear up against the bedroom door. I still can’t understand a word being said, but I’m sure now: There’s a man laughing and joking with Mom and Dad, and unless he climbed in through the window, there’s no way he could’ve gotten in without being downloaded.
It’s hard to concentrate on my homework after that. I can’t help wondering what my parents are up to. Nine o’clock rolls around, and dinner still isn’t on the table. On the one hand, my muscle babes and I seem to have been forgotten. On the other, well, I seem to have been forgotten.
At nine-thirty, I clear off the bed, lie down and close my eyes. I’m not really tired, but there’s nothing else to do at the moment, and I don’t feel like lifting weights or watching TV. Without meaning to, I drift off to sleep, waking partially at regular intervals throughout the night to random bursts of laughter, whiffs of cigar smoke, beer, and cold cuts as several more of my parents’ friends download. This continues until dawn lightens the room. Usually my mom wakes me, but this morning I end up waking myself, ten minutes later than usual, which means I’ll have to walk that much faster to school.
By now I’m absolutely famished. I make my way into the kitchen—and stop dead in my tracks when I see my uncle Martin sitting there at the table, sipping a cup of coffee.
“Ah, rise and shine!” Martin exclaims, getting to his feet and stepping toward me with arms outstretched. “Look at you!” He grabs me by the shoulders, rattles me as if checking for loose teeth. “Little Jan, not so little anymore!”
“Little Jan.” That’s what they used to call me back in Brno. Little Jan, a diminutive form of my dad’s name—even though I’m as tall as he is.
“I didn’t know you were visiting,” I tell Martin.
“Neither did I! But your dad, he showed me a computer program. What do you call it? SuperMegaNet?”
“Yes,” I say, frowning.
“I uploaded straight from Brno. Your father’s going to show me the store today. Oh, it’s good to see you again, Little Jan!” He ruffles my hair and beams ear to ear.
“Well, I have to get ready for school,” I say, and go back into the living room. Dad passes me on his way into the kitchen. I give him a suspect look, but he ignores me, starts talking to Martin about this or that.
A moment later, I hear the bedroom door open. The sound of half a dozen people conversing in Czech follows my Mom out into the living room. She’s carrying a stack of dirty plates and empty beer bottles.
“Oh, good morning, Jan,” she says to me. “Time to get ready for school.” She moves on into the kitchen.
I grab a change of clothes and head into the bathroom. I’m almost finished with my shower when the unthinkable happens: one of the half-dozen people visiting my parents barges in and avails himself of the toilet. It’s only after he’s had a powerful bowel movement that he acknowledges my presence with an embarrassed apology. Then he flushes, washes his hands, and leaves the bathroom door wide open on his way out. Which means I have to pretend I’m not naked and sopping wet and extremely disconcerted as I step out of the tub, quickly walk over to the door, and slam it shut. This has to be some kind of psychological punishment for installing SuperMegaNet without my parents’ permission, some overblown example of what can supposedly go wrong when you blindly let people download into your home. What other explanation is there?
I dry off; I deodorize, throw on my clothes, mess with my hair a little bit, brush my teeth. Back in the kitchen, breakfast is nowhere to be found. All the bread and cold cuts have been eaten, and there’s trash on the table, dirty dishes in the sink…and it occurs to me that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. What if this isn’t my parents’ way of teaching me a lesson by setting a bad example? What if they’ve tried SuperMegaNet for themselves and have somehow become hooked, grounding me off the computer so that they can have it all to themselves?
My stomach grumbles. I know I’m not the talkative type, but now more than ever, I wish Theo and Eva weren’t trying so hard to keep away. I wish we could all have lunch together at our usual table. We should be there for each other. Instead? Eva’s sworn off the rest of us; Theo’s going through some kind of reclusive phase; Ernie’s probably going to be in a coma for the next few weeks after what his grandmother did to his bedroom. SuperMegaNet was supposed to have brought us together, but instead it’s driven us apart, turned my parents into strangers.