Jan’s the quiet, disinterested type, the guy who stands nondescript at the edge of a crowd gathered around a seizing shopping mall Santa. He’s not shy or introverted or an asshole or anything (he’ll wait to take pictures with his cell phone until after he’s called 911). He just doesn’t overreact like everyone else. That’s why it bothers me to hear him talking like he’s talking. It’s not what he’s said, it’s how he’s said it. He’s concerned, maybe even worried. “I’m kind of in bad trouble.” That could mean, “I lost my legs in a bet.” Or, “I’ve killed someone.” Or even, “I got lost in the Boca Linda stacks and read from this really old book and I think I’ve accidentally opened the gates of hell.”
The next words out of his mouth could deliver an awful truth—so, naturally, my first instinct isn’t to ask what’s wrong, but to stall for as long as possible. “How come I don’t recognize your number?”
“Oh, I dropped my phone down a storm drain while waiting for the bus,” Jan says. “I’m…borrowing someone else’s.”
“Whose?” What’s the make? The model? Does it run Android? Have you ever played Angry Birds?
“Do you remember Ernie’s sugar daddy?”
“You mean that time he stuck a celery stalk in a mixing bowl full of caramel and brought it to school as health food?”
“No, I’m talking about the…wait, Ernie made his own Sugar Daddy?”
“It was more of an edible heart attack.”
“He really does work hard at his snacks, doesn’t he?”
“If only he put as much effort into his homework. You were saying about his sugar daddy?”
“Oh, yeah. The pervert he chainmailed into buying him all that junk food.”
“Yes, blackmailed. He’s here in town.”
I cringe. “He is?”
“I sort of hitched a ride with him. And borrowed his phone.”
“Dude. Why in the world would you hitchhike with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile?”
“I didn’t know it was him when I got in the car.”
“And you’re sure it’s him?”
“He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and his backseat was filled with honey buns, and he had the Justin Bieber album in his CD player, and Ernie’s picture on his dashboard.”
Jan pauses for a moment. “Why?”
“Because,” I say, “this is the only time in Ernie’s life that anyone’s actually driven from two states over to make a love connection with him—and it’s a grown man.”
“Hm. It definitely looked like he’s driven down here to, er, see Ernie. If you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, well, that’s what he gets for fucking around on the Internet.”
“Anyway, he stopped at a gas station, and I sneaked away. I know it’s last minute and all, but…” Jan trails off. It sounds like he’s arguing with a very small child. He sighs.“I was wondering if I could possibly stay at your place tonight.”
I glance around the ruins of my bedroom. At the moment, it’s the last place you’d ever want to invite anybody. But if Jan needs somewhere to crash, I’m not about to turn him away. And besides, his being here will provide insurance should Mom or Dad discover what’s happened to my room before I can clean it up (parents won’t yell at you if there’s a house guest in the same room). “Um…sure. As long as you don’t mind the mess.”
“The, uh, neighbor’s dog got loose in my room,” I lie. “It’s no big deal. You’re welcome to stay here.”
“Thanks, Theo. You’re a life preserver.”
“Just out of curiosity, is there any reason in particular you can’t go home tonight?”
Jan sounds embarrassed. “You know how Ernie’s always joking about how my parents’ apartment is so crappy that one day the city’s just going to tow it away? Well, it’s actually happened.”
“Wait—when you say ‘towed,’ do you mean as in what happens to cars left overnight at Boomers?”
“I don’t know what Boomers is, but yeah.”
“I thought you lived in an apartment.”
“I do. Did.”
I experience a twinge of bewilderment—before reason kicks in and assures me that Jan’s simply gotten his English messed up again. The city doesn’t tow entire apartment buildings. That’s just crazy.
I get to my feet, nearly losing my footing as one of the skulls becomes dislodged and tumbles to the bottom of the pile. “Where are you? Maybe I can get my mom to pick you up.”
“Um…I’m not exactly sure. One of those outdoor shopping plazas. There’s a Rite Aid, and a pizza place—and a cell phone shop.”
“Do you see any street signs?”
“No, but there’s a Vons across the street, if that helps.”
“Not really.” I think for a moment, wondering if I can hack Jan’s GPS signal—but then it occurs to me there might be a simpler way of getting him here. Putting him on speaker, I search Google Play. Sure enough, there it is: the official SuperMegaNet app. Beta. “Are you using a smartphone?”
“How smart does it have to be?”
“Smart enough to run Google Play.”
“Let me check.” Jan goes quiet for a sec. Then: “Found it.”
“Okay. Do a search for ‘SuperMegaNet’ and install it. I’ll do the same on my end.”
“There’s a SuperMegaNet mobile app now?”
“Apparently so.” I skim the description. The SMN app is free, and is totally compatible with the version of Android I’m running. But here’s the thing: I’m having major trouble installing it. It’s not a technical issue; it’s a mental one. My thumb hovers over the “install” button, twitching, trembling. Of course, I want to save Jan from destitution—but I do not want to install SuperMegaNet on my phone. It’s bad enough that I got into this whole “ultimate collaboration” thing in the first place; it’s even worse that I let Ernie bully me into installing SMN on my work laptop by fornicating with a table in the school library; it’ll be the ultimate inconvenience having SMN on my phone. Everywhere I go, my buddy list will go, too. Assuming the SMN app works similarly to the desktop client, I’ll no longer be able to shut my phone off when I don’t want to see or talk to anyone. I’ll have to start leaving it behind whenever I go to the library, or the bathroom…or the bathroom in the library. I really, really don’t want to install SMN on my phone. Why did I even think about it in the first place? Worst idea ever. I don’t need SMN. I’ll figure something else out. Jan will understand—
“What’s the matter, little dude?” Beta asks.
I look up, realizing that he’s been watching me wrestle with my own thumbs for the past thirty seconds. Embarrassed, I quickly hit the “install” button. A moment later, the familiar SMN window pops up. With a heavy heart, I sign in to my account.
So much for weaning myself off this darned program.
Jan logs in as well. When his video feed pops up, I become aware of two things. One, the video quality is excellent. Two (and this creates a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball), Mini is sitting perched on his shoulder.
W. T. F.
Mini waves at me.
I swallow, pretending not to see him. “Ready when you are, Jan.”
“I know you can see me,” Mini says.
I continue ignoring him.
“Come on. Drop the poop face. It’s cool. Jan knows all about you and me.”
Jan pauses, looks like he wants to start uploading, but is obviously intrigued by the boy-puppet interaction.
(Indeed, Beta has come to stand behind me, and is watching expectantly over my shoulder.)
I grit my teeth. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Helping out the kid here,” Mini replies. “Did you know his apartment was towed?”
I take a deep breath, ruffle my own hair. In my most insinuating tone: “Did you know my bedroom was trashed?”
Mini wags one of his mitts at me. “Hey, I didn’t do anything to your room that you yourself haven’t been secretly wanting to do ever since you read online that Asia Afrodesia digs ‘geeky bad boys who never clean their room.’ But we can talk tits later. First Jan and I have to take care of a little business.”
Jan raises an eyebrow. “We do?”
Mini scrambles down his arm. His plush face fills the screen as he embraces Robbie’s phone. “This’ll only take a minute.”