Animatronic Ventriloquism

@theo

The ride home feels like the setup to a lame joke: a boy and his blob, a pixel monster, and a talking puppet go for a bike ride in the middle of the night… Except it’s less a bike ride and more an experiment in wobbling and weaving. Ernie, pressed between me and Jan (and still watching YouPorn on my phone), weighs as much as a small moon, and Jan seems to be having trouble holding on, what with his hands being all pixelated.

Meanwhile, Mini’s the proverbial backseat driver, shouting annoying suggestions every few minutes and thinking he’s being helpful: “You need to shift your center of gravity! Lean left more! Lean right! No, no—tilt left when you pedal right, and tilt right when you pedal left! Pump those thighs! Blast those quads! Let’s get this Huffy up to eighty-eight!”

“Mini?” I rasp.

“Yeah?”

“You. Are. Close. To. Death.”

“And you are building a compelling case for a full refund on your mom’s fancy gym membership.”

I grit my teeth, squinting, tasting salty sweat on my lips. “Do you want to pedal?”

Mini sneers. “Like my mitts could reach!”

“That’s right, then. Keep quiet before someone spots us and calls our parents.”

Mini quiets, settles in my pocket.

I huff and puff for another minute or two, during which time a middle-aged jogger dude sidles up alongside us with ease.

“You’re out a little late for a bike ride,” he says, smiling at first, paying me a friendly enough glance—and tripping over his own feet when he sees Ernie and/or Jan. “Holy shit! What’s that on your back?”

(“Teší me,” Jan sighs, and slumps his shoulders dejectedly.)

I hem and haw, gasp and splutter, trying to come up with any number of reasonable explanations.

Mini beats me to the punch: “Minecraft cosplay,” he answers. Then, realizing he’s only raised further questions by inadvertently drawing attention to himself, he adds, “Oh, and animatronic ventriloquism.”

The jogger slows, stops, watches our continued struggle onward with a dumbfounded expression on his face.

“It’s, uh, for a class project,” I call over my shoulder—

“Fuck yeah—plunder my cervix!” screams the woman in Ernie’s current porn video.

Pedaling on without another word to the jogger dude (because that’s what you do when you’re caught watching porn in public: you lower your head in shame and recede into the darkest corner of the night as quickly as possible), I quietly and carefully reach into my pocket, pull out an old receipt. I crumble it, toss it over my shoulder.

“What was that?” Jan asks.

“My dignity,” I reply.

“On a piece of paper?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Is that an American thing?”

“No,” Mini replies on my behalf. “It’s a pompous southern-Californian thing.”

“It was to make a point,” I clarify.

“It was also littering.”

“It’s paper. It’ll biodegrade.” I sneak a glance at Ernie. His eyes are glued to my phone, which is clutched tightly in his hand, and while I’m pleased to see that his health has been steadily improving over the last twenty minutes (his demeanor has gone from fevered delirium to mere lethargic sexual arousal), it’s a little unsettling that the key to said improvement has been a non-stop stream of vulgar cervical allusions and exaggerated orgasms. I can’t see his other hand; God, I hope he’s using it to hold onto my bike and not…himself. “Think you can turn the volume down a little bit?”

“Heh,” Ernie grunts.

“What?” I ask, gasping for breath.

“Shh. Listen.”

I listen. The only immediately obvious sounds: the mechanics of my bike; the sprinkler system of a nearby lawn; sporadic traffic; the woman in Ernie’s video breathing heavily as her partner defiles her; my own ragged breath—aw, crap. I see where this is going.

Ernie nudges Jan. “Dude. It totally sounds like Theo’s banging this chick.” He holds the phone beside my head.

The woman gasps.

I gasp.

The woman gasps again; Ernie holds the phone closer.

I swat it out of the way.

Mini chuckles. “It does sound like you’re banging her. Is there a such thing as audiobook porn? You’d clean up as an erotic voice actor.”

Ernie quakes with laughter. “Hung Lee! That could be his porn name!”

“Dude, racism,” I remind him.

“Fine. Vlad the Inhaler.”

No one laughs.

“You know, because he likes to suck the…” He falters, his lame joke hanging in the air like the pungent odor of Chinese food opened the day after it’s gone bad. “I mean, if he were gay, he’d probably be the happy, hungry type when it comes to—”

Hateface in Ernie’s general direction. “I’m part Russian, fat shit, not Romanian! And I’m not gay!”

Ernie’s eyes widen. “Guys…did you hear that? He said shit.”

Ugh. Will this night hurry up and end already? “Just keep the volume down. It’s after curfew.”

“Curfews are made to be broken,” Ernie says, nonchalant, and cues up more porn.

“Fantastic. Remind me to tell that to the judge during our sentencing—I’m sure he’ll say the exact same thing. ‘Very good, Mr. Smole. Curfews are made to be broken, and plastic bags are play toys for small children. I have a line of coke here on my planner. Would you like to do it with me?’”

Mini climbs up my arm and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Dude, relax. No one gives a crap that we’re out after dark. Pull yourself together and actually use some of that CBT Dr. Freud’s been slinging our way. If you think you’re having a panic attack, then you’re going to have a panic attack. If you think you’re being followed by cops in the middle of the night, then you’re going to be followed by cops in the middle of the night. But if you think positive…”

I scowl. “No, if a cop decides to bust us because we’re loud, underage, pixelated—” I gesture at Ernie. “—fat, and out past curfew, thinking about whether he is or isn’t going to bust us has nothing to do with whether or not he actually busts us.”

“Did Surf Ninjas teach you nothing?

“How could any scene from Surf Ninjas apply right now?”

“Dude, Neal Israel masterpiece—there’s so much wisdom there!” Mini takes on a storytelling stance (whatever that is). “Iggy spent the first three-quarters of the movie worrying about misusing his power of suggestion, accidentally screwing over his friends with it, losing it during a moment of carelessness—and missing the point of possessing the power of suggestion in the first place. The only reason he’d never surfed a day in his life was because he believed he couldn’t surf. It took Johnny to finally make him realize that he could use his powers on himself as well as on others. ‘But what if you could [surf]? The ability’s within you, bro.’ And it was, and he did.”

Okay, under no circumstances is Surf Ninjas a metaphor for positive visualization…but maybe Mini’s got cred. Maybe being out so late isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe I’m just tired and worried for the sake of being worried. We’ll get home all right; we’ll figure out what to do about Jan.

Maybe I can surf.

“Shit!” Mini peers wide-eyed over my shoulder.

I follow his gaze—and spot the police cruiser that’s turned onto our street, and is fast approaching from behind.

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jesse

Book designer and formatter based in southern California. Supreme overlord of the SuperMegaNet pseudoverse.