“Huh,” Beta murmurs. “That’s a pretty big dick for a puppet.”
The naked puppet—which I now realize is a badly-burned Mini—climbs-slash-tumbles the rest of the way into Theo’s bedroom and does an awkward somersault onto the floor. He glares up at Beta. “Really? I stage a miraculous comeback after being left for dead at the side of the road, and the first thing out of the pretty-boy’s mouth is a dick comment?” He picks a scorched thread from his shoulder, looks at Theo. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I…I thought you were dead,” Theo stammers.
“I know you did. Why else would you have left me to burn alive at the side of the road?”
Theo starts hemming and hawing apologetically.
“If I might interject?” asks Beta.
Mini looks at him.
“Why the plush wang?”
“Because Ken doll I am not!”
“Did you know the real Ken Handler was born with internal genitalia?”
Theo looks doubtful. “That can’t be true.”
“Serious. Look it up.”
Theo starts arguing over whether or not Beta’s invitation to Google Ken Handler’s genitals is genuine or a bluff—but I tune out momentarily, my exhausted arms deciding to dump Ernie onto the floor of their own accord. He kind of sags and spreads out like a Hefty bag full of moist garbage. I stretch, fully appreciating that a weight has literally been lifted from my shoulders; I turn in place—
—and spot my reflection in mirror.
I hadn’t been paying attention on the way in. I’d thought Theo had a piece of life-sized pixel art hanging on his bedroom door, but it’s really just me. I look like some kind of ancient Atari artifact. Or maybe a SuperMegaNet junkie who’s uploaded and downloaded so many hundreds or thousands of times over the years that the copies of copies of copies of myself have gradually lost all their clarity. This isn’t like having a piece of food stuck in your teeth, or a splotch of toothpaste plastered on your shirt—people are going to notice. They’re going to stare. They’re going to take pictures with their phones and post them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—
“Does it hurt?” Theo asks, stepping beside me, his reflection almost as ludicrous as mine, what with the mussed hair, half-missing clothes, and sleek, lemony sheen.
“Everything feels…fuzzy,” I reply. “Like leaves, or layers of construction paper.” Or something like that. “You’re good with computers. You can fix me, right?”
Theo looks at Beta.
Beta looks back at the TV.
Craps. I was afraid of that.
I clear my throat, point at Ernie. “What do we do about this one?”
“I don’t understand,” Theo says, looking grateful for the change of subject. “He was doing better when we were on our way home. How can his health have changed so drastically in such a short time?”
Beta faces forward again, resumes playing Toad. “Maybe he’s allergic to something.”
“Like what? Vegetables?” Mini chuckles to himself.
“Dude,” Theo says. “This is serious.”
Mini sighs. “Life is always serious.”
“I may be old-fashioned in suggesting this,” Beta says, “but what was it kids used to do back in the day whenever they found themselves in need of medical attention? Oh, yeah—they got their fucking parents to take them to the ER.”
“Neh!” Ernie wheezes, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes. “No parents! No doctors!”
“You kind of need both right now,” Theo says.
“Don’t we all,” Mini murmurs, picking at another scorched thread (and making absolutely no effort whatsoever to get dressed).
Ernie beckons to Theo. “What I need right now is my friends.”
Everyone glances at Theo.
Looking hesitant, he kneels beside Ernie.
Ernie takes his hand, says, in true melodramatic fashion, “So many things left undone, things left unsaid…the unshared wisdom of a life unlived. I never had a chance to leave my mark on the world…”
“Well,” Mini offers, “if skid marks count—”
“They don’t,” Theo shoots back.
Ernie tilts his head, now staring bleary-eyed at a point somewhere just above Theo’s shoulder. “I want you to do something for me after I’m gone.”
Theo rolls his eyes. “Ernie, come on. It’s probably just indigestion. You’re not going to—”
“Fine. I promise.”
Ernie nods, satisfied. He rests his head back on the floor. “Pen…blech…paper.”
“Right file cabinet, top drawer,” Beta says.
“I’m on it.” Mini toddles over to the file cabinet.
I can tell from Theo’s expression that the top drawer of the right file cabinet is not where he usually keeps his writing utensils. He glares at the back of Beta’s head as Mini returns from the cabinet, hands him a ballpoint pen, a spiral notebook. He takes them both, waits.
Ernie rasps, “Promise me that you’ll…tweet these for me after I die.”
“Dude, you’re not going to—”
“First tweet: ‘You are you. —Ernest Goodale #inspiration’”
“That’s kind of cliché, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you. Second tweet: ‘To nerd is human. —Ernest Goodale #TheGeekShallInheritTheEarth’”
“Saw it on a T-shirt the other day.”
“Eat dick. Third tweet—”
“How many of these are there?”
“Whatever. Third tweet.”
“Find a banging picture of Ivana Hong and tweet it with, ‘Today’s smile is brought to you by @IvanaHong.’”
“Who’s Ivana Hong?”
“Nerd-athlete…Stanfordian superhero. Futurama’s best hope for a live-action Amy Wong. Most underrated gymnast evar. Haven’t you ever heard of rock-paper-scissors-Hong??”
Theo narrows his eyes. “You made that up just now, didn’t you?”
“What are the rules, then?”
Ernie looks frustrated—constipated, too. “Isn’t it obvious? Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, paper beats rock, Hong jumps over rock, paper beats Hong.”
“How does paper beat Hong?”
“What about scissors?”
“What about them?”
“Do they beat Hong, or does she beat them?”
“And what about rock?” I ask. “I think rock should beat Hong, and Hong should beat paper.”
Theo looks at me. “Why would Hong beat paper?”
“Because she probably got high marks at Stanford, right? She’s probably good at taking tests.”
“Doesn’t matter!” Ernie screams. “#RockPaperScissorsHong!”
Theo sets down his notebook. “This is the shittiest version of rock-paper-scissors I’ve ever heard.”
“You’re the shittiest version of rock-paper-scissors you’ve ever heard!”
“You need an odd number of moves to make the game work. You just copied Sheldon Cooper’s version of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock from The Big Bang Theory, replaced Spock with Ivana Hong, and left out the lizard. Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady are rolling over in their graves right now.”
“Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady aren’t dead,” Mini points out.
“They would be if they knew what kind of crappy derivative hand games their fanboys are creating behind their backs.”
“I don’t know,” Beta says. “Big Bang is good, but I’ve always been more of a The IT Crowd fan.”
Theo flails his arms above his head. “Why are we even talking about any of this?”
“Chill, Hamster Eyes,” Ernie says. “You’re not the one who’s dying of fatness.”
“Or terminal pixel art,” Mini adds.
“Or who’s into college jockettes,” I say.
“Or who’s into massive, veiny female bodybuilders!” Ernie retorts.
“Stay Puft Dough Boy!” I shout back.
“Dirty—” He means to say, “Dirty Czech!” but instead sort of splutters “Chtheck!” as one of his teeth pops out of his mouth and falls onto the floor.
Theo looks horrified. “Ernie?”
“Was that a baby tooth?”
Ernie does a double-take, the enormity of what’s just happened hitting him full. “Ah, fuck.”