“Wakie-wakie, little dude.”
I open my eyes. Beta’s standing over me. He’s still got on his Asian porn star skin, but is now dressed like one of the brothers from The Barbarians, and is carrying an oversized sword and leather-bound messenger bag.
I sit up. My bedroom smells suspiciously of farts and pre-packaged junk food. There’s an overturned ice cream carton on my desk. Ernie, in his underwear, is lying beached on the floor, and is doing God-knows-what with my laptop. Over by the TV, Jan, also in his undies, is playing Super Mario Maker.
“A couple of questions,” I ask quietly.
“Shoot,” Beta replies.
“Why do you look like Asian Conan?”
“This is my hacking gear.”
“Okay, not really an answer, but whatever. Why is everyone in their underwear?”
“Because it’s bedtime,” answers Ernie. “Duh.”
“Bedtime? How long was I out?”
“Eight or nine hours.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“Relax,” Beta says. “You’re almost thirteen. It’s about time you started sleeping all day and owling it through the night.”
“My circadian rhythm is going to be so messed up!” I rub my face with my hands, feeling all the wrong shapes in all the wrong places—oh, right. Joseph Martin. “And if anything, I’m now closer to ten than I am to thirteen.”
Beta sets down his sword. “Better to be too young than too old.”
“Come on, everybody wants to be a kid again.”
“I’m already a kid. Being an even younger kid does nothing for me.”
“Oh, but it does, Tommy boy. As a preteen, you were at the tail end of pretty much the only stage in your life when family and friends will give two shits about you. Now you’re back in the prime.”
“You know, old enough to feed, dress, and bathe yourself, not yet corroded by the ravages of puberty, still able to be cute to get your way, still able to be darling. As a child, you’re all sweet and innocent and full of promise. But as a teenager, you’ve got to start making good on those promises—and trust me, nothing you do will ever be good enough. Your grades will always be too low, your choice of clothing, hairstyle, girlfriend, car, and college will be wrong. Strangers will hate you simply for being a teenager. You’ll walk into a convenience store to buy a jug of milk, and where once you’d get a friendly hello from the clerk, you’ll now receive a quiet, distrustful stare—”
“Are you going anywhere with this?”
“Something about…childhood lost and…not really, no.”
I swing my legs over the side of the bed. My feet dangle halfway to the floor. “What happens if I’m stuck in this skin? Will I eventually grow up?” I think for a moment. “The real Tommy Carlton died when he was in his late sixties—does that mean I’ll die in my late sixties, too? Or will I grow out of my skin before then, gradually splitting at the seams like some kind of grotesque Hollywood creature effect?”
“That would be so cool!” Ernie exclaims.
“No, it wouldn’t! And what are you even doing in my room?”
I lunge forward, yanking my laptop away from him and cradling it in my arms. The screen’s all smudged, and there are crumbs all over the keyboard, and oh, geez, he’s got, like, two-dozen browser tabs open, has somehow completely rearranged my Unity desktop so that every window has a PornSmurf search bar attached to the top. Launcher is nowhere to be found; when I hit the Windows key, the Dash pops up showing various porn icons instead of my usual apps. “What…have…you…done?”
“Easy there, nipples,” Ernie replies. “Your Windows was all broken. I fixed it.”
“I use Ubuntu, not Windows! Ubuntu!”
Ernie blinks. “Is that what that was?”
“Yes, that’s what that was!”
A brief flicker of remorse crosses Ernie’s face—and just as quickly disappears. “Hey, back off, junior. This never would’ve happened if you’d been awake when I got here. In fact, one could argue it’s all your fault.”
“Who leaves their laptop unlocked while taking a nap?”
“Ernie, I didn’t leave my laptop unlocked. I fell asleep on accident.”
“My point exactly! You leave your front door wide open overnight? Then you deserve to be robbed by whatever petty thief happens to drop by.”
“An entire house and a laptop within that house are two very different things—”
“John Wetton’s dead.”
What? “You mean the bass player for Asia?”
“Ex-bass player. Cancer.”
I crumble to my knees, thunderstruck. There may be boobs and wangs everywhere, but Opera is at least working enough for me to check Wikipedia, which confirms that John has indeed become one of the rocking dead. And he’s just the latest on a growing list: Chris Squire, Edgar Froese, Pádraig Duggan, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, two-thirds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer—all gone. The Bee Gees are now the Bee Gee. I don’t know what Phil Collins is. He’s not quite dead yet, but he sure as heck isn’t alive.
What a horrible night for a curse.
Beta pats me on the shoulder. “Maybe a little good news will cheer you up.”
“Please tell me it’s that Chris Squire faked his own death as a publicity stunt, and that he’s been secretly working with Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and Alan White on a new Yes album.”
“Close. I couldn’t hack Thrailkill’s server remotely, but I did manage to find out that she’s running a personal server out of her home right here in town.”
I lift my head. “How’d you figure that out?”
“The Boca Linda directory, Google Maps, various public records, the almighty IP address—you know, all the things fanboys use to stalk their favorite celebrities. Anyway, I hacked her home computer and installed SuperMegaNet. We leave whenever you’re ready.”
Narrowing my eyes: “Where, exactly?”
“Thrailkill’s pad,” Beta replies. “To get back your original skin.”
“That’s…breaking and entering.”
“Correction—hacking and entering.”