Okay. There’s a giant elephant standing beside me. Would I be totally out of line if I ditched my friends this very instant and Tommy Carltoned my way up the nearest tree?
The elephant snorts mightily.
Stamps its foot.
I pause, primed to make my escape, arms pumped, one leg held firmly flexed in the air. “Ernie?” I squeak.
The elephant nods its head.
Quickly, I lower my leg, pretend to be working out a cramp.
“Uh…why is Ernie an elephant?” Jan asks, jaw dropped.
Beta says something in chimpanzee.
“Uh, because he’s…big?” I reply.
Another snort from Ernie.
“No, what I mean is, the SMN server probably matched us up with available skins—Ernie as Tantor due to his bulk, Jan as Rokov due to his being European, Beta as Cheeta because…um…dunno.”
Eva checks herself out. “What Tarzan character was a girl in her underwear?”
“There was no major girl character in Tarzan’s Savage Fury,” comes a familiar, diminutive voice. “So, you kept your default skin.”
I crane my neck. Fortunately, this time, the server has delivered us on the ground below Tarzan’s suspiciously-up-scale-for-something-he-supposedly-built-himself treehouse—and not stuffed haphazardly inside. Mini is hastily making his way down the ladder.
“Why not Jane, then?” Eva asks.
“Thrill-Kill’s already Jane.”
I shrug. “Plus she’s a woman, you’re a girl.”
Eva glowers at me.
“Dude.” Hopping onto my shoulder, Mini whispers into my ear, “First, nice to see you again. Second, never call a preteen girl a girl to her face.”
“But she is a girl,” I whisper back.
“That’s the problem.”
“Political correctness. The obvious is obvious, but can only be stated out loud if you’re able to satisfy an ever-growing list of prerequisites. Id est, you’d have to be an empowered, non-white, lesbian, single mother, atheist female bodybuilder who lives in the projects in order to call a girl a girl to her face and not offend or under-represent some key demographic.”
“Where did you come up with that?”
“Hours and hours of network TV.”
Eva frowns, folds her arms. “What are you two whispering about?”
I brush Mini away. “I have no clue.” Turning to Beta: “So, all we have to do now is download back home, and I’m good?”
Beta nods, sets down his messenger bag, takes out his laptop. He starts to type something in a command terminal—
“Wait,” I say.
—stops, his chimp fingers poised above the keyboard.
“We can’t leave her behind.”
Eva looks incredulous. “Who, Thrailkill?”
“Yeah. I broke her phone. Without it, she’s kind of stranded here.”
“Is that such a bad thing? I mean, she keeps living cheese and crypto-creeps in a dungeon beneath her garden shed, Theo. Someone like that doesn’t necessarily need any favors from us or anyone else.”
True that. But I’m not so bold or brave that I’m comfortable stranding another human being on an SMN server—even if that someone is Thrill-Kill.
“Give me a sec,” I sigh, and climb the treehouse ladder, alighting on the deck above, padding over to the nearest window, peering inside—
—oh, my fuck.
There’s Lex Barker, and there’s Dorothy Hart, in bed together and banging out the black and white skin flick that may or may not be hidden away in some dusty RKO vault somewhere.
I recede from the window, sliding down onto the deck with my back against the wall, my knees tucked against my chest. On the one hand, ew. On the other, my loincloth has tented slightly between my legs. So conflicted right now.
I cover my ears, try to think about test scores.
A few minutes go by. Eventually, the sounds of nookie subside, and I get to my feet, approach the window again. Thrill-Kill’s still in bed with Tarzan, though now they’re church-naked—the blanket tucked up to their armpits—and sharing a post-coital Marlboro.
I clear my throat. “Um…hello?”
Thrill-Kill sends me a heavy-lidded stare. “Joey, dear, what have I told you about waiting your turn?”
Oh, dear God, what’s that supposed to mean? “Mrs. Thrailkill, it’s me, Theo.”
“Why, young Mr. Ivanovich. How good of you to check in on me.” She smiles, takes a drag from her cigarette, lowers the blanket ever so slightly.
Oh. Dear. God.
Tarzan, meanwhile, has gotten out of bed and, hanging full dong, is now striding toward me with a disapproving expression on his face. “How long Joey watch?”
“I, er, wasn’t watching anything. I just came to—”
“Tarzan not put on show!”
Geez—he never hated on Joey in the movies! Why is he such a bully now?
My jungle boy reflexes fail me as he darts through the treehouse door, whips around and grabs me by the neck, lifting me off the floorboards. Grasping his arms for leverage, I swing my legs up and kick him firmly in the crotch. Virtual bots may not have actual genitalia, but luckily this one’s been programmed to react appropriately. Tarzan winces, doubles over, loses his footing—and suddenly I’m falling backward, the two of us going over the edge of the deck, the jungle canopy whirling above me. I scrunch my eyes shut, my life (a series of identical classroom scenes) flashing before my eyes. Mini’s voice sounds in my head: “Huh, so this is how we die. Who’d have thunk?” Followed by, “You should’ve grabbed Eva’s butt when you kissed her. Dumbass.” Then—
I hit something hard yet soft…and smelly. I should be dead, the life battered out of me. Instead, I’ve toppled onto Ernie’s back.
Tarzan isn’t as lucky. He slams face-down into the ground beside us with a loud thud! that raises a small mushroom cloud of dust and detritus.
One of his legs is bent into an uppercase Z.
Jan shakes his head. “What’s with all the death today?”
I slide off of Ernie, pay Tarzan’s meat a nervous glance as back up the treehouse ladder I go—for the last friggin’ time, I hope.
Thrill-Kill, dressed again, is waiting on the deck. “Sorry about that. He’s at times a tad territorial.”
With teeth gritted and fists clenched, I glower at Thrill-Kill and say, “My friends and I are downloading off the server. Are you coming or not?”
“My, the impetuousness of youth.”
“Not to be a jerk or anything, but I just narrowly escaped a demogorgonzola and certain death at the hands of your girlhood crush. I’m a little numb right now.”
Thrill-Kill gestures toward the ladder. “Very well, Mr. Ivanovich. Lead the way.”
She follows me down; we join the others on the jungle floor, where a large beetle is now poking around Tarzan’s upturned ass.
“Everyone good?” I ask.
Eva, Jan, and Mini nod. Ernie, too.
Beta holds up his laptop, hits the “send home” button.
I cross my fingers behind my back.
No offense, Joey Martin, but I do not want to be you for the rest of my life.
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