“Internet Explorer or Firefox?” Cheetos Dude asks upon my uploading onto the Semantic Web server.
“Lynx,” I say for something new.
“Oh, fuck yeah.” He steps aside, letting me pass without so much as a second glance at my erroneous jungle skin.
I find an empty seat at one of the Web’s trademark wooden spool tables and sit, unsling my messenger bag. I’m not really one of those freelancers who has to work at a cafe in order to be productive; I just want to keep out of Mom and Dad’s way until Beta (or Taurus) can figure out how to uninstall Joey Martin. I figure a place like this, where everyone’s skinned 24/7, is a more conducive way to spend my time versus pacing around my bedroom waiting for the proverbial kettle to boil. I’m relieved to see there’s a Ben 10 a couple of tables over, an Eric Cartman playing Jenga with some pals in the sofa pit. In other words, I’m not the only creep wearing kiddie-skin.
I set up my laptop, start working on some new code for Asia Afrodesia’s Web site. It’s slow going, though. Every time I glance down at the keyboard for whatever reason, I spot my junior-sized arms and hands, and I pause, wondering. Doubting. Beta can fix this. Beta can fix anything…right?
“Interesting take on the fundoshi subculture,” comes a voice from beside me.
I look up to find a blond-haired, headbanded guy version of Millie Vanilli Downtown Bobby Brown (the girl who plays Eleven in Stranger Things—I’ve never been able to correctly remember her name thanks to Ernie constantly making fun of her) standing at my table in nothing but a loincloth and various handmade necklaces and bracelets. He’s armed with a laptop, a matcha latte, and a friendly smile.
“Sorry?” I mumble.
“Newcomer in the house,” Guy-Eleven says. “I didn’t realize there were fundoshi fans here.” He scrutinizes my skin. “Hollywood Golden Age, right? Boy? Bomba?”
I squirm in my seat. “Joseph Martin. He was some kind of jungle orphan adopted by Tarzan in one of the older movies.”
Guy-Eleven nods, carefully thumps his coffee cup against his chest. “Mimi-Siku, as played by Sam Huntington in Jungle 2 Jungle.”
“I bet you thought I was Eleven from Stranger Things.”
“I knew you weren’t Eleven,” I lie.
“I get that all the time. There is an uncanny resemblance, isn’t there? I’m hoping Millie Bobby Brown will eventually grow out of it. Mind if I join you?”
On the one hand, I’m thinking having another loincloth around might lessen the novelty of my own skin. On the other hand, multiple loincloths banding together might create some new kind of novelty in and of itself. After debating the pros and cons for considerable milliseconds, I nod and say, “Sure.”
Mimi-Siku takes a seat next to me, sets his things down. “How’d you get into fundoshi culture?”
“Fundoshi. You know, the loincloth culture and fashion trend currently sweeping Japan?”
Japan—of course. “Oh. It’s not—this isn’t really my thing.”
Mimi looks mildly perplexed. “It’s not?”
I explain about Thrill-Kill’s Tarzan server mishap (omitting the parts about Bloodcoin and the demogorgonzola), and how the latest SuperMegaNet upgrade seems to have stuck me with a rerun.
“Yikes,” Mimi says once I’ve finished. “That’s definitely not the ideal introduction to fundoshi.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s not a bad skin, though. The black and white is a nice throwback to simpler times. Days of yore. The classics. You really don’t find fundoshi the least bit liberating? Freeing?”
If anything, it’s too freeing. This may not be my bare skin, but bare skin is still bare skin. I’m the self-conscious type; I do not need to be showing off the goods. I do not need curious glances and pointed fingers. I do not need Ernie constantly swiping at my nipples and commenting on my scrumptulatum. “This isn’t my skin. This isn’t who I am. I’m just killing time until Taurus releases a patch.”
Mimi smiles, gazes off into the distance. “I hear you. I remember when I was younger. I couldn’t get away from thirteen fast enough. Now I revel in thirteen. It’s not something that can be explained. You have to experience it for yourself in due time.”
Wait a sec—how old is Mimi-Siku? Or, rather, how old is the SMN user wearing his skin? He doesn’t sound like a kid. If he were, he’d agree with me: being underage sucks. Homework, chores, rules, curfew, kids’ meals, constantly-outgrown clothes, schoolyard bullies, stranger danger, parents monitoring your every move—who in their right mind would want to exist perennially as anything younger than eighteen?
I smile and shrug, pretend to be extra busy on my laptop.
Mimi takes the hint, and is quiet for all of thirty seconds. Then, leaning in close, eyes fixed on my laptop screen, he says, “Hey, that’s Asia Afrodesia’s Web site, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah,” I reply, resisting the urge to cringe.
“You’re her webmaster?”
“That’s awesome! I love Asia Afrodesia, never make a playlist without ‘Fool Me Once, Bang Me Twice,’ ‘A Feast Between My Legs,’ and ‘Sextual Healing’ on it. How’d you get a gig like that?”
“Asia’s management found my gig listing on Fancy Peanuts and asked me to re-do her Web site. I’ve never met her in person or anything, though.”
“Still, you must have stories.”
“Not really.” I hunch over my laptop, trying to look even busier.
Mimi studies me wistfully. “This really bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“Being persistently skinned like this.”
“Oh. It’s…inconvenient, I guess.”
“Nah-ah, Joseph. You’re stiffer than Dana Andrews’ acting in Laura.”
I sigh, lean back. “If you must know, I’m small in real life. Shorter than everyone else. People always think I’m younger than I actually am. I have a hard enough time with that, let alone being even smaller. And younger. And less dressed. I just…want to deal with being me again. I can handle that.”
Mimi looks off into the distance again. Considers something. “What if I told you I could help you with your skin problem?” Straightening, he opens his laptop, works on it for a minute or two, then swivels it around so that I can see the screen—
—which shows my SuperMegaNet account.
My private SuperMegaNet account.
I face Mimi full. “How…?”
“Let’s just say I have an insight, Theo Ivanovich. Aka, l33t_master. Interested?”
You bet I’m interested—and terrified. Mostly terrified. But also interested. I mean, I kind of have to know how Mimi-Siku hacked right into my account as easily as if he were logging into Gmail. But some random dude who’s into loincloth culture could also be into a whole lot more and a whole lot worse. No good can come of this. Can it? No, of course not. Unless—
I’m going to politely decline. I’m going to download back home and huddle in bed and forget I ever came to the Semantic Web. I’ll be patient, wait out Beta or Taurus or both. I reach up to close my laptop…and I catch Tommy Carlton’s reflection blinking back at me in the gloss of the screen, and it’s like, ugh. I don’t want to be this kid anymore or ever again. I want to be me. If Mimi-Siku can make it happen…well, Cheetos Dude vets everyone who uploads here, right?
I close my laptop and quietly say, “Okay. I’m interested.”
Mimi smiles, brings up a SuperMegaNet window on his laptop.
Sends us away.