Not surprisingly, Mom doesn’t say much during the ride home. She just sneaks various sidelong glimpses at me from the driver’s seat, no doubt wondering if I’m really me or just some punk kid who’s into pranking naive, unsuspecting fitness moms.
It had taken some convincing back at school: Principal Sandalwood had called her to come pick me up, and the moment he’d explained the situation, pointed at me sitting huddled and wrapped in a blanket (hastily provided to me by Mrs. Currant shortly after my loincloth had gone projectile), a miniature mushroom cloud had detonated above Mom’s head. She’d expected a slip in grades, a truancy, maybe even a bloody nose resulting from a schoolyard scuffle, but certainly not a reincarnated child actor claiming to be her son. If she hadn’t already heard about SuperMegaNet via my New Eyes debacle, she probably would’ve left Sandalwood’s office right then and there.
“They’ll figure this out,” she says as we turn onto our street. “I’m sure these things happen all the time. You know how technology is.”
I fight the urge to argue with her that the Boca Linda staff most definitely won’t be figuring anything out anytime soon. Up until my untimely arrival in Sandalwood’s office this afternoon, he wasn’t even aware that SuperMegaNet even existed, let alone the fact that it allows trendy students to go actual in downloaded skins. I’d had to borrow his laptop to show him how the app works. He’d then crossed himself and muttered a prayer asking that God save us from the advent of too many “Internets”—followed by a doubtful promise to work with Boca Linda’s IT department (or lack thereof) to investigate the matter of my misplaced skin. His combover had also come undone.
I sigh inwardly. This is actually the first time I’ve been sent home from school early for disrupting class. And for indecent exposure. Who’d have thunk looking for a friend’s phone in the boys’ restroom could initiate a series of unfortunate events leading to…now? I mean, what happened to my life? A decade and change of good behavior, and in a fraction of a year I’ve managed to kill my eyesight, throw an old woman off the top of an eight-bit girder palace, masturbate in front of my mom, and moon a crowd of students and staff during a dress rehearsal. If that doesn’t count as delinquency, I don’t know what does. Yet Mom’s treating me like a responsible adult. And I feel strangely disconcerted. Like, I don’t want to get in trouble for something that’s clearly all Thrill-Kill’s fault (even though I should’ve gone straight to the principal the moment I’d gone actual in a jungle orphan skin), but it feels oddly wrong not getting in trouble. If that makes any sense.
Mom pulls into the garage, kills the engine, sits gripping the steering wheel for a moment as her disbelief struggles to suspend itself. “Go get cleaned up,” she says quietly. “Finish your homework. I’ll explain to your father what’s happened…somehow.”
Translated: put on some friggin’ clothes and stay in my room for the rest of the day.
I grab my backpack and, taking great care to keep my blanket in place, I go upstairs to my room.
Jan and Beta greet me with dropped jaws, raised eyebrows.
Beta asks, “So…why are you naked and in black and white?”
I set down my backpack, make a beeline for the closet. “Thrill-Kill uploaded me to her Tarzan server.”
“Okay. And that means you’re not you because…?”
“She skinned me as Boy from those old Tarzan movies.” I pull on undies, shorts, a shirt (luckily, Boy wasn’t much smaller than I am, and so my clothes are only slightly more oversized than usual.). “Only when Lex Barker tried to pommel me, I jumped out a window and downloaded into the teacher lounge, and I was still skinned for some reason.”
Ignoring everything after “Boy,” Beta says, “Technically, you’re not Boy. You’re Joseph Martin.”
“Boy was Joey’s nickname.”
“No, Joey was a separate character, as played by Tommy Carlton, and Boy’s replacement in Tarzan’s Savage Fury.” He holds up his phone, hands it to me. “IMDB, little dude.”
Properly clothed, I step out of the closet, take the phone, and glance down at myself. “So, I’m not even good enough to be stuck as the original Boy? I’m a replacement?”
Beta shrugs. “Tommy Carlton was a Shemp.”
“A Shemp?” Jan asks.
“You know, Shemp, from The Three Stooges? He was an iconic Stooge, but he wasn’t Curly. That’s why anyone who replaces someone else in a TV show or movie franchise is referred to as a ‘Shemp.’ Like when Diana Muldaur replaced Gates McFadden on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Shemp. Or when Ted McGinley replaced David Garrison on Married with Children. Total Shemp job there. Likewise, Tommy Carlton was the Shemp of the Tarzan franchise. He was good as Joey, but he wasn’t the original Boy. He wasn’t Johnny Sheffield. He did have the edge, though.”
“How could Tommy possibly have the edge?” I ask, swiping through IMDB. “He only did one Tarzan movie. Johnny did eight.”
“Doing only one movie is what gives Tommy the edge.”
“It’s the Watterson Technique,” Beta explains, “named after Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes—which is only beloved because Bill fucked off in 1995 after doing it for ten years. As in, he really, truly fucked off. Not like all those dinosaur bands doing farewell and retirement tours only to come back a few years later with yet another tour or album. A-ha? Phil Collins? Scorpions? All full of shit. They all came back. Everyone knows that you do a thing once, do it reasonably well, and you’re a gem. You do a thing ten times, and even if you’re good, people are going to hate you by the time you get to number ten. It becomes quantity over quality. That’s why Tommy Carlton had the edge, and Johnny Sheffield became just another child actor who got too big for his britches. Johnny was the darling little Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son!, but by the time he did Tarzan and the Huntress, it was like, why the hell would teen Boy spend any time dorking around the jungle with his parents when he was clearly old enough to be hitting up the city on his own? The answer is, he wouldn’t. But it came down to that because he played Boy again and again and again until we were sick of him. Tommy did his time in front of the camera, and then it was back to Wisconsin or Ohio or wherever it was America got its corn-fed starlets back then. In, out, done.”
“None of that makes me feel any better,” I say, handing Beta his phone.
He shrugs. “You could’ve done worse. At least Joey Martin was fμckable.”
Jan looks at me.
I look at Jan.
The two of us look at Beta.
Beta looks back, completely oblivious to the awkward—and to the scrambled egg that’s magically appeared on his shoulder. “What?”
I narrow my eyes. “No offense, but are you into dudes? Specifically, little dudes?”
“No way. What makes you say that?”
“You just referred to Joey Martin as ‘fuckable.’”
“Joey Martin was fμckable.”
I throw my arms into the air. “Are you not hearing yourself?”
“What, the f word?”
“Yeah, the f word!”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You don’t think it’s inappropriate to calls kids ‘fuckable?’”
Beta couldn’t look less concerned if he tried. “Dude. You’re thinking of ‘fuckable,’ which is totally inappropriate. ‘Fμckable,’ spelled with a μ, doesn’t have anything to do with sex.”
“It doesn’t?” I look instinctively to Jan for confirmation.
“It’s probably not a good idea to ask me,” he says. “You know my English leaves lots to be desirable.”
I start to correct him—
“It’s like when you say someone or something is the shit,” Beta interrupts. “It has nothing to do with actual excrement. It’s just a compliment. ‘Fμckable’ can mean that someone is ripe for the fucking, sure, but it’s mostly used as a harmless acknowledgment of one’s overall comeliness. ‘Matt Damon was fμckable in Good Will Hunting.’ He was good-looking in Good Will Hunting. ‘I want to fμck this burger.’ This burger is delicious, I’m going to scarf the shit out of it. ‘Fμck you.’ I acknowledge your playful insult, and am honored our friendship is such that we can swap self-deprecations amicably. There’s absolutely nothing creepy about using the word ‘fμckable’ in a contextually harmless manner. It’s no different than ‘darling,’ ‘cute,’ or ‘handsome.’”
“Why didn’t you just say ‘darling,’ ‘cute,’ or ‘handsome,’ then?”
Beta rolls his eyes. “Because dudes never refer to other dudes using the aforementioned princess words. Hence the term ‘fμckable’—because you either are, or you aren’t. But whatever. I’m comfortable enough with my own sexuality that I don’t need to prove to you guys that I’d never diddle a tyke.”
“I’m not trying to start anything,” I say. “It’s just that sometimes you say stuff that’s…dubious. Like, sometimes I think you forget you’re a grown man living on a hard drive in a kid’s bedroom.”
Beta frowns, goes over to his duffel bags, rummages in one until he finds a certain specific hard drive, which he brings back to me. Handing it over, he says, “Check it—a solid terabyte of hetero porn involving legal, consenting adults.”
I think I just felt a great disturbance in the Force.
I gawk at Beta’s hard drive. “Your porn collection is a terabyte?”
“Yeah,” he replies. “Just about.”
“Does the word ‘excessive’ mean anything to you?”
Beta scowls and grabs his hard drive, stuffs it back into the duffel. “Let’s all get on with our lives. How are you still skinned after downloading from Thrill-Kill’s server?”
“Shouldn’t you know that?”
“Give me a break. I can’t keep tabs on everything Taurus Labs is doing.” He pokes my shoulder with his finger. “Besides, it was a rhetorical question. It looks like they’ve enabled both virtual and actual skin installation capabilities for the general public. Either that, or some hacker has been spreading SMN code behind their backs. Where’s your phone?”
“It’s still on Thrill-Kill’s server, as far as I know. Along with Jan’s phone, my clothes, my original skin—and Mini. He was in my pocket when I went to see Thrill-Kill.”
Beta frowns. “This could be trouble if people are running SMN servers that install persistent skins without users’ permission. Whose phone did you use to download from the server?”
“That’s the thing. I didn’t use a phone or computer. I jumped through a window and I was actual again.”
“Hm.” Beta looks thoughtful for a moment. “That sounds like some kind of server glitch—or maybe a crash, even.”
“Does that mean I can’t uninstall the Joey skin?” I ask.
“While your original skin is still in a temp file on the server, no, you can’t. Is there any reason you haven’t simply asked Thrill-Kill to upload back to her server, then download properly using her phone instead of a window?”
My mind’s eye flashes back to my haphazard download in the teacher lounge, and that fateful moment in which a noticeably bare, noticeably black-and-white, noticeably clumsy-as-fuck jungle boy leg had sent Thrill-Kill’s phone careening onto the floor with a distinct crack!
“Two reasons,” I mutter.
“Which are?” asks Beta.
“One, she’s insane. Two, I may have broken her phone on the way out.”
“Why’d you do that?” Jan asks.
“It wasn’t on purpose—I was kind of running from an angry Lex Barker at the time.”
“Never mind.” I look at Beta. “Am I screwed?”
“No,” he replies. “We’re just going to have to hack her server, is all. I’ll get my kit.” He heads over to his duffel bags once again.
Jan puts his hand on my shoulder. “Look on the bright side.”
“What bright side?”
“As long as you’re Joey, Fat Stuff can’t call you Made in China anymore.”