The Semantic Web


I was right about the “always on” thing. Once you add someone to your buddy list, that’s it. You establish a permanent, two-way connection. I tried removing Ernie (not that I’m already wanting to drop him or anything) and discovered there are absolutely no options for deletion.

It’s sobering.

I let the idea sink in as I try to do my homework. From the corner of my eye I watch Ernie devour cookies and candy with some fat girl he’s just met. One thumbnail over, Jan grunts and groans through his weight-lifting routine; beside him, in its own window, Eva’s empty chair stares back at me (she must be at practice). I know everyone can see me seeing them. We’re all spying on each other, a little cautious, maybe a little prurient. I look at Ernie again and wonder how he can be so careless. 213 friends! Isn’t he concerned that at any moment any one of those “friends” could come waltzing right into his bedroom? It’s making me jealous, to be honest, the way he’s carrying on so nonchalantly. I wish I could be that carefree. Well, maybe I don’t—there’d be too many consequences to deal with afterward, wouldn’t there?

Ugh. I can’t concentrate. Jan’s annoying me. I mean, look at him there with his sweaty muscles bulging all over the place. He just happened to wear a tank top tonight—he’s doing it on purpose, hoping Eva (or whoever else he’s added to his buddy list) will spot him and swoon. Last night’s meet-up must have proved quite inspirational. She was all over him, spying on him, sneaking into his room. The jockette stalking the jock. It makes sense, I guess. He’s taller than me, and better looking, and these are things I never would have cared about six months ago, and now—

—I have to keep my brain on task.

But I can’t.

Geometry is the most boring thing in the world right now.

I close my textbook, get real comfy in my chair, with the keyboard on my lap and the mouse poised on my knee. I just need to make one friend. Then I can call it a night.

I start browsing SMN users; I see kids from my middle school, boys who are too cool, girls who are too cute. I consider a dozen profiles, but I can’t bring myself to add a single person to my buddy list. They won’t be interested, I think. They won’t have time for me—they’ll think I’m wasting their time. What if he wants to roughhouse? What if she wants to cyber? Except it wouldn’t be cybering, would it? We’d both be in the same room, in our pseudo-bodies, yeah, but, like…together.

I’m being ridiculous. I’m feeling like I did when I first got the Internet. I was so excited about being connected to the world, to other people—but I’ve never actually made any friends online. I’ve kept in touch with people I know in real life, but it’s never worked the other way around. Why? Because people who don’t already know you don’t want to know you. You can send them friendly e-mails or post comments on their MySpace pages, but they’ll never reply after that initial, “Thanks for the add!”

It’s kind of like that now, though I admit it’s mostly self-imposed. Maybe I could work up the courage to make some new friends, but I already know what the response (or lack thereof) is going to be. So I dodge the “Add” buttons, pretending I’m too busy looking for someone or something else. I build an imaginary wall around myself, creating isolation in the process of seeking people out. It’s my way. I tend to get flustered a lot. No wonder my palms are starting to sweat with each failed solicitation, no wonder my mom takes me to see Mr. Chandelier once a week.

I’m sure the evening will end in tears—then I stumble upon a chat room called “The Semantic Web.”

That’s it! I think, gleeful, relieved. Geeks! Byte brothers! Troubadours of tech! I won’t have to worry about my social abilities because it’s supposed to be about the code.

I download into the room. According to the description, all programmers are welcome. The place is small, a bit cluttered; there are tables and chairs spread throughout, a big-screen display and sofa at one end—it’s a converted lounge at someone’s apartment complex, I realize, and it’s packed with people, desktop computers, laptops.

And I’m the youngest person here.

“Virgin!” someone shouts, and immediately two guys step up to me. One of them is holding a Cheetos bag.

He says, “Sorry, but this isn’t a Wii Meetup.”

“I know,” I say. “It’s a Web programmers’ room, right?”


“So, I’m here to talk a little code.”

The Cheetos dude looks at his friend and smirks. “Hmf. You think you’re worthy because you know how to update your PlayStation firmware?”

Actually,” I say, “I design Web pages for paying clients.” Which I do. I rattle off a well-memorized list of skills.

“Okay. You’re a Web Monkey,” says the Cheetos dude.

“Let’s see you do a trick,” says his friend. He pulls a small notepad from his shirt pocket, makes a quick sketch, shows it to me:

“Table or list?” he asks.

I look at the sketch. It’s a grid of thumbnail images. Though a table could be used, I’m guessing by the chat room name that around here tables are taboo, used strictly for tabular data—and even then only when DIVs are totally and completely out of the question.

“List,” I answer, “with the list items set as block elements and floated left. Image margins can be adjusted according to thumbnail size, and a DIV wrapper with the appropriate width can have its right and left margins set to ‘auto’ for a centering effect.”

The Cheetos dude nods, smacks his bright orange lips. “Internet Explorer or Firefox?”

“Opera,” I answer. Opera rocks.

“Okay. You’re worthy. But what about your parents?”

“What about them?”

“Where are they?”

“At home.”

“Are they cool with you hanging around a bunch of strangers?”

Of course they’re cool with it—because they don’t know. “Yeah. I’m not really here. None of us are. These are just our online bodies.” Though I’m thinking I should have taken a closer look at the SMN skin feature, maybe grown myself up by about ten years.

Someone calls out to the Cheetos dude. Something about his drop-down menu problem being solved. “Fuck it. You can stay—but no crying or wetting your pants, okay? This isn’t a nursery.”

I nod, and my greeters leave me standing here feeling like a lost Kindergartner at a grocery store. I’d been accepted as a programmer, but as a person…I’m still just a twelve-year-old boy, the equivalent of someone’s younger brother. Background noise.

I make my way over to one of the tables, where a woolly-looking quartet have set up their laptops.

“Hey,” I say, waving. “Working on some PHP?”

I get some looks, one nod.

I move on, to the sofa. There’s room between the chat room’s sole female and a guy who looks like he just wandered in from two weeks on a desert island. Seating myself, it becomes obvious just how wide the rift is between me and everyone else. My face is baby-smooth, my feet don’t even touch the floor; I feel like I’m slipping between the cushions. I listen for a chance to join the conversation, but it&rsq
uo;s all gibberish. Adult stuff. Money, medication—tax laws.

Eventually I return home, and I sit staring at my computer screen for a good long while. My buddy list still contains only three people: Ernie, Jan, and Eva. I feel younger than I’ve ever felt before. Younger and stupider. Here I have this awesome socializing tool at my disposal and I don’t know how to use it.

Ernie appears in my room around one in the morning, when I’m winding down, finishing my homework before grabbing a couple hours of sleep. He doesn’t seem to have a clue what time it is.

“You boned any hot chicks yet?” he asks, pounding a Red Bull like it’s nothing.

“No,” I reply. Everyone’s too interested in their own business. “I had chores today—and homework.”

“I have a girlfriend.”

“Is that who you invited over?”

“Yep. She’s from California, and she loves my beanie.” He pats his head.

“Go home,” I say, scowling. “I have work to do.”

Ernie pats my shoulder. “You’re only young once. Live it up while you can still get it up.”

“Okay, fine, when I have the time—but right now I need to focus on what I’m doing.” I shoo him away, and he shrugs, tells me to lighten up. I upload him out of my room before he knows what’s happening. Then, alone with my disillusions, I once again hunch over my textbook.

Someone clears his throat behind me.

“Ernie,” I begin, swiveling around—and stopping.

That’s not Ernie standing in front of me. This is someone—something—else, someone with a pale, translucent body that’s so featureless I can’t tell if he’s naked or clothed.

“Who are you?” I ask incredulously.

The visitor looks thoughtful for a moment. “Beta.”

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie


Red Bull Gives You Broken Wings


It’s not like you don’t know any better. I mean, you installed the SMN client on your computer. You don’t install a social networking program unless you intend to network, right? Right. So don’t get your panties in a knot when someone new drops by.

That’s what’s going through my mind as I materialize in amber268’s bedroom, as she looks at me and screams, drops her hair brush. I’ve brought a box of SnackWell’s with me as a gift, but she doesn’t seem to care as she backs away from her computer and stands holding her towel around herself.

It seems I’ve caught her just out of the shower.

“Hello, darling,” I say, trying not to stare at her legs.

She points at her computer. “Fuck off!”

“That’s no way to treat a fellow SMN user.”

“I don’t care! Get lost!”

“Really, now. My feelings are hurt.”

“Ugh! Little boy, didn’t your parents ever teach you to knock?”

I shrug. “My parents are dead. And besides, this is the Internet. There are no doors. Here…” I open the cookie box. “Have one.”

Amber blinks, looks the slightest bit sorry. I’m imagining what she looks like without the towel. “Is that true?”

“What, the doors thing or my parents being dead?”

“Your parents.”

“Yeah, it’s true. They died when I was little. Black Friday stampede.”

“That’s so sad!”

“Yeah,” I say. Most people react like that when I tell them about my parents. If my timing had been better, Amber might have let me snuggle up against her bosom and “talk” about it. “I’m still dealing with the trauma. My shrink says it’s important to work on my intimacy, supplement what I haven’t been getting from my parents.”

Amber cocks her head, fathoming—but, as I mentioned, my timing is off. She’s still pissed that I’m here, and it only takes a moment for her to recover her attitude.

Pointing again at her computer, she says, “Go away.”

“Fine.” Go back to shaving the barnacle from between your legs, or whatever it was you were doing before I got here.

I upload back home, sit at my desk, the SnackWell’s box propped on my knees.

It’s almost midnight.


I should probably finish my homework—but instead I pop the tab to another Red Bull.


I swallow another dose of caffeine.

I move on down the list in a state of denial, a part of me screaming bloody murder because I’ve very nearly visited every one of my 213 “buddies” and I haven’t anything to show for it (Theo, Eva, and Jan don’t count—they’re the defaults). I figured there’d be more of a sensation to the whole SMN thing. So far, no one gives a rat’s ass about fat little Ernest Goodale. No one cool, anyway. No one old enough to drink or buy porno. It’s like having a MySpace full of people you never talk to, and it’s annoying the hell out of me.

Even more annoying: the fact that the SuperMegaNet “Make Friends” interface is so surprisingly simple. Simple, but not easy. It’s really just a table of thumbnailed, real-time video feeds. There are users logged in from all over the world, some talking, others typing, writing, eating, drinking, singing, playing guitar, performing acrobatics, kissing, having sex—anything goes, it seems (the sex displays never last long, though, which leads me to believe there’s some sort of moderation system in place). My favorites are the college girls. I’ve filtered my search results to include only females, ages eighteen to twenty-two…and I’m realizing with each rejection that online women are exactly like offline women: the prettier you are, the more likely it is that you’re a bitch. Still, you’re my yummy favorites, and, like a fool, I keep trying.

I discover the SMN skins feature on accident. I should know better, I should recognize the warning signs—I should have read the help page before trying to make friends with all my buddies. It’s hard. From my perspective, I’m about to visit an enthusiastic brunette with humongous boobs and an empty dorm room.

“Sure, c’mon over,” she says after we’ve exchanged pleasantries. She beckons to me via the video chat window. “My roommates are out for the night, and I’m so bored.”

Jackpot! screams my libido.

Too easy! Danger, danger! screams my conscience.

Shut up, I tell them both. My virginity salutes me, says it’s been an honor serving me, and prepares to bail out. As soon as I finish downloading, however, I know I’ve been had. My busty brunette turns out to be an overweight oaf of a man wearing the most horrific mullet I’ve ever seen. He says that his name’s Brian and that he’s having a sucker party.

“pwned!” his friends shout, pronouncing the “p” with gusto. They snap my photo, point, laugh. They begin to chant: “Fat kid gonna get some! Fat kid gonna get some!”

Now I’m really pissed. I want to punch everyone in the face. I want to overturn the furniture. I want to rip the mullet from Brian’s scalp and banish it back to the horrific dimension from which it was conjured.

While all this is going through my head, Brian sends me home. It takes a full five minutes for me to notice the change in scenery. Afterward, sitting at my computer and angrily clicking here and there, it’s another five minutes before I realize I can’t seem to remove the bastard from my buddy list.

I open the SMN help file, which looks like it was thrown together at the last minute. Typos abound, and some pages are missing altogether. There is no mention of adding / removing buddies. Skins are briefly described:

Skins are a beta feature of SuperMegaNet. Using the Skins add-on, you can alter your digitized appearance, including hair style, eye and skin color, height, weight, build, and more. Currently, this only works in video chat, but with version 1.0 you can expect skins to function throughout your SMN experience. Finally, you can be who you always wanted to be!

I hold my head in my hands.

Fuck Brian and his gay posse. Fuck SuperMegaNet.

I’m so deep in self-pity that I don’t hear her materialize—not that I would, even if I’d been paying attention. This isn’t Star Trek; there’s no chiming or ringing or cheesy flickering lights, only the something-from-nothing sound of clothes rustling behind me, a muffled greeting:


I swivel around in my chair, inadvertently knocking an empty soda can onto the floor. It rolls across the carpet and stops at the sneakered feet of a girl who’s just downloaded herself into my room. She’s carrying a grocery bag.

I want to tell her off, but am too exasperated to give her more than, “Who are you?”

The girl is slow to respond. It looks like she’s having a hard time getting the words out. It’s probably her first time downloading. “I’m Becky. I, um, saw what happened to you, and…I felt so bad I…I thought you could use a friend.”

Yeah, yeah. Rub it in. “I haven’t had the best of luck with this SuperMegaNet bullshit just yet.”

“Tell me about it,” Becky laughs, nervously. “The whole thing is a popularity contest, just like at school.”

I study her. She’s fat, like me, freckled, and has a pig nose—and her laugh sounds like chocolate frosting. Th
ick and gooey. I don’t know how else to describe it. She must eat a lot of dairy. However, she does have several things going for her: she’s my age, she’s actually come to me in search of friendship—

—and she’s brought snacks.

“Ginger snaps are my favorite,” she says as she sits cross-legged on the floor with me. She empties her bag; the space between us becomes cluttered with junk food. “The fruit bars are good, too.”

I’m speechless. I grab a ginger snap. And a fruit bar. And more.

I totally forget about pretty college girls.

This must be what it feels like to fall in love.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Between the Chapters: An Interview with the SuperMegaNet Cast

Theo, Ernest, Jan, and Eva. They’re the latest literary darlings to hit the blogosphere, the core of Jesse Gordon’s new SuperMegaNet series—and they’ve taken a few moments out of their busy schedule to talk about SuperMegaNet, jockettes, and life in general.

What is SuperMegaNet all about?

Theo: Well, a lot of things.

Ernest: Good answer.

Jan: Yes, very concise.

Theo (glaring): Hey, lay off. What I mean is, SMN—that’s short for SuperMegaNet

Ernest: Duh.

Theo: —isn’t about any one thing. Sure, there’s the back story about four kids who get tangled up in each other’s lives after installing a beta program on their computer. The first few episodes set this up, but after that it’s kind of more about life in general. The SMN thing is just the springboard on which Jesse presents his ideas regarding life and technology.

Ernest: It’s also an excuse to shit on us as much as possible.

Eva (nodding): Jesse likes to embarrass his characters. Look at anything he’s done and you’ll find a naked person somewhere along the way—though I suspect he’ll keep us in our undies since we are playing 12-year-olds.

Jan, you’ve already had two underwear scenes, correct?

Jan: Yes. The first time was when I was downloading into Theo’s room and Ernie decided to prank me. The second was when I was sleeping and Eva kind of spied on me.

Was it embarrassing?

Jan: Oh, very. In situations like that I just keep reminding myself that it’s fiction.

The SMN ensemble has made it through five episodes and one “spacer”. Do you think you’ll make it to ten? Twenty?

Ernest: Reader response has been abysmal so far. Clickheads, the last blogfic I worked on, was an instant hit because you knew what it was all about from episode one. The writers did that on purpose—they knew how to get the most out of their online readers’ brief attention spans. SMN is like, “Whatever, whenever.” I think that’s the official tagline, too. Five episodes in and even I’m wondering where the hell it’s going. To be honest, I don’t think we’ll make it past episode six. Jesse is known for not finishing what he starts. But I’m there for him until he calls it quits. And if this thing works out, it could be really cool.

Is it safe to say you’re a pessimist?

Ernest: I’m a realist. People often mistake that for pessimism.

What’s it like being professional characters?

Eva: You never know what’s next. One day you might get a call to play a 40-year-old housewife, the next they want you to be a middle-schooler. You have to dye your hair, or you have to gain weight, or lose weight, or regress age-wise—or go forward 20 years. It just depends.

Ernest: I did some work for Terry Pratchett years ago, and I’ve become typecast as the fat kid ever since, though sometimes I get to play characters that don’t “wobble,” if you get my drift.

Jan, you too have done this sort of thing before, haven’t you?

Jan: Yes. I played the part of John in Heroes’ Day.

Also by Jesse Gordon.

Jan: Yeah. I guess he liked what I did, and so he asked me back for SuperMegaNet.

What was Heroes’ Day like?

Jan: It was tricky. They wanted me to be sort of the tall, dark, and handsome boy. I had to be smooth, but I had to be uncertain as well. I also had to work out a lot—I had to look like a gymnast. I did a lot of my own stunts, and all of my own accidents (laughs). But I got to kiss the girl, so it wasn’t all bad.

Can you give an insight as to what’s in store for SuperMegaNet 1.6 and beyond?

Theo: New characters will be introduced—Jack SQL, for one. He’s a kind of disembodied AI that’s part of the SuperMegaServer. And some leftovers from Heroes’ Day who’ll be playing Eva’s so-called “jockette” friends.

Ernest: I hate jockettes.


Ernest: They’re too cocky. All that training and competing—they don’t know how to turn it off when they’re hanging with you at the pizza joint.

Theo: Do jockettes even go to pizza joints?

Eva: No, they stick to Jamba Juice.

Ernest, does your apathy in this area affect your on-page relationship with Eva?

Ernest: No. Eva’s a jockette, but she’s cool with us. Summer, her best friend, is the overbearing know-it-all.

When will we meet her?

Ernest: Never, with any luck.

SuperMegaNet deals a lot with cyber life. How computer-savvy are you?

Ernest: Theo’s actually a geek, no shit. He’s got this laptop bag he carries around with him. Between blog entries he plays MMORPGs. Jesse decided to use his actual screen name for the series.

Which is?

Theo: ‭l33t_master.

Eva (snickering): He reads a lot of Megatokyo.

Jan: He thinks he’s l33t.

Do readers have to be l33t in order to “get” SuperMegaNet?

Ernest: Not at all. As Theo hinted, it’s really just about four kids growing up together in an unusual way and working through their problems. Theo’s got insomnia issues, and his mother is a tree-hugger—and his dad is Chinese. His mother is Russian. Me, I’m battling with obesity. Eva has a crush on Jan, but he’s clueless. And so forth.

Sum up SuperMegaNet in one word.

Ernest: Super.

Theo: Mega.

Eva: Um…net? (laughs)

Jan: Damn. You guys took all the cool words.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

The Morning After


It could have been much worse. I mean, being grouped together with three idiotic boys to collaborate on homework assigned by a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking guidance counselor should have resulted in a total disaster. On any other day in any other town, it would have been a skewered reiteration of the obvious fact that the four of us are “gifted” and in dire need of lives. But we’ve beaten the odds. We’ve bypassed all that is awkward and uncomfortable about the First Day of School—and in a way that has completely changed my regard toward computers. I mean, I’ve heard of Moore’s law, I know the power of modern-day computer circuits is increasing exponentially, but a program that can turn people’s webcams into teleportation devices—that’s genius. Inconceivable. As mind-boggling as it was a hundred years ago to imagine that one day entire symphonies would be stored on cheap plastic discs.

SuperMegaNet is that next amazing thing. I don’t know how it works, but it does. I was there. In Theo’s home and, later, in Ernie’s…in Jan’s. And now I’m back at school, blinking in the dim, smoky light of Mrs. Thrailkill’s office as she goes over our questionnaires. My ordinary, mediocre life has become a dream within a dream. I don’t think I mind. I don’t think any of us minds. Each of us is tired, swollen from lack of sleep, but nevertheless beaming as we sit and wait. We’ve gotten to know each other by now, and not just because we finished our paper assignment. That came later, once each of us had finally returned home to get what little sleep there was to be had (I actually scribbled in my answers during breakfast). The real assignment lay in the populating of our respective buddy lists. I filled mine with friends from my old school: Susie, Summer, Maria, and Lily. The SMN “invite” feature let me e-mail each of the girls a copy of the installer. Once they got past the “this is a prank, isn’t it?” phase, they added me, too, and set up dates and places where we could meet in person. Theo did the same with several of his friends; Ernie (I know his name is Ernest, but he’s cool with the nickname—and besides, his maturity level is more “Ernie” than “Ernest”) and Jan followed suit.

Oh, Jan. I think of him now, tuning out whatever Mrs. Thrailkill is saying as I recall last night. For a moment I’m back in Theo’s bedroom. We’re all dressed down for the night. Sadly, Jan has put a shirt on. I felt so bad when Ernie pulled his pants down, but I enjoyed it, too. I mean, he really looks good all over, and I’m replaying the memory back in my head every chance I get. The whole night Theo’s being really nice to me, probably because I’m the girl. He seems to have some sort of obligation to put me on a pedestal—it’s flattering and annoying, and I find myself mostly ignoring him, mostly watching Jan. I can do this uninterrupted because Theo’s parents respect his privacy—but he’s a boy. I’m my daddy’s little girl, so I’m always being checked on, my dad sticking his head inside my bedroom at regular intervals and asking me, “How’s my little girl?” I always have to pretend I’m doing homework—it’s a hassle, and I wonder how I’m going to manage my SMN time without getting caught.

For now I’m allowing the risks. You’d do the same if you were me. At midnight I tell everyone goodnight, and download myself back home. It feels naughty, like I’m swimming naked in a pool full of ice cubes—not that I’ve ever done anything like that before. And not that I’m a prude either. I have nothing against those old people who run the nudist camp down at Moon River. Swimming naked in a pool filled with ice cubes is merely an approximation. I wouldn’t mind if Jan were with me.

I can’t believe what I’m about to do. Surely I’m going to get caught. I don’t even know why I’m doing it, sitting here at the computer in my mind’s eye, physically at school but mentally curled up amongst the dozen or so life-sized The Nightmare Before Christmas dolls that fill my bedroom. I’m watching, waiting for Jan to return home. When he does, I totally feel like a voyeur, for he leaves his webcam on as he shimmies out of his clothes and plops himself into bed. I wait for him to fall asleep before clicking “Visit.”

At first I think I’m in a large bedroom, but then I realize it’s a living room—Jan’s room is his parents’ living room. He has a futon tucked beside a small desk, with a dresser acting as a makeshift privacy screen (his parents get the bedroom, I’m guessing). I stand very still; my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I can see him laying sprawled between the sheets, his darling bottom clad in lime-green briefs.

My goodness. The Internet has brought out the worst in me. Here I am standing over an almost-naked boy I’ve just met, and yet I’m not caring as I’m imagining him a man, watching him sleep with his arms around his pillow—I’m wishing he was cuddling with me instead. I have to force myself to look away. Go back home, I tell myself. This isn’t right.

I can’t budge, though. In the glow of the computer screen I can make out the murky details of Jan’s space. There are dumbbells on the floor beside his backpack. I move closer to the desk and spot a variety of bodybuilding magazines stacked atop a dozen or so black and white printouts of some naked female bodybuilder named Rivieccio. Ernie had made fun of his affinity for Amazonian women, but I think it’s cute. Jan likes his women strong. I’m strong. Not musclebound, but sturdy. I’d always considered my build an unfortunate side effect of being on the wrestling team, but now…

My mind merges itself with the present-tense once again. I look at Theo, Ernie, and Jan through the carcinogenic haze of Thrailkill’s office. Everyone looks like hell. It’s been a long night. I don’t know how we’ve managed to get our assignment done. I glance over Ernie’s shoulder; his list on Jan reads:

  1. Czech
  2. Poor
  3. Has a girl’s name
  4. Likes to bone steroids chicks
  5. Has a shitty DSL connection

That fat-ass. What does he know? Jan is gorgeous. Sure, he’s frizzy, clothes loose-threaded—even his dollar store dye job has made his hair look orange instead of blond—but he’s still gorgeous. I think I’m in love. I shouldn’t feel like this, should I? I’m only twelve. It’s wrong and it’s right and I don’t know what to make of it.

“My ex-husband loved Asia,” Thrailkill snorts, bringing me back into focus. “Loved it so much he decided to marry a flight attendant after one weekend in Shanghai.” She glares at Theo. “But it’s not your fault your favorite band chose such a pretentious name.”

* * *

The euphoria wears off around lunchtime. Part of it is the fact that I’m really starting to feel the effects of last night’s SMN binge, but mostly it’s the dawning audacity of me being a ninth grader. Everyone else is taller than me. The girls have hips, boobs—and boyfriends. Their clothes are too small. I step into the Boca Linda cafeteria and it’s bare midriffs and butt cracks galore. I’m quite out of place in my jogging suit and sneakers. I feel like an uninvited guest at a masquerade party.

Walking past the jocks staging arm-wrestling matches with each other, past the nerds playing Nintendo DS, the theater queens rehearsing their lines, past the Goths counting down the minutes until their next act o
f self-mutilation, past the svelte California boys wearing the form-fitting “I was fucked over by Prop 8” T-shirts, I find my friends.

Theo waves to me, makes room for me to sit.

We’re no longer on assignment, but we stick together anyway because we know it’s pointless to try to make friends with the older kids—or to sit alone at opposite ends of the cafeteria while brooding over our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We must look like fetuses to the others,” Theo says.

With peanut butter smearing his chin, Ernie adds, “Or circus freaks.”

Jan rests his head on the tabletop. Behind him, at the next table, a group of shaggy senior boys is giving us a “Who are you supposed to be?” kind of look.

“Fuck them,” says Ernie. “Let them smoke their cigarettes and feel each other up between class—we don’t need them. We’ve got SuperMegaNet.”

It’s a silly thing to say. Ernie looks like he means it, but I can tell there’s a trace of resentment in his voice. I want to change the subject, talk about my classes, my teachers. It won’t do any good, however. Physically we’re here, but socially we’re not. I’m feeling it through and through. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if I’m someone’s younger sister, or if I’m lost. When I show off my class schedule, I get a stupid smile in return. I’m cute, they all say. I’m special.

“I noticed last night that you all left your webcams on,” I mention after several minutes of quiet eating. “What time did you guys go to sleep?”

“Sleep is for the dead,” Ernie says, and pops open a Red Bull. (That’s his lunch: Red Bull—and Doritos.)

Theo looks curious. “Did you guys have trouble shutting off your computers, too?”

Jan lifts his head, concerned.

“Yeah,” says Ernie. “I was too tired to figure it out, though.” He glares at Theo. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“You’re the geek, aren’t you? What’s wrong with our computers?”

Theo looks thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe SuperMegaNet is an ‘always on’ kind of thing. Like how certain games or media players disable your screensaver when you use them.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t just disabling our screensavers,” I say, “it’s keeping us from turning our computers off.”

“It could be a failsafe.”

“How’s that?” asks Ernie.

“Well, it’s probably not a good thing to have our computers turn off during a download—or before we’re able to return home.”

“So…so we have no more privacy, then?” asks Jan.

Theo adjusts his glasses. “Not as long as we’re using SuperMegaNet, I’m guessing.”

Jan swallows hard. “You mean…?”

“Yes,” says Ernie. “I’m afraid we’ll be seeing a lot more of your lime-green undies.”

I laugh, but it’s a forced sound, now that my brain is entertaining the possibilities. Oh, God—what if Theo or Ernie had seen me sneaking into Jan’s room? I study them both from behind my juice box, looking for hints, clues—thankfully Ernie starts talking about himself.

“I’m throwing a party,” he announces, emptying the rest of the Doritos bag into his mouth. “You guys are invited. You too, Eva.”

I scowl.

“When?” asks Jan.

“Friday night.”

“Your parents are cool with it?” asks Theo. “Or are we going to have to whisper the entire time?”

“I live with my grandparents,” says Ernie. “They stay out of my business, I stay out of their medicine cabinet.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing special. Just a buddy list party.”

“So, that’s…me, Jan, and Eva.”

“For your information,” says Ernie, “while you losers slept like little girls—no offense, Eva—I was networking.”

Jan asks, “How many buddies do you have?”


“You don’t know 213 people!” Theo exclaims.

“No, but after this weekend’s shindig, I’ll be the talk of the town.”

I shake my head. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous adding random people to your buddy list—especially now that we know you can’t just turn off your SuperMegaNet connection?”

Ernie waves his hand dismissively. “Hey, you’ve got to meet people to make friends. I’m networking. And if worst comes to worst, I can always unplug the fucking power cord.”

“I suppose you’re right,” says Theo. “Still…”

“Oh, there he goes again with the worrying!” Ernie rolls his eyes and winks at Jan. “Just wait till he’s getting a lap dance from a busty college chick with a thing for bottle-end glasses. Then he’ll understand the true power of the Internet.”

What a pig. I want to chide him for being so crude, but I’m too busy scolding myself over last night’s transgression—

—I hope to God I haven’t been caught.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Tips for 2:00 A.M.


Sleep deprivation.


It’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m laying sprawled on my bed.

But I’m also sitting in a chair at the center of my bedroom. There are images flickering between the shadows, sounds echoing between my ears. I think I’m asleep…or else I’m hallucinating. Maybe a little of both. Someone—Ernest’s afterimage, perhaps—is putting on a record, which is strange because I don’t own a turntable.

“You Can Do Magic,” by America, starts playing.

I try to say, “Quit touching my stuff, Ernest.” Instead, it comes out, “Quee touth mm sluh, Unsth.”

Ernest crouches beside me, gives me a wet willy. “I told you to call me Ernie.”

Damn it. He’s getting crumbs on my floor. I can see them now as they dance across the room. I want to clean them up, but I can’t budge. I’m certain now that I’m not yet fully asleep but caught in that purgatory of the mind that often accompanies insomnia. I get like this often. I’ve always had trouble falling asleep. Two-thirds of any given night is usually spent staving off much-needed REM. In effect, I’m power-napping, but not actually sleeping.

It’s pissing me off. Why can’t I just take sleeping pills? Oh, that’s right, they’re not natural. My mom’s already had this discussion with me. She’s a homeopath. Herbs, aromatherapy, and acupuncture are her tools of the trade. She’s been practicing natural on me for twelve years and the best she can come up with for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT.

Learning the hard way.

I sigh. It’s just like a finger puzzle, I tell myself: the harder I try to sleep, the more agitated I become. But if I let the imagery distract me from trying to fall asleep, if I concentrate on not concentrating…well, you see why I sometimes wish I could pop some pills and be done with it. Tricky stuff.

For now, I convince myself I’m watching a movie. The chair beneath me reshapes itself into a plush recliner; the furniture in my room has been fitted with wheels—everything is flat as cardboard, like cheap props in a high school play. My things are wheeled away, replaced with Ernie’s things: bed, dresser, numerous shelves stacked with Maxim magazines, bottle caps, baseball cards, Carl’s Jr. plastic tickets, movie theater stubs. On the floor: forgotten underwear, socks, potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and, ironically, a copy of the Little Hercules Hollywood Workout for Kids DVD. I laugh, remembering how funny it was the first time I saw it.

“You know darn well,” Ernie lip-syncs angrily, “when you cast your spell you will get your way…”

Jan and Eva look at each other and shrug. They step out of the way, for the invisible stagehands are at it again. Ernie’s room is wheeled away, everything replaced with hanging tinsel. My clothes are pulled off; I’m lifted out of my seat and dangled in mid-air so that my bare torso is at the mercy of the tinsel (which reaches easily from ceiling to floor). I realize this is supposed to be a mock-up of what it was like uploading into Jan’s room. It tickles so much and for so long that I think I’m going to die, but eventually it fades, the tinsel is removed, and the backdrop is replaced with a small living room. There’s a futon, desk, and dresser arranged as a makeshift partition in one corner. Thankfully, my clothing has been replaced just as Ernie and the others appear alongside me.

“Fucking poor people,” Ernie says, lifting an entire cheesecake to his lips and nibbling vigorously. “Talk about saving the worst for last.”

Okay, so I’m pretty sure the cheesecake is an exaggeration. The scattered female bodybuilder pics cluttering Jan’s desktop, however, aren’t.

“Dude,” I say, holding up a half-wrinkled black and white print-out and reading the caption. “Who’s Annie Rivieccio?”

“Give me that‭!” Jan cries, yanking the sheet from my hand.

Ernie snorts, spewing graham cracker crust onto Jan’s computer monitor. “Wow. Creepy, but cost-effective jack-off material.”

Jan is lobster-red.‭ Hastily filing his musclebound beauties away,‭ ‬he clears his throat and says, “‬Can we please stick to the assignment?”

“Relax. This is all fact-gathering—hey, look, everyone! Jan’s a closet jock!” Ernie struggles to lift one of Jan’s dumbbells, but gives up when his arm falls off.

I know I’m dreaming, so I laugh hysterically.

“That’s not nice,” Eva says, slapping my shoulder. She bends over to help Ernie re-attach his arm. As she does so, her skimpier-than-they-actually-were gym shorts ride up just enough to catch my attention, and I suddenly discover my own burgeoning affinity for the female posterior.

I have to look away, lest my eyes pop out of their sockets. A barrage of adjectives floods my mind: cute, perky, perfect, apple bottom, honey buns, and so forth. Luckily my brain has relaxed to the point where shifting from thought to thought isn’t a problem. I blink once, find that I’m standing over my bathroom sink and brushing my teeth. Everyone else has called it a night—well, everyone but Ernie, who’s uploaded himself behind my back and who’s now standing behind me in his bathrobe.

He wants to know if he can borrow some toothpaste.

I shoo him away, sending him back home and turning off my computer. I make a mental note to upload into his house tomorrow and replace his box of SnackWell’s with a bag of fresh carrots. Or, better yet, I’ll sneak over and mess with his SMN settings so that the next time he uploads he’ll be all pixelated, like Jan. No! Even better, I’ll replace his Maxim collection with issues of my mom’s Cooking Light

And that’s how I fall asleep this crazy, crazy morning: thinking up things to do to unsuspecting friends who are but a click away.

Cognitive behavioral therapy—it works.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie



It’s a joke. It’s got to be a joke. I’m the new guy, new in town, new to the States—do they think that means I’m flat-out dumb? Computers can’t just transport you to other people’s homes. But there they are, Theo and Ernest, in the same frame together, yelling at me and Eva to join in. Well, Ernest is doing all the yelling; Theo’s putting on this stunned-silent act. He’s standing frozen behind Ernest.

“Holy shit!” Ernest gasps, his bulk taking up most of the screen as he babbles away . “What are you guys waiting for? You have to try this out!”

Eva sends me a private text message: WTF?

I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t think I like Ernest. I don’t think he likes me, what with the way he keeps pronouncing my name with a “J” sound, the way he called me Czech earlier. And now this idiotic ploy to make a fool out of me in front of everyone else. It makes me wonder about the American socializing process. In Brno, people go about their business, not really talking to each other on the street. Tourists probably think we’re being rude, when really we’re just being efficient. In America, everyone’s always saying “hello,” or “good day,” or “how’s it going?” every few steps. Everything’s okay if you just nod or say “hi,” but if you actually talk to these people, they start looking flustered, glancing at their wristwatches and acting like they have to be somewhere else. So, I know there’s a trick to Americans—a do-but-don’t kind of thing. I just have to figure out the nuances.

Ernest yells at us again.

“Computers can’t do that,” I say.

Eva agrees, verbally and in text.

“Are you blind as well as Czech?” Ernest grabs Theo by the shoulders, rattles him like a rag doll. There’s a thin trail of drool trickling down Theo’s chin; he seems to have broken into a sweat. “Look! I’m in Theo’s bedroom!”

I want no part of the joke. “That just proves you brought over your laptop for your little sleepover.”

“I don’t have a laptop, goddamnit!”

“Fine.” I fold my arms. “Transport Eva.”

Eva frowns. “You guys are being stupid.”

She sounds like she’s on my side, but there’s still the chance she’s in on the scheme. I politely suggest that she go next, ladies first and all that. If she appears in Ernest’s video window, then I’ll know she’s in on it. They’re having a co-ed sleepover or something (how in the world did Theo get his parents to agree to that?), and they want to haze the new guy.

“Eva!” Ernest says. “Theo pissed himself—you’ve got to see this!”

“I did not!” Theo retorts, finally snapping out of his reverie and frowning. “I spilled my tea when your fat ass came tumbling into the room!”

“Your tea? You drink tea?”

“Guys,” Eva interrupts, “we should be working on our assignment—”

“This is the assignment!” Ernest screams.

“Dude!” Theo screams, equally as loud. “Lower your voice! If my parents see what’s going on…well, I don’t know what they’d say!”

Ernest waves him away, frames himself in an extreme close-up. “Okay, Eva, just stand up and click ‘Visit!’”

Eva sighs, standing. “Fine. Whatever. Jan, let’s just play along so that we can get this over with and do some actual work.”

“Agreed.” I stand, too. Me and Eva click the visit button at the same time—at least, I think we do. For a moment nothing happens, and I’m about to sit back down—but then I see her start to dissolve. And when I say dissolve, I mean she’s really dissolving! Disappearing! Vanishing from head to toe!

But that’s the least of my worries, for I’m slipping between myself, into an all-encompassing mosaic of pixels.

And it tickles.

And I’m laughing, shouting, crying: “Quit it, quit it, quit it!”


Or, more likely, for just a few minutes.

I don’t realize what’s happened until I’ve downloaded (from top to bottom, like a Web image) completely. I’m standing alongside the others in some kind of pristine Zen garden, a bedroom that’s not my own, a shrine to Asia (the band), Asia (the culture), feng shui, tapestries, bonsai—it’s the cleanest, most perfectly organized room I’ve ever been in.

“Můj bože!” I gasp, looking at Theo, Ernest, and Eva—all of whom suddenly grow quiet.

Someone has pulled down my pants.

But, again, that’s the least of my worries.

“Oh, Jan!” cries Eva.

“You’re…” Theo adds.

“…even frizzier than usual!” finishes Ernest. He laughs. “Fucking DSL. I told you your connection sucks.”

Panic grips me as I pull up my pants, and not just because everyone has seen my underwear. I hold out my hands, which are marred by artifacts. I look like a poorly-compressed JPEG. My voice sounds like a low-bitrate MP3. “Oh, no! What am I going to do? I can’t stay like this! What if somebody sees me? My parents—”

Ernest covers my mouth with his hand. “Relax. We’ll figure it out. Isn’t this cool though?”

I try to yell “No!” but Ernest’s hand muffles the sound.

“How do you feel?” Eva asks, poking my arm with her finger.

“How do you think I feel?”

“Like you’re made of dirty Legos?” suggests Ernest.

In the background, Theo has locked his bedroom door, and is pulling a beanbag out from the closet. He sets it on the floor and, smiling shyly, offers Eva a seat. Then he sits at his computer, says, “Let me check the help file. There’s probably something in here about, er, compression and all that.”

I can tell he’s worried.

Ernest, on the other hand, is making himself at home, questioning nothing and no one as he lets me go, thoroughly explores his new environment. He flips through Theo’s mangas, pokes through his CD racks, plays with his Chinese lamp. Maybe he’s trying to keep casual for my benefit—keep me calm by acting nonchalant. Or maybe it’s ADD. I mean, he just teleported across town, and yet he’s acting like…well, I guess he’s acting like someone who’s in shock after teleporting across town.

Eva comes to stand beside me. “This is so freaky!”

I grunt. “You mean me, or the overall SuperMegaNet concept?”

“Both.” She feels my arm again, as if she’s sampling a piece of fabric. “Does it hurt? Does everything sound fuzzy?”

Now that she mentions it, I do feel different. Soft. Thick. “Not really,” I say, shrugging, wishing she’d stop focusing solely on my predicament. I’m not worried just yet (my brain is still trying to separate fact from fantasy)—but I’m close.

Luckily, Theo seems to have found what he’s looking for.

“I see what’s happened,” he says as everyone gathers around his desk. “It says here that when you use SuperMegaNet a high quality, uncompressed version of yourself is stored on your computer, but to save bandwidth on computers with slow Internet connections—”

“Like Jan’s,” Ernest interrupts.

I frown at him.

“—the default setting is to upload a down-sampled version of yourself. However, pixelation and/or artifacting is only temporary and is reversed when you return to your home computer. ‘You can override this at any time via the Preferences dialog. If you have any questions, please contact our tech support using the provided feedback form, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.’”

“Oh, so that’s all it is,” sighs Ernest—as if he’s known all along.

Eva claps excitedly.

Theo nods, doing some more clicking. His SuperMegaNet window looks a little different than mine, with the addition of “Send Home” buttons next to his guests’ names. “So, I’ll just send you back home. You can fix your settings and re-upload again. Might take longer, but you should look and sound just like Ernest and Eva.”

I stand straight, realizing in the back of my mind that I’ve become a test subject for the SuperMegaNet company. Lucky me. “I’m ready—but don’t any of you touch my pants this time, okay?”

Ernest holds up his hands, takes a step back.

Theo sends me home. The trip tickles me just as badly as before, but I’m ready for it, and when I’m back in the soft glow of my parents’ living room, I stifle a triumphant shout. I’m whole again! On my computer screen, Ernest and Eva are cheering while Theo desperately calls for some kind of order—

“Oh, Jan, there you are.”

I quickly sober as my dad passes through the living room on his way into the kitchen. “Sure, tatínek. What’s up?”

“Nothing. Thought you’d gone out for a jog.”

“Ne. Just doing some homework.”

My dad nods, ruffles his thinning hair, which is prematurely salt-and-pepper. “That’s good. How’s the new school?”

“It’s okay,” I reply, scooting deftly over to my desk and minimizing the SuperMegaNet window. “I made some friends.”


“Yeah. They’re kind of weird, but…we’re managing.”

Smiling, my dad continues on into the kitchen. I stand still for a moment, listening to him talk about this and that as he rummage in the freezer. I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I wish he’d just hole up in his room with mom for the night. The computer is out here, in the living room. So’s my bed, my things. My family lives in a single bedroom apartment; my parents get the bedroom, and I get the living room. It’s usually not a problem unless it’s summer and I want to sleep naked—or unless I’m uploading myself to friends’ houses via unbelievably cool freeware. Regardless, this is supposed to be my room.

I sigh, sitting at my computer and toying with the mouse. I wonder what would happen if my parents come out and I’m gone? If they turn the computer off while I’m at Theo’s, will I have to walk home? Would it be me walking home, or would it be a copy, so that the next time I upload myself I’ll be making a copy of a copy?

Thankfully, my dad’s only getting a glass of water. He heads back to the bedroom, waving to me and telling me goodnight. I return the favor, listen for the sound of the bedroom door closing—and then I spring into action, rummaging for a shirt and socks. I sit at my desk and open the SuperMegaNet preferences dialog. There are compression options there; I choose “lossless,” click “save,” and bring up my messenger window. Theo is still sitting at his desk, with Eva and Ernest standing behind him (Ernest has acquired a box of cookies and is snacking away; he gives me a thumbs-up). With one last glance over my shoulder, I click the visit button.

It takes a full ten minutes this time. However, when I’m done, I’m just like the others: no fuzz, no frizz. And instead of just chatting with the people on my buddy list, I’m actually visiting them.

Ernest high-fives me, offers me a cookie from his box of fat-free SnackWell’s. I wolf it down—SuperMegaNet has given me a voracious appetite!

“So…” says Theo, swiveling around in his chair and grinning ear to ear. “What now?”

“Friends!” exclaims Ernest. “Movie stars! Supermodels! Fluffs! We’re going to have the coolest buddy lists in the world!”

“What about our homework assignment?” asks Eva.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Ernest with a dismissive wave of his hand. He gathers everyone into a circle; there are crumbs in his hair (how the heck do you get cookie crumbs in your hair?). “We’ll get to that. First: a pact. With awesome power comes awesome responsibility.‭ ‬We must use our newfound beta freeware wisely and efficiently. Above all, we must not tell our parents.”

“Why not?” asks Theo.

Ernest scowls. “What happens when you find twenty dollars laying in the street? You’re told to donate it to charity. What happens when your dad catches you downloading MP3s off the Internet? He tells you not steal and switches you to a limited computer account. What happens when a nice man drives up alongside you in a van and asks if you want some candy? Your mom tells you to say no!”

Okay, so the candy analogy is stupid—Ernest nevertheless has a point. My parents are okay with me chatting online, as well as maintaining a MySpace profile, but I can just imagine what they would say if they knew I now had the ability to physically interact with my online friends: “Oh, I don’t know about this, Jan,” or, “You know how uninhibited those online folk can be.” Not that I have any intention of taking cyber-crime-and-or-sex to the next level. This is just a really, really cool development, and I don’t want it to end before it’s begun.

I excitedly place my hand atop the others’. I mean, as Ernest originally pointed out, this is super, it’s mega, and even though it’s been the strangest first day of school I’ve ever had, I’m loving every minute of it.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Byte Me


Oh, my God. Look at those absolutely perfect titties.


And that absolutely flat tummy, those gently flared thighs.


And that absolutely munchable—

“Hi, Ernest.”


Theo’s head and shoulders pop up on my screen, obscuring my view of busty_bare_bimbos_gallery_2.html. “It’s Theo, from school. Are you up for Mrs. Thrailkill’s assignment?”

Thrailkill! Who does that carcinogenic bitch think she is, anyway? Telling me who to collaborate with! “I know who you are, Theo.” I wipe my brow, readjust my pants before turning on my webcam.

“Oh, sorry,” Theo says, looking apologetic as soon as he sees me. “Did you just get out of the shower?”

Jesus, am I sweating that profusely? “Yeah. No big deal.”

I wait, alt-tabbing between Theo’s window and the Bimbos gallery. He’s saying something about how he’s looking forward to working with me and the others, but I’m not really listening. I try to nod at regular intervals, though, give him the impression that I’m not being an asshole. When Eva joins, I arrange her and Theo on the periphery of my screen, allowing my Web browser prime real-estate in the center. They talk to each other for a few minutes, and a balance is struck between me, my bimbos, and my study buddies. Jan ruins this, however, by popping up right where my favorite college cheerleader’s snatch is peeking out from under her miniskirt. Needless to say, my mojo is lost. Trampled. Wilting in my pants. I close my browser window—but not before bookmarking the Bimbos site.

Sorry ladies, but I have to make friends tonight.

“All right,” I say, grabbing pen and paper. “How do we start this thing?”

“I’ll go first,” Theo offers.

“Wait,” says Eva. “Do we, like, have each of us offer five things about herself, and everyone carbon-copies to their list? Or do we each have to learn five different things about each other person?”

“Fuck that,” I say. “That would mean fifteen facts per person. I don’t think any of us is that interesting.”

“Speak for yourself,” I hear Eva grumble, though by the time I look at her screen she’s smiling that way girls do after they’ve dispensed with something “witty.”

“I don’t think Mrs. Thrailkill really meant for us to do hardcore research,” says Theo. “It’s probably just something she has students like us do—an exercise. Busywork.”

I agree. Thrailkill must die. “Right. I say we treat this like a book report: first and last paragraph are genuine, middle three are filler.”

Eva rolls her eyes. “Geez, aren’t you three lazy.”

Jan looks like he wants to defend himself, but is too shy to speak up.

I decide to break the ice. “So, Jan, what’s with the girl’s name?”

“My name’s pronounced Yawn,” he corrects. “The J sounds like a Y.”

“Oh. You Lithuanian or something?”


“I thought you said you were from Brno.”

“I am. I moved to the United States two years ago.”

“But Brno’s the capital of Switzerland, isn’t it?”

“You’re thinking of Bern,” Theo says. I can tell he wants to add “stupid,” but catches himself in time.

“Can we get started?” asks Eva, looking anxious. “I don’t want to spend my entire evening sitting in front of the computer.”

Girls. The more flat-chested, the more annoying. “Fine. Take it away, Theo.”

Theo clears his throat, adjusts his glasses, and looks thoughtful for a moment. “Um…my name’s Theo Ivanovich. I’m twelve years old. I like to read manga, and my favorite band is, um, Asia. My mom’s ‭an aromatherapist and homeopathic doctor who works out of our house.”

There’s a surprise, I think to myself, noting Theo’s porcelain-smooth skin. Not a single blemish, thanks to his witch-doctor mommy. I’m not jealous, though. Not much. “And you, Eva?”

“I’m twelve years old. My last name is Taylor. I like to make video scrapbooks in my spare time. My dad’s in construction. My mom runs a flower shop. I’m also on the wrestling team.”

“You can’t wrestle!” I blurt, innocently enough. “You’re a girl!”

Eva scowls at me. “I could take you down.”

Theo chuckles.

Jan smirks.

I glare at him. “Okay, your turn, Czech.”

I scrutinize his screen as he starts talking—I realize for the first time how choppy the video is. Five frames per second, max.

“Wait, wait,” I say, interrupting.

Jan stops, stares.

“Dude, I can not look at your messenger window. It’s giving me headaches.”

“What’s wrong with my window?” Jan asks.

“It’s the equivalent of a slide show.”

“Are you on dial-up?” asks Theo.

“DSL,” Jan responds.

“Who’s your provider?”

“Um…DXL Pro, I think.”

“Ugh,” I mutter. I’ve heard of DXL, and they suck ass. “You need to upgrade to cable.”

Jan snorts. “Why? Are you paying?”

“Why? Are you poor?”

Eva looks like she just shit herself. “How mean—”

Theo, evidently trying to be helpful, cuts in: “We could try different conferencing software. Maybe something with better compression.”

I nod, opening my browser and clicking the Bimbos bookmark. “Good idea, Theo. You look for a new video chat program, and when you find it, give us a holler.”

“Let’s all look,” Eva sighs, “and whoever finds something that looks suitable, send everyone else the URL. Okay?”

Theo is quick to agree. I can tell he’s already got a hard-on for Eva. The poor bastard, he doesn’t realize she’s way out of his league, one of those well-to-do girls who, despite her bug eyes, becomes a football player’s squeeze the very instant she turns sixteen. I know the score. Girls our age don’t want boys; they want men. Period. That leaves us junior guys with two options: Debra Lafave, or Internet porn.

I want to tell everyone I have better things to do (which I do), and not only because I get ornery when I don’t keep to my usual Internet schedule…but I can take one for the team if it’ll get Thrill-Kill off my case. And, truthfully, it’s not so bad having some new peeps to add to the ol’ buddy list. I mean, I have friends from middle school, too many, if you ask me (you don’t believe me? Fuck you, then!), but it’s convenient to have skipped over the preliminary socializing process at Boca Linda—even if it’s resulted in a nerd-jock-fatso-gurl combo.

(Hey, I’m a realist.)

I click over to, do a search, skim the results. At first, the candidates aren’t promising—

—then I see it.

“Hey, everyone,” I say. “I found a program! Sending the link right now.”

Theo scowls when he sees the name. “SuperMegaNet?”

“Hellz yeah! It’s both super and mega!”

“It’s still in beta, though.”

“Yeah, but look at the features. ‘Real-time, real-world conversation—no virtualization; automat
ic bandwidth optimization; superior transmission technology—you’re in the same room with your friends! SuperMegaNet: Ultimate Collaboration!’”

“Those are all vague terms. It sounds like vaporware.”

“Vaporware?” asks Jan.

“Yeah,” says Theo. “A work-in-progress that’s mediocre, or even shitty. The developers announce it way ahead of time to drum up buzz. They make false promises and use all these vague or confusing terms to make their product sound alluring…”

Theo’s voice turns to white noise in my head as I double-click the SuperMegaNet installer. That’s Theo’s problem, see? He thinks too much, whereas I use my thinking as a garnish on my actions. Keeps things moving. Theo is probably one of those kids who holds up the cafeteria line while trying to decide between chicken nuggets and chicken-fried steak. He’d never get anywhere in life without someone like me pushing him along.

“Okay, everyone have their shit installed?” I ask once the InstallShield wizard has completed.

“Yeah,” chime Jan and Eva in unison.

“Good…so what’s this ‘visitor’ and ‘host’ jargon?”

Theo looks disgruntled, but gives in to mob rule, installing the SuperMegaNet program and reading the instructions. “It says one of us has to serve as ‘host’ to everyone else—one of us will be the host, and the rest will be the visitors. Like, a server/client sort of thing.”

I laugh, skimming over the README file that’s appeared on my screen. “It says the host has to have enough room for all his guests, so don’t invite like thirty people if you don’t think they’ll fit in your board room, office, living room, bedroom, or whatever.”

“That’s dumb-speak,” says Theo. “It probably has to do with RAM and bandwidth and all that. If you have too many people in the same chat room the connection gets sluggish. We should be fine, though.”

“I don’t know about Jan,” I say, forgetting to pronounce the J as a Y. “His connection really sucks.”

“I get it,” Jan says. He rolls his eyes.

Theo holds up his hands, mediator-style. “Let’s just try this SuperMegaNet thing. Who wants to be host?”

“Why don’t you be the host?” asks Eva. “Your video looks the smoothest.”

“Okay, then.” Theo does some clicking. He nods. “Up and running. My room is called #theos_place.”

How original, I think. “I’ll go first, ’kay?”

Theo and Eva nod; Jan shrugs. I look at my shiny new messenger window, which is pretty fucking mediocre. There’s an input field and a button; above, there’s a pull-down menu labeled, “Transmission Quality.” I choose “high quality / broadband.” I enter Theo’s room name and click “Visit.”

Nothing happens.

After a moment, a message window pops up: “Error: You must be standing upright before transfer can begin.”

“Fuck.” I knew there’d be some troubleshooting involved sooner or later—there always is.

“What’s the matter?” asks Eva.

“Nothing,” I reply, clicking the visit button again…and again. Both times the program reminds me to stand up, as well as to make sure my webcam is pointed directly at me. I get to my feet, start to say something about shitware—

—and then it happens. I start to feel all tingly, head to toe. My vision blurs, everything becoming pixelated; for a moment I feel like cotton candy being pulled apart by a dozen eager hands (which is weird, because I’ve never been cotton candy before—but I’m absolutely sure this is what it feels like). Next: a frizzy sweater being knitted at light-speed by a grandmother on acid just before she runs out of thread and tosses me onto the floor in a fit of rage—

—Theo is standing over me. His eyes are boggling.

“How the hell did you get into my bedroom…?” I begin, but trail off when I realize I’m the one trespassing in his room.

His room!

I get to my feet, shaking all over. I glance here and there, see Asia posters, CD racks, book cases, some kind of bonsai plant in the corner, a Chinese lantern, everything too neat and clean—

“No…fucking…way…” I breathe. I’m not a Trekkie; I think science fiction is bullshit (well, it is), but I swear to God I’m telling the truth when I say I’ve somehow transported into Theo’s bedroom!

Theo doesn’t look too sure.

In fact, I think he’s just pissed himself.

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Mrs. Thrailkill is a Chain Smoker


The lights are dim. The room is filled with cigarette smoke.‭ This isn’t the counseling office, I think to myself, it’s the back room of a pool hall. ‬The other kids are sitting next to me and giving me questioning looks as they fill out their questionnaires.

What did we do wrong? they’re no doubt thinking.

‬I cough‭. Secondhand smoke’ll kill you worse than smoking the actual cigarette, but Mrs. Thrailkill doesn’t seem to care. She just sits there watching us squirm, smiling crookedly, a smoldering butt in her hand. The ashtray on her desk is overflowing.


One of the others is trying to get my attention.‭ ‬He’s fat,‭ ‬wearing this ridiculous-looking T-shirt that has “Empire Slam” printed on it. Underneath, a basketball player is slam-dunking his own head. ‬His name’s Ernest, as I recall from when Thrailkill made us all shake hands. (Beside him,‭ ‬the bodybuilder boy with the accent and the jogging suit girl are sitting quietly. The girl is sneaking glances at the boy,‭ ‬but he doesn’t seem to notice.)

‭“Yeah?” I whisper, trying to look buggered.

“What’s this mean?” Ernest asks, and points to one of the questions on his worksheet.

I glance down at the paper, recognizing the question about going steady. “These things are for kids who are older than us. Just put ‘yes’ if you’ve been dating anyone for more than a month.”

“Oh.” Ernest snickers. “I knew that.”

I can tell he’s lying, but I don’t say anything. I’m trying to breathe as slowly as possible, trying to pretend my lungs aren’t being smoked like a Christmas ham.

After several minutes of silence, we turn in our worksheets. Mrs. Thrailkill slides them into a folder.

“Let’s be honest, shall we?” She folds her hands on the desktop. “You four are in over your heads. In deep shit.”

Did she just say the “s” word?

“Good grades might have gotten you here, but if you’re going to stay, there’s going to have to be some sort of adjustment. Academics are no substitute for a natural evolution of social skills that can only be acquired through incremental leverage against your peers—but seeing as how you’ve skipped past your middle school careers, we’re going to need to use alternative measures.”

“What are you saying‭?” ‬asks Jan.‭ “‬Are we,‭ ‬like,‭ ‬autistic or something‭?” He seems genuinely concerned, though he somehow does it without once looking Thrailkill in the eye.

She smiles, takes a drag from her cigarette. Oh, the upperclassmen are going to eat you up! her expression reads. “No—although that is a charming scenario.”

Eva pipes in: “Then…you’re saying we’re‭, um, socially-challenged?”

“In a way, yes, though it’s not of your own doing. You’re intelligent, privileged in the academic sense. But you’re also much younger than the other freshmen. They can’t help but look at the lot of you as junior siblings, lackeys, nuisances. You’re either going to get in the way, or you’re going to be ignored completely. In the adolescent world, there is no middle ground. So, yes, in that sense, you’re socially-challenged.”

Ernest laughs nervously and shakes his head. “Did you call us in here just to scare us?”

“I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t find out on your own if given a few weeks to bumble around here at Boca Linda. My job is to prepare you, to prime you, to alleviate any false assumptions regarding free blowjobs in the boys’ restroom.”

Did…did she just say blowjobs?

“Hmf,” Ernest snorts. Half amazed, half grossed-out.

Thrailkill pauses a moment, looks us over, amusement playing across her weathered features. I think she’s waiting for one of us to say something—but just as I clear my throat she finishes her cigarette and says, “I have an idea.” She picks up a ballpoint pen and scribbles something in her notepad. “Do you four have Internet access at home?”

We all nod.

‭“Good.” She turns away, starts rummaging in her file cabinet.

“God damn,” Ernest breathes into my ear—a disturbing feeling considering we’ve only just met. “She’s just like everyone said. Worse, even.”

I push my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “You think it’s legal for her to be smoking in here?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. ‬I heard she has‭ five‭ ‬husbands,‭ ‬and they all live in her garden shed. She‭ keeps them locked up, and she feeds them table scraps once a day.‭”

“That’s obviously an urban legend,” I whisper.

Ernest shrugs.‭ “‬I thought having a chain-smoking guidance counselor was an urban legend too,‭ ‬but here we are.”

I look at Thrailkill again.‭ ‬She looks like a man-eater. Must be six feet tall, with a formidable bone structure that’s held up well considering the fact that she must be approaching sixty.

She faces us again.

Eva is caught halfway to asking Ernest and me what the hell we’re whispering about.

We straighten, mouths shut, palms tingling.

“I have a homework assignment for you,” says Thrailkill.

An instinctive groan escapes Ernest’s mouth.

“Rest assured, Mr. Goodale, it won’t affect your dinner schedule.”

Eva smiles, shoots Jan a knowing look (which he misses).

“Your assignment, children, is to spend half an hour chatting with each other online. I want you each to learn five useful facts about your companions, and I want you to write them down. You can make a list or do a paragraph including what you’ve learned. You’ll turn this in when we meet again tomorrow.”

I glance at the others, trying to be nonchalant. Ernest is annoying; he acts like he’s already friends with me. Jan just looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than here. Eva is kind of bug-eyed, but cute (I wonder how she answered the “going steady” part of her questionnaire?). I don’t see how we’d ever have a reason to spend a single minute talking to one another, much less thirty minutes. But that’s the assignment, and Mrs. Thrailkill is already handing us our hall passes and telling us “good day.”

We leave the counseling office; a cloud of acrid smoke follows us out, hovers over our heads as we exchange screen names.

“How did you like Mrs. Thrill-Kill?” asks Ernest.

“I can’t believe she’s our counselor,” replies Eva.

“I can’t believe she’s a counselor—period,” I say.

Jan nods, plays with a rogue thread on his sleeve.

We look at each other a moment. I know I want to say “goodbye,” or “nice meeting you,” or something like that—but I don’t want to sound too friendly. So, I nod, wave, and part ways with my assigned partners, my predetermined friends.

My social life has been handed to me; I don’t know if I should be relieved, or if this is the start of something truly awful.

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The Guidance Counselor from Hell


You can kiss your respective summers goodbye.

Because it’s the first day of school.

Which means it’s the first day of the end of your lives, my little ones.

Even at this early morning hour, this preliminary juncture, the worst is obvious: forced smiles on swollen faces, looks of uncertainty and alienation clouding bright eyes, expressions of anger and resentment directed at seemingly oblivious mommies and daddies—“You wretched bitch! How can you just leave me here?!? I was an eighth grader! I was at the top of my game! No one stepped up to me, I was a god!”

And now you’re shit. Toilet scum. Barnacles clinging to the underside of a social Titanic, cursed to begin the hellish uphill climb that is high school. You don’t want to be here. Sure, you’ve heard the stories of blowjobs behind the bleachers, smoking in the restroom, cheerleader slumber parties, midnight raves—but you know as well as I do, my little darlings, that you shall be denied any of the more heady adolescent pleasures. You four are the exceptions, the anomalies, exiles, outcasts prematurely ejected from your previous schools because of three painful commonalities: you’re twelve years old, you’re gifted, and you’re freshmen here at Boca Linda High. You’re terrified, shaking in your sneakers. Without proper guidance you’ll spend the next four years of your lives leaning on your various crutches in a vain attempt to scrape by.

Let’s start with you. Theo Ivanovich. Brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, short and compact, darling—for now (puberty almost certainly has a few cruel tricks in store for you). You’re the smart kid, aren’t you? You look smart. Smart and worrisome. Worrywart. That’s what you are. Worried about your first day, your first grade, whether or not the cafeteria provides vegetarian alternatives to chicken-fried steak and cheeseburgers. You’re wondering if you’ll have to share your locker with a putz, if you’ll have to shower naked with the older, bigger boys after each and every goddamned gym class. You’re worried that despite this being a smoke-free campus, I have a full ashtray on my desk. Well, the campus may be smoke-free, but this room is my domain. Has been for thirty years. Know why? Because I get the job done. No beating around the bush in my office.

Moving along: Ernest Goodale. The fat kid. Curly brown locks, perennially matted—hat hair. You’ve got girth, I’ll give you that, but I doubt it’ll do more than earn you a barrage of fat jokes as you struggle to convince everyone you’re merely “big boned.” You’re looking at me with a carefully-trained expression of detached contempt, as if you’ve got better things to do besides sit in some old hag’s smoke-filled cave while she picks you apart piece by piece. The sad part is, you don’t have anything better to do. You’re twelve fucking years old. Between school and Internet time at home (most of which you no doubt spend gaming or masturbating to free adult site previews), there’s nothing going on in your life. Too old to be amused by kiddie pastimes, too young to be of interest to your female peers. And you’re fat.

Jan Kounicova. The foreigner—and the poor kid, from the look of you. Tall for your age. Everything slightly tattered—even the hairdo, with its frizzy-not-spiky, 99¢ Store blond dye job. I’ll admit, you’re a looker, with those broad features and cute muscles of yours. If you had an ounce of self-assurance (and if your parents could afford it), you’d make a good football player, or maybe a wrestler—but you can’t keep eye contact for more than three seconds at a time. You might fit in with the jocks except for the fact that you have a girl’s name. I don’t care if it’s “John” in Brno; in America, Jan is short for Janet. Get used to being a closet jock.

Eva Taylor. The girl. Blond. Ponytail. Jogging suit. Brand new sneakers. Pretty and petite, albeit noticeably bug-eyed. Like Jan, you’re athletic. However, where he probably got his physique out of necessity, walking four miles to and from school everyday, it’s obvious you’re the product of teenybopper parents raised on an abundance of fresh salads and 24-Hour Fitness memberships. Valley girl in the making, not yet annoying, as you’re still flat-chested and conservative with the makeup. Could go both ways once the boys start to take notice, though. I’d say there’s nothing outright wrong with you except that you’ve suffered the grave misfortune of being lumped together with the Runt Squad. Obviously it’s of vital importance to your parents that they keep an open channel between themselves and their daughter’s educators. Goddamned socialites.

So, yes, children, it’s the first day of school, and I, Mrs. Rebbecca Thrailkill, am your guidance counselor.

God, I’m going to need another cigarette.

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