No Guts, No Glory

@theo

I’ve decided to walk home from school today. That’s how I’ve ended up standing on this particular street corner waiting for this particular light to change when this particular distinguished-looking middle-aged dude in a scarf and Chesterfield combo steps up beside me. I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him before in my life, but going by his cheerful disposition and expensive demeanor, I’m guessing he’s a banker or businessman, an elder statesman or bestselling literary novelist.

We wait together in silence.

Then, suddenly—

“Screw it!” Scarf Dude steps from curb to crosswalk, beckons for me to follow. “Let’s jaywalk!”

“Huh?” I mumble (as is tradition whenever an adult addresses you unexpectedly).

“No guts, no glory, right? Come on, kiddo, let’s grab life by the—”

bam!

A brown convertible being driven by the spit of Kurtwood Smith comes hurtling out of nowhere and not only collides with Scarf Dude, but pulverizes him on the spot, right then and there. Meaty gore washes up the windshield, douses Kurtwood, who, inexplicably, is already blood-soaked and irritable-looking as he floors the accelerator, barrels on down the street.

I back away from the curb.

This is why strangers shouldn’t talk to you.

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Biologeez

@mark

Stu wants to know why Valentine’s Day is meh to me.

“It’s like I told that Jan kid,” I say, dumping my gear into my gym bag post-practice—

Yawn?” Stu interrupts, and picks the wedgie out of his singlet.

“Aka, Chekov. From Mr. Johnson’s class.”

“Oh, right.”

“Anyway, it’s like I told Chekov a while back. I knew Quan my freshman year, became her BFF, helped her with her homework, took her to the movies, took her out to eat, gave her a shoulder to cry on—I thought we were totally in love with each other. Then senior prom came up, and she ditched me for some college baller who knocked her up and split, like, immediately after. So, a year’s worth of supposed love with me versus one night of biology with him. Do the math.”

“She broke your heart. Human condition.”

“I’m making a point. She chose biology over love. And possibly money, I don’t know the guy’s financials. But there was definitely biology involved when it came to her getting it on with him. He was bigger and better. I was love. What chance did I have?”

“Wow. Bitter much?”

“Not at all,” I say. “It hurt when she dumped me, but I’m not saying she made the wrong decision or is a bitch or anything. I’m saying when it comes down to it, we all choose biology over love—whether we know it or not—because love doesn’t exist. Love is a myth, an invention, a societal dance used to pretty up the basic biological urges that drive chicks and dudes to flirt with each other. Men want women who can conceive healthy babies. Women want men who can help them conceive healthy babies. Love is the excuse we use to bang.”

Stu shakes his head, slings his bag over his shoulder. “You’re never going to get laid with that attitude.”

“That kind of proves my point.”

“You have a point?”

I nod. “The end game when it comes to girls and dating and all that is sex, right?”

Duh.”

“Then what is love?”

“Do I look like a greeting card to you?”

“Love is nothing. Sex is everything. James Spader said it when he played Robert California on The Office. Everything we do or say is about getting laid. Knowing that, then, am I interested in procreation? No. Sexual release? Sure.” I hold up my hand. “Already taken care of.”

“Dude,” Stu says, “you’re stacked. On the wrestling team. I’ve seen you in the shower—you hang a solid wang. That you’d be satisfied with your own hand rather than shell out a few bucks every now and then for a chance at slamming pelvis with some lucky lady baffles me beyond belief.”

I zip up my bag. “What’s wrong with being single? I like being single. I want to be single.”

“It’s all fun and games and one-handed sex now, but wait until you’re thirty and living alone in some shitty off-ramp apartment. That’s when I come knocking on your door to say I told you so.”

“Really? Thirteen years from now you’re going to take the time to drive out to wherever I’m living just to tell me that? Really?”

Stu waves his hand. “You know what I mean.”

Grabbing my bag, we start slowly across the gym, toward the boys’ locker room. “I’m not saying I’ll never date again. I just want the girl to be into me for me, and not for what I give her on Valentine’s Day. No false boners.”

“I’m afraid to ask what those are.”

“They’re the various types of artificial love and pretense everyone throws at each other during V-Day. Like the Obvious Couple. Destined to be together from the day they first met in Kindergarten. He gave her half his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she shared her grape juice, and they’ve supposedly been in love ever since. They’ll go to prom, lose their virginity to each other, get matching scholarships, eventually settle down in the suburbs with two-point-five kids and a Tesla. Then one day they’ll make the news when it comes out he’s been beating her since the sex went bad, she’s been neglecting the kids due to a latent online gambling addiction. False boner.”

“You’re grim, dude.”

“I’ve got more,” I say. “Gay for Days. Closet Couple. The Reverse Double-Standard—that’s what I had. Old Love. Old Love Lost. Can’t Live With or Without You. Kindred Spirits. Us Against the World. Babysitter Bling. Long Distance Runaround. Premarital Sexposition. All false boners.” I pause, spotting Eva on her way out of the gym. Theo’s waiting for her near the exit. “Then there’s Hopeless Romantic, played artfully by that little Theo dude. I’ve seen him watching her from afar, hoping, aching, wanting…”

“Speaking of watching from afar,” Stu says, “Thrailkill’s been eyeing you ever since practice started.”

I, too, had noticed her smoky presence earlier. Now she’s left the bleachers to intercept me at the locker room entrance.

Like the wuss he is, Stu recedes to a respectful distance.

“Hello there, Mr. Howard,” Thrailkill says to me, and takes a drag from what must be her fiftieth cigarette of the day.

I smile politely. “Hi, Mrs. Thrailkill.”

“It’s been a while since I last saw you in my office.”

“I’ve been busy.” I heft my gym bag.

“I can see that.” She pinches one of my biceps, nods obviously at my crotch. “Nevertheless, I’d like to assess your…development. Say, tomorrow at three o’clock?” She leans in close, whispers into my ear, “Play your cards right, and I’ll make sure you’re valedictorian.”

Behind her, Stu nods, gives me two thumbs up while mouthing the word “biology.”

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Human Leveraging Paradigm

@theo

“Internet Explorer or Firefox?” an unexpectedly-ripped Cheetos Dude asks the moment Ernie and I upload onto the Semantic Web’s shiny new server.

“What the hell is Internet Explorer?” Ernie asks, genuinely bewildered.

Cheetos Dude smiles, holds up an orange-stained hand for Ernie to high-five. “Good answer, friend. You may enter.”

Ernie slaps Cheetos’ hand, examines the thin layer of orange that’s been offset against his palm.

“Nice Goten skin, by the way,” Cheetos Dude tells me, and wanders off.

I frown, glance around the Web and wonder why he thinks I look like Goten when I clearly don’t look like Goten! (Assuming I’m not looking, Ernie’s started licking the cheese offset from his hand.) It’s been a while since I’ve stopped by, what with homework, gym, chores, and, more recently, rescuing Eva from a giant demogorgonzola. The transition from actual to virtual hasn’t changed the finer details: laptops, tablets, and junk food cluttering wooden spool tables arranged around a central sofa pit. The Web’s post-geekly haunts, however, are almost unrecognizable. Everyone’s handsome, pretty, fit, muscular, and/or overtly voluptuous. They’ve all got SMN skins installed.

I should mention at this point that Ernie, too, is skinned—as Jason Momoa.

Still licking his hand.

His new virtual self as ripped as his actual self is fat.

We find a free table and sit.

“This is where you go to chill?” Ernie asks, and drapes one arm over the back of his chair. He seems unimpressed.

I open my laptop. “Why would you skin yourself like that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ernie flexes an arm, tosses back a flowing lock.

“I’m the only one here in my actual skin.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“I’m happy with who I am,” I say proudly. Which was eventually true.

Explanation: Like everyone else, once the SMN skins feature was rolled out, the first thing I did was scroll through the endless customizations and pre-made skins uploaded by other users—mostly celebrities, athletes, anime and video game characters. I think I spent several hours trying on big and tall, short and stocky, svelte, well-built, feminine, masculine, androgynous, white, black, Asian (or more Asian, in my case), Indian, Native American…but the more skins I tried, the less sure I felt about actually choosing one. It’s the same reason I always run around in the default skin whenever I play GTA. Too much choice is totally a thing. Also, while it’s true everyone and their grandmother is skinning themselves these days whenever they go virtual, they’re also pointing out that everyone’s skinning themselves as a means of coping with various embarrassing shortcomings. Like, if you want to be cool, you’re expected to go skinning right along with everyone else—just so they can make fun of you for it. I do want to be taller, older, hairier, sexier, more irresistible to girls named Eva. But the more I want it, the more I’m afraid of being called out for wanting it. So, I’m just me. Short, nondescript, woefully underage. No one can say I’m compensating for something.

I’m happy with who I am—but only because I can’t decide who else to be.

“You’re just enacting the human leveraging paradigm,” I say.

“What’s that?” Ernie asks, again unimpressed.

“My teacher mentioned it the other day. He asked me what I thought the most important thing in life is. I said happiness just because I couldn’t think of anything else. He told me that’s incorrect. Erroneous is the word he used. He said happiness is irrelevant, because deep down inside we’re all just trying to get leverage, and everything we do is based on trying to dominate whoever and whatever we can. You’re not confident competing socially in your actual skin, so you installed a virtual one that represents the social leverage you want to enact.”

“I installed this because Aquaman is big tits right now.”

“Exactly. Aquaman is popular, and you want to be popular. You’re looking for favor. Leverage.”

“I don’t need any favors from anyone.” Another flex of Jason’s arm, another tossing of his mane.

“No, what I mean is, subconsciously, anything we do or say that supposedly makes us happy is an attempt at gaining favor or leverage.”

“And you’re so superior because you simply stuck with your actual geek-Goten skin?”

Why does everyone keep—? “I’m not saying I’m superior. I’m just…saying.”

Ernie leans forward. “Snarks and hipsters just say. Real men end their sentences with periods.”

I think for a sec. “I mean, my teacher also mentioned the only way to fix the paradigm would be learning to disregard the self for the whole—which was why he was so pissed at my happiness comment to begin with. And that’s cool and all, people can band together to do great things, change history and whatever. But the same logic is also used to build war machines.”

A stray tuft of hair tumbles over one of Jason’s eyes. “What the hell kind of classes are you taking, junior?”

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Strike!

@theo

Mr. Barchetta’s apparently gone picketing—as evidenced by the note scribbled on the blackboard:

Gone picketin’.

In his place: a TV playing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which the class regards with casual indifference.

“Why are the teachers on strike again?” asks one girl as she eyes the picket line through a nearby window.

I don’t have anything to say (and even if I did, it’s not like anyone would care), so I just listen to the older kids:

“Overcrowded classrooms.”

“Budget cuts.”

“Inferior toilet paper in the restrooms.”

“I think old Thrailkill is doing head sessions on an SMN server because Boca Linda’s too cheap to pay for her office to stay actual.”

“Supposedly the librarians want money to finally get rid of that feral pit bull living in the stacks.”

“You mean Kilgore?”

“I thought that was the custodian dude’s helper dog.”

“Knowing Boca Linda, Kilgore probably is the custodian.”

“They lost another freshman down there the other day.”

“I hear the stacks are where they send you for detention.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“A friend of a friend texted another friend right before he died…on his way to detention.”

“You think if the teachers win, we’ll finally get real basketball hoops in the gym instead of just having the taller seniors hold out their arms?”

Ugh. I hate hoop duty.”

“You think if they win, Mr. Barchetta will stop throwing chocolate kisses at us whenever we answer a question correctly?”

“If anything, he’ll upgrade to peanut butter cups.”

Several students snicker.

On TV, they’re lowering that Thuggee dude into the lava pit.

“Why are we here if we’re not learning anything?” Mini asks. He’s climbed out of my pocket to watch the sacrifice scene.

“The school only gets money if there are kids in the classrooms,” I reply.

Mini frowns. “So, what are we supposed to do, just sit around watching cheesy Steven Spielberg movies until three?”

“I guess.”

“Nuts to that.” Mini jumps onto the nearby desk of a cute senior girl. “Hey, babe. Want to smoke or have sex?”

The girl’s reaction is not unlike that of the Thuggee dude hurtling toward molten lava.

Om Namah Shivaya.

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Toilet Tchaikovsky

@mini

Why do grown men make so much noise while taking dumps in public restrooms? I’m not talking about the actual bowel movements themselves. All our bottoms make noise in that respect: a squeak, a fart, maybe a plunk! or occasional trumpet blare. Ladies, I don’t doubt that you’re guilty of playing your own personal toilet Tchaikovsky a little too loudly from time to time, but what I’m talking about are the grunts and groans, the desperate pleas of, “Jesus-God-almighty!” Remember the White Water Express scene in Vacation? Remember Charlie Day screaming bloody murder right after he got off the phone with his fiancée? That’s what’s going on in restrooms across the country.

That’s what’s going on right now in the stall next to Theo’s. (While he would have you believe otherwise, Theo does indeed take dumps on a regular basis.) And I’m just like, what is happening over there? What item off of Ultimate Veggie’s menu could’ve given this bub such a massive shitaclysm?

I have to know.

Don’t you?

I’m going to take a peek. I slink out of Theo’s pants pocket.

“Hey!” he whispers, my unexpected appearance momentarily distracting him from his phone. “What’re you doing?”

“Washing my hands,” I reply, and duck under the front of the stall. But instead of heading for the sink, I make an immediate U-turn into the stall adjacent and—

ZOMFG.

I’d expected a smattering of awkward.

A baseline ew, perhaps.

But not this.

Anything but this…this sweaty, red-faced caricature of a forty-something businessman, legs splayed, arms braced against the stall walls, tie slung haphazardly over one quivering shoulder as he bears down on an unspeakably evil stool jailbreaking his tattered rectum centimeter by ragged centimeter—

—I stumble away. Back into Theo’s stall, back into the familiar warmth and geekly fibre of his oversized joggers. I scrunch my eyes shut, plug my non-existent fingers into my non-existent ears.

Let’s never speak of this again.

toilet Tchaikovsky (noun):

1. loud grunting and/or strenuous vocalizations made by most men while defecating.

“The intensity of the gentleman’s toilet Tchaikovsky made it obvious that he’d consumed too much cheese as of late.”

2. an album of chamber pot music by Canadian jazz duet Peter Flute & Woodland Knight.

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On This, the Eve of New Year’s Eve

@eva

Ernie’s just unlocked King K. Rool in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate when Jan finishes downloading.

“What’s up?” he asks, and joins us on the floor of Theo’s bedroom, where we, the Runt Squad (now in its entirety), have assembled around Ernie’s continental mass in what one might refer to as an impromptu pile or huddle.

Theo hands Jan a Joy-Con. “Nothing. You?”

“Nothing.”

“Hi, Jan,” I say, waving.

“Hi, Eva,” Jan says, waving back.

“Enough chatter,” Ernie grunts. “Pick your character, Pixels.”

Jan chooses Cloud.

The next match begins, conversation giving way to the subtle symphony of us working our Joy-Cons.

Click-click-click.

“I hate when people say that,” Beta murmurs after a while.

Mini, his mitts ineffectively handling his Joy-Con, asks, “Say what?”

“‘Nothing.’”

“Right?” I agree.

Click-click.

Something’s always up. It’s never nothing.”

Theo nods. “True.”

Click-click-click-click.

“Even if you’re not doing anything specific or going anywhere in particular, you’re always doing something. Breathing, for example.”

Click-click.

“Metabolizing.”

Click-click-click.

“Listening,” Jan offers.

Click-click-click.

“Feeling,” I say.

Click.

“Compiling,” Theo adds.

Click-click-click-click.

“Farting.” Ernie rips a big one.

The huddle fractures, separates—all but Beta, who’s either stupider or braver than everyone else, I’m not sure.

“‘Nothing’ would be dead,” he continues.

“Yeah. ‘Nothing’ would be dead,” Theo agrees.

“And even then, the fact that ‘nothing’ can be defined at all suggests that it is, in fact, something—if only a means of classifying the absence of something.”

Mini goes all wide-eyed. “That’s heavy, guys.”

I pull my shirt over my nose as the putrid tendrils of Ernie’s funk tousle my hair. “Is this what we’re doing, guys?”

Click-click.

“Spending the last hours of 2018 talking about nothing and inhaling toxic gasses?”

“Happy new year, bitches!” Ernie cackles.

“Happy new year,” I mutter back.

Click-click-click.

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Home

@jan

Oh, that’s right—DXL Pro sucks.

It takes a while, but eventually I download fully into my parents’ bedroom. My ancient, gnarled Compaq is running dutifully on the dresser. I walk over to it, wiggle the mouse. The monitor wakes up, revealing half a dozen SMN windows. Mom and Dad have been busy—their buddy list is crammed with the usernames of various friends and family members from back in Brno. It looks like anyone and everyone they’ve ever known is on there, and I have to wonder, is this normal? Is it normal for parents to scold their kid about uploading to other people’s homes, and then go and do exactly the same thing times ten?

I leave the bedroom, stand in the doorway between the hall and the living room. After spending so much time at Theo’s, my parents’ apartment, never roomy to begin with, seems smaller and more underwhelming than ever. There’s my desk with its peeling faux-wood laminate, my twin-size bed, my weathered dumbbells, my modest corner of home. Everything looks just as it was before the complex was towed away. Just to be sure, though, I step outside. Thankfully, the correct neighborhood stretches for blocks in both directions. Earlier, on the news, there’d been a reporter interviewing upset residents; now it’s just discarded coffee cups and leftover strands of police tape draped across the grass, the bushes.

Yep. Home.

Turning, I spot the notice stuck to our front door. It reads:

Dear Resident:

You may be aware of the recent towing. Rest assured, we’ve since cleared up the matter with the city. We apologize for any inconvenience, and will be offering free coffee and donuts in the leasing office for the rest of the week.

—The Management

I fold the notice and go back inside.

The kitchen has gone from messy to disaster scenery. Setting the notice on the table, I put a load of dishes in the washer, take out the trash. Then I go for a shower. I’m one foot into the tub when it occurs to me that getting wet might not be such a good idea. I mean, I may be augmented, but I’m still actual, right? I won’t short-circuit or anything whenever I come into contact with liquid…will I? For a moment I stand very still and watch the rivulets of water trickling down my leg. No sparks, no flame. Which would make sense. Augmented actuality wouldn’t be very useful unless the idea is to do things the way you’d normally do them when actual. Still, I’m a little nervous as I get the rest of the way in. I wonder if, in high-res, how much of me even needs a shower at this point. Like, am I cleaning the augmented bytes while my actual skin (what’s left of it, anyway) goes unwashed beneath?

I make a mental note to ask Beta or Theo about that later, and finish up without any show-stoppers. Afterward, I lie in bed for a while wondering how (or if) I’m going to tell Mom and Dad what’s happened to me. I roll onto my side, stare at my phone, which I’d set on the desk earlier. It’s well within arm’s reach, but instinct persuades me to pick it up and hold it close. I’m not one of those people who has to have their phone on them 24/7 in order to feel safe and secure, but now that I’m depending on it to be high-res whenever I’m actual, I kind of understand the 24/7 thing.

Swiping through my SMN buddy list, I watch the video feeds in passing. Eva’s out like a light. Theo, too, surprisingly. Headphoned and blanketed by a layer of cookie crumbs and candy bits, Ernie’s sitting slumped at his computer, and is working an Xbox controller as if his life depends on it. Everyone else seems to have slipped right back into their routines with such ease. Meanwhile, here I am feeling like…well, I’m not exactly sure. I’m home. I should feel like I’m home. Instead, it feels like my first night away from home. I wouldn’t say I’m lonely, but I do kind of miss being with the gang.

I guess I doze for a while, because suddenly it’s dawn, and I can hear my parents knocking around in the kitchen, conversing quietly in Czech while they make coffee:

“That’s right, it’s morning here in America,” Dad groans.

“Has Jan done all his homework?” Mom asks.

“Let’s hope so. The sooner we get him up and out the door, the sooner we can get back to the café.”

“I don’t think he’s too happy about having his computer taken away.”

“He’s just enacting the Kounicova Pout.”

“There’s such a thing?”

“If we’re not smiling, we’re pouting.” Dad chuckles. “It’s what made you ask me if everything was all right the day we first met.”

“He does have your brood. What’s this?”

“A note from the management. Someone’s car must’ve been towed by mistake.”

“Not ours.”

“No, not ours. Shame. Donuts sound good. Pass the milk.”

Oh, wow. Mom and Dad really have no idea what’s happened. At all. They’ve been 404 so long that they didn’t notice their entire apartment complex was accidentally towed. I lost my home, my bytes, my parents, and neither of them are the slightest bit aware of any of it. They’re just going through the motions, moths toward fire—or whatever the expression is—perfectly content, perfectly ignorant. And it hits me: for the last two years it’s been enough to have my own corner of the living room. It’s been enough to get by on an outdated Compaq desktop, enough to do all my shopping at Dollar Tree, the 99¢ Store, Food 4 Less, Goodwill. Life here was all I ever wanted or needed.

No more.

I don’t hate my parents. They’ve stuck with parenthood and raised me this far. But that’s just it—I feel like they’ve been stuck raising me. You heard Dad: he’d much rather be having breakfast back in Brno. Is that why he never drives me to school? “He likes the exercise,” he says whenever the subject comes up. I used to think he was just being playfully indifferent whenever he made comments like that. Now it’s clear. Maybe I’m reading into things. Or maybe I’m finally hearing the truth. Regardless, the end result is that I’m done being the poor kid whose parents are never around. I’m going to make money somehow, get a job, move out of this place, and finally get on with my life. I don’t need to be rich—I just want something for myself, something my parents obviously can’t or don’t want to provide.

I lie on my back and, staring at the ceiling, I ponder the impossibilities.

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I’m Your Wil Wheaton

@eva

We all stand around for a moment, basking in the awkward.

Beta says, “If anyone needs me, I’ll be on my server.” He waves goodbye and uploads.

More awkward ensues.

Mini motions for Jan to follow him over to the TV, and just like that, they’re playing a game of Splatoon—as if nothing untoward whatsoever has transpired in the last twenty-four hours.

“Why am I not surprised by the décor, Mr. Smole?” Thrill-Kill asks, appreciating the various features of Theo’s room (or possibly looking for a cigarette).

“I…don’t…know?” Theo shifts away from her, comes up to me, totally tries to pretend he’s not checking me out. He holds up Jan’s phone. “Well, I guess you should be getting home.”

“Yeah,” I reply, suddenly self-conscious. Like, is he checking me out simply because I’m in my underwear, or is there some pimple or blemish that I should be made aware of? “Uh, thanks for saving me and all.”

“It was no big deal.”

“It kind of was.”

“Yeah.”

I hem.

He haws.

“Just so you know,” I say, “down in the dungeon, the holding hands, that was just—”

“Of course. And the loving you thing, that was just—”

“You thought we were going to die.”

“Exactly.”

“Yep. Same here. Not that the only way I’d ever hold hands with you is if I thought we were going to die, but…you know what I mean?”

“Totally. I’m your Wil Wheaton.” Theo smiles nervously, still holding up Jan’s phone, still not sending me home.

“Wil Wheaton?”

“Yeah, like in that Members of the Board song where Peter Template sings, ‘You are my Wil Wheaton, my hero, my idol, my very first crush, but this can never be, you’re just a painting, and I’m just the brush.’”

“Why doesn’t it surprise me that you listen to a band called Members of the Board, with a singer whose name is Peter Template?”

“It’s not his real name. Each member has a stage name that goes along with the starched shirt-and-tie image of the band—kind of like how Kiss does the makeup thing. Or how Asia Afrodesia always performs naked.”

I’m almost afraid to ask, and yet I can’t resist: “What are the other members’ names?”

“Richard Chart, Stephen Guide, Lee Motif, and Andy Diagram every now and then when he isn’t working with James.”

“You would listen to a band like that. But wouldn’t it be the other way around? Wouldn’t I be your Wil Wheaton?”

Theo blushes. “Oh, yeah. I guess.”

“So, are we cool?”

“We’re cool.”

I point at Jan’s phone. “Goodnight, Theo.”

He sends me home.

@theo

Eva has a point: it does make more sense that she’s my Wil Wheaton, and not the other way around.

That kind of sucks.

Still, Mini smirks up at me. “She so wants you.”

“Shut up,” I tell him, and face Thrill-Kill. “Should I call you an Uber or something?”

“That would be much appreciated, Mr. Smole.”

I use Jan’s phone to request a ride, then open the bedroom door a crack and peek out into the quiet dark. I beckon for Thrill-Kill to follow me, through the hallway, down the stairs, and out the front door. I imagine this is what it’s like when teenage boys sneak their girlfriends home at night—except Thrill-Kill’s not a teenager, and she’s definitely not my girlfriend.

Outside, we stand side by and wait in silence, staring off into our respective distances, she the stars, me down the street. Then:

“What’s with the dungeon and the slaves and the giant block of demon-cheese?” I blurt out.

Thrill-Kill raises an eyebrow.

I wait expectantly.

“If you must know, it was a piece of cheese I let sit too long in my refrigerator.”

“That doesn’t explain why it’s living in your dungeon—or why you have a dungeon at all, for that matter.”

“Some people can’t bear killing the spider they find in their pantry, and so they carry it outside instead. Live and let live. My own philosophy happens to extend to aged cheeses.”

“What about your ex-husbands?”

Thrill-Kill shrugs. “They had it coming.”

“And so you keep them locked up in your dungeon?”

“The poor bastards discovered Bloodcoin. It’s the closest thing on God’s green Earth to free money—if you can facilitate and put up with the misery of mining it. We were all good friends, once. I’m not the type to burn my bridges. I re-married, and had no problem with the men in my life mingling. Then one of them gets altcoin fever, and suddenly they’re out in the backyard digging out their own dungeon and saving shit in buckets. They’ve turned a simple investment into, well, what you saw under my garden shed. They’ve made a fortune through their own suffrage, but it’s not enough. They won’t give it up until it’s a bull market again. They can’t. Not now, not when cryptocurrency is on the brink of the mainstream. That’s the gimmick—it’s always another year or two off. It’s always been a few years away from exploding, and it always will be.” She sighs, wipes a single, unexpected tear from her cheek. “I haven’t imprisoned my ex-husbands. They’ve imprisoned themselves.”

I nod semi-knowingly. “Dark times.”

Thrill-Kill’s ride pulls up in front of us.

“Come by my office tomorrow,” she says, “and I’ll reimburse you.” She stoops slightly, whispers, “Just so we’re clear, if you tell anyone what you saw in my garden shed, I’ll make your life a living hell. Got it, sweetie?” She pats me on the butt—you know, just like any other everyday, ordinary guidance counselor would—and gets into the car.

I watch it pull away, then, brushing the residue of old-lady palm from my bottom, I go back up to my room, where Mini and Jan are watching the news. Well, they’ve got the news on, but neither is paying any attention. Rather, Mini’s staring intently at Jan as Jan stares intently at me.

“What’s the matter?” I ask.

“My apartment’s back,” Jan replies.

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Dookie, a shitty horror novel by Jesse Gordon

Gotenesque

@ernie

…and we’re back in Theo’s New Age lounge. Goodbye, Tommy Carlton; hello, Goten-as-a-geek—aka, Theo’s original skin. Beta, Janny Boy, and Thrill-Kill are back in their everyday, ordinary skins as well. Bug Eyes is her usual jockette underwear model self.

Most importantly, I’m no longer a fucking elephant. I mean, what the hell? Skinning the fat kid as an elephant? The European kid as a Russian jewel thief? Meanwhile, Theo gets to prance around as the privileged white boy? That’s some seriously prejudiced SMN shit there.

“How does it feel to be back in your default skin?” Jan asks him.

Theo takes an uncertain step forward. “It’s like handling classic Mario in Super Mario Maker versus actual classic Mario on the NES. Familiar, but different.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Joey was the exact same size as you, just not in color.”

“He was smaller.”

“Maybe in the wardrobe department.”

“Dude, he was ten. I’m twelve.”

“Whatever.” I shake my head. “At least we don’t have to put up with you running around showing off your precious little scrumptulatum everywhere you go.”

“My what?”

“The smooth patch of skin between your ballsack and your butthole.”

(Thrill-Kill raises an eyebrow. It’s hard to tell if she’s disturbed or impressed.)

“You mean the taint?” Mini asks.

“Taint is street talk. Scrumptulatum is the scientific term.”

Theo does the Asian-eyes thing at me. “Go home, Ernie.”

“Thank me first,” I tell him.

“What for?”

“Saving your life.”

“You just happened to be standing around in the right place at the right time for me to fall onto your back—”

“Thereby saving your life.”

“Passively.”

“Does it matter? The fact that you’re standing here alive and are able to argue about it proves my point.”

Eva rolls her eyes, nudges Theo in the side. “Oh, just thank him before he throws a fit.”

“Fine. Thank you.”

Huh. Not as satisfying as I’d hoped. “Say it like you mean it.”

“I meant it.”

“Say it as a complete sentence.”

“‘Thank you’ is a complete sentence.”

“Say it as a more complete sentence.”

Theo frowns, looks at Beta.

Beta shrugs. “A well-composed sentence is a friend to everyone, little dude.”

Looking at me again, Theo sighs and says, “Thank you for saving my life, Tantor.” He takes Jan’s phone, taps the “send home” button.

But not before I flick him off.

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Here’s some adjacent ridiculousness:

Dookie, a shitty horror novel by Jesse Gordon

Someone Dies in This Episode

@theo

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.

Farts.

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.

“What?”

“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.”

“How come?”

“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. Smole. 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?

Ungawa!

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—

thwump!

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. Smole. 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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Here’s some adjacent ridiculousness:

Dookie, a shitty horror novel by Jesse Gordon