SuperMegaNet 2.4 is Late

Ernie – Hi, everyone. Ernie here with the unfortunate news that the latest episode of my series, SuperMegaNet, is late. What a freakin’ surprise (not!). Jesse says his laptop’s broken, but I happen to know that he does all his writing at home, on his main PC. It’s obvious he’s full of shit. “Next week,” I keep hearing. He’s way behind schedule, and so he’s made up this half-assed story about the CPU cooling fan on his Acer (who the hell buys an Acer in the first place?) wonking out. Apparently this hasn’t stopped him from posting a handful of worthless blogs all throughout the week. I mean, that crayon picture? A couple of cliched opinion pieces about the publishing industry dying? Pickup lines? Are you serious? What kind of pathetic attempt at stuffing your Google rank is this? You want a pickup line, Jesse? How about, “Do you like sledgehammers? Good, because I’ve been looking for someone to crack open my writer’s block.”

Theo says I’m overreacting. I’m not. He may be able to spend his in-between time meditating in a Yogi trance, but I’m not for that New Age comfort zone stuff. I’m out of work. We all are until Jesse gets his ass back on track. You know what happens to out of work characters? They spend their free time in fucking purgatory. Think of it as the green room from hell where the soda’s flat, the Doritos are under-flavored, and there are only two DVDs available: Anchorman and Step Brothers.

I’m done for. Jan’s not saying anything, but I can tell from the way he’s staring lifelessly off into space that he’s ready to strangle himself with his own shoelaces—but you still have a chance. You can leave your computer, go out for the rest of the day, follow hot chicks in the mall as they drop their cell phones and bend over to pick them up again. If you must continue browsing the Web, I’d highly recommend you go visit another blog, one whose author knows how to deliver on time.

(By the way, Eva’s PMSing over the sneaking-into-Jan’s-room thing, so don’t expect her to answer any fan mail.)

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Advertisements

I Can’t Believe He Said That

@eva

Ernie’s sour attitude is sucking the life out of an otherwise sunny, blue-skied Friday afternoon.

“What kind of school is this?” he cries, and plops himself across the table from me. Beside him, Theo scowls and makes room.

“What’s the matter?” asks Jan.

“A couple of idiot boys in my English class stole my cell phone and were looking through my pictures. They saw the Playboy chicks I have on there and told the teacher I was looking at porn during class! So the teacher took my phone away and told me to behave!”

“That’s your fault,” Theo points out, “for keeping pictures of naked women on your cell phone.”

“It’s my phone,” Ernie says. “I should be able to keep anything I want on there!”

“All I’m saying is—”

“No one questioned those ass-wipes stealing my shit! They’re the ones who misbehaved. Just because I have naked chicks on my phone doesn’t mean I look at them during class time. I had those pics on there at my old school, too, and no one ever took my phone. Kids were mature about things like that. These goddamned high schoolers…they just want to make it obvious that I don’t fit in.”

“None of us fits in,” I say, trying to be comforting simply because I don’t like the other students looking at our table whenever Ernie yells something. This first week at Boca Linda has been easy for me. The boys have been busy hitting on girls their own age; the girls treat me as one of their own. From a distance, yes—but no one has bullied me. That’s a guy thing. “Tell me it was any better when we were with kids our own age.”

Ernie seems not to hear. “They think I’m so fucking amusing because of my weight. Theo’s probably picked on because of his glasses, Jan because of his accent. And if you had boobs, Eva, they’d probably be too saggy or lopsided. Everyone’s a critic around here.”

I nearly choke on my apple juice, that uppity voice in the back of my head exclaiming, “He did not just make fun of my flatness!”

I clear my throat. “You’ve got boobs—is that what they say about them?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Theo tries to hide his laughter.

Jan (perhaps on purpose, perhaps not) draws attention away from my insult: “Did you do anything to provoke the boys who stole your phone?”

“No!” Ernie pauses. “Well, I might have said something beforehand.”

“What did you say?” asks Theo.

Ernie rolls his eyes. “They were talking nonstop about their girlfriends. Annoying shit like, ‘I swear I was doing her so hard I ruptured her cervix when I came.’ So I turned around and said, ‘Maybe if you didn’t stick your dick into every random girl who breezed by it wouldn’t burn when you pee in the morning and you wouldn’t have to spend your weekends waiting in line at the free clinic.’”

Jan giggles. “That’s pretty funny.”

“That’s rude,” I correct, though I’m charmed by Jan’s laughter, intoxicated by his toothy smile. And, truthfully, Ernie’s statement isn’t without merit.

“Yeah,” Ernie says, “but they were asking for it—and I’m the one who gets punished. Apparently talking about monster cocks and cervices during class is far more acceptable than my having some inappropriate pics stored away on my cell phone.” He digs into his backpack, pulls out a box of peanut butter wafers, a bag of M&Ms, and a can of soda. He slams each item on the tabletop in succession. “Fuck them all.”

Theo looks at the snacks with a worried expression. “That’s your lunch?”

(Theo’s what you’d call a health nut. When it comes to food, he shops exclusively at the local Vitamart, where everything is organic—which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except that he tends to fret way too much over other people’s eating habits. Sort of a “you shouldn’t eat that because it’s bad for you” thing. It bugs me.)

“Did you rob a convenience store?” I ask Ernie.

“Har-har,” he replies, flicking me off. He faces Theo and Jan. “Actually, check this out. This pedophile guy downloads into my bedroom, right? He’s got a privacy screen with him, but it isn’t working—the fucking perv is standing there naked and trying to get his jollies watching me sleep. I catch him in the act and he loses it, starts groveling at my feet not to tell. So, I strike a deal: he has to supply me with unlimited snacks or else I’ll go to the police.”

I don’t usually resort to metaphorical descriptions, but dead silence literally falls over the table like an oppressive fog (Theo even waves his hand in the air, as if trying to chase some of it away). Ernie’s beaming with pride, but the rest of us are aghast.

After a moment I find my voice: “You’re blackmailing a pedophile?”

Ernie shrugs, pops a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. “We have an agreement.”

“Even though he’s a sexual deviant.”

“His problem, not mine.”

“Ernie, you’re twelve years old. You’re his type. It might very well become your problem!”

“He wouldn’t dare touch me.”

“That’s all good and well,” I say, “but we’re on your buddy list, too. What if he takes a liking to one of us?”

“Relax. He only likes boys.” Ernie ruffles Theo’s hair; Theo swats back. “If Robbie takes a liking to anyone, it’ll be Theo here.”

The dire expression on Theo’s face says it all: I don’t want to wake up with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile snuggled up beside me!

“You’re an idiot, Ernie,” I say. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”

Ernie snorts—and catches me completely off guard with his next statement. “No more so than your sneaking into Jan’s bedroom the other night.”

Dead silence.

Again.

Ernie is gorging himself on wafers, taking them two at a time; this spectacle is secondary to what Theo and Jan are shooting me: two perfectly composed expressions of, “What the hell?” Gradually I hear a slight choking beside me. Jan is reaching somewhere deep inside his impeccably placid facade for a handful of outrage.

“I can’t believe you spied on me!” he cries.

I disregard him out of necessity, aim my wrath squarely at Ernie. “I can’t believe you said that!”

Ernie, between gulps of carbonated corn syrup: “I can’t believe you’re a voyeur.”

Ugh! I want to leave this instant, but I won’t give Ernie the pleasure of knowing he’s pissed me off. Suddenly the rest of my turkey sandwich is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted, and I avail myself of it, head bowed, eyes on my napkin.

The others are talking about me as if I’m not even here:

“Are you serious? She was…she was in my room?”

“Yeah, man. That first night we all got together. But don’t worry, she didn’t take photos or anything. Not that I noticed. Nice undies, by the way.”

“Wait—you were watching her watch me?”

“Your webcam was on.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up or something?”

“I was captivated by your undies.”

“Ugh! You’re as bad as she i
s!”

An uneasy silence passes between us. No doubt we’re all thinking the same thing: SuperMegaNet has turned us into a bunch of voyeurs—and Ernie is friends with a pedo.

And Jan will probably never speak to me again.

Ernie belches loudly, and I look up. “You guys are still on for tonight, right?”

“What’s tonight?” Theo asks.

“Duh. My buddy list party.”

“Are you sure there’s room for us and your 213 friends?” I ask, bitter, unable to help myself.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s going to be great. Tell Summer to come—her and any other lovelies on your list. Theo, you can bring that Beta fellow.”

Theo cringes. “You were spying on me, too?”

“Oh, come on, guys!” Ernie exclaims. “This is the nature of the program! Of course we’re going to see each other changing for school or blasting farts in our sleep. So what? We’re roommates. What if we were in college together? Would you still be overreacting like this?” When he gets nothing from the others, he taps my hand, smearing peanut butter on my knuckles. “Are you coming tonight, Eva?”

I grab my things and leave the table.

Fuck you, Ernie.

I never wanted to be your friend anyway.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Simon Says I Think Too Much

@theo

I rub my eyes.

Simon, aka Beta, blinks at me. His blue, vaporous torso wavers; he has no hair, no eyebrows, no nipples or bellybutton or fingernails—he looks like an in-progress sketch. I know he’s young for an adult, twenty-ish; I know he’s male because of his voice and name, and I’m sure he’s Asian because, well, he looks Asian. He’s wearing some kind of superhero skinsuit, or maybe he’s lost his clothes in an unfortunate game of strip poker. There aren’t enough details to tell one way or another.

Too much homework, I think to myself. Not enough sleep. I’ve always had trouble sleeping—this must be my brain’s way of saying, “That’s it, I’m out of here!” Nevertheless, I try to be rational. This isn’t a computer ghost standing before me, and I don’t feel far-gone enough to warrant a hallucination. More likely: Beta is a SuperMegaNet user wearing a custom skin. But the skins feature isn’t finished yet, is it? Unless the help file is outdated…

Yes, I tell myself that’s what this is: a misprint—though a lifetime of gorging on manga and science fiction novels and Star Trek reruns has me believing otherwise.

“Nice skin,” I say.

Beta looks down at himself, brushes his hands over his abdomen. “Oh, this thing? It’s just a quick mock-up. I’m still working on the final version.”

“I thought skins hadn’t been implemented yet.”

“They haven’t. I’m privileged.”

“Yeah, so…” I clear my throat. “Where are you from?”

“/usr/bin/smn/beta…wait, no.” Beta laughs. “That’s my technical side jumping the gun again. It’s been so long since I went actual. I’m from southern California—Garden Grove, originally.”

I recall the street address listed on the SMN “About” screen. “Garden Grove, California? You work for the SuperMegaNet company? Taurus Labs?”

“Not so much these days. I was never officially laid off, but my position at Taurus is more an ‘associate’ kind of thing. You might say I’m on an extended vacation—geez, look at this place. A fucking Zen garden, huh?”

“Nothing wrong with that,” I snort.

“No, I like it. Very…conducive. What’s your name?”

“Theo.”

Beta nods.

I twiddle my thumbs.

“So, why’d you visit me?” I ask.

“Why not? They’re doing maintenance on the server for the next few hours, so I thought I’d drop in randomly.”

“And Beta—that’s your real name?”

“My real name is Simon. Simon Wong. Beta’s my SMN name and gaming handle. Sort of an inside joke—multiple sclerosis. Before I stopped going actual, I told my friends that I was my mom’s beta baby. Nice CD collection.” Simon—Beta—has been casually examining my room. He pauses by my bookshelf, fingers a PHP manual. “Nice. How long have you been a programmer?”

I shrug. “Three years, almost. You?”

“Since my backpack and lunch box days.”

I smile. I kind of like this Simon—Beta—guy. The Semantic Web would’ve been more palatable if he’d been there. “I don’t have you on my buddy list. How’d you sidestep the rules?”

“It’s difficult to explain the details,” Beta says, “so I’ll just give you the basic version. In the early days of the SMN testing phase—that would be a year ago next week—my computer hard drive died while I was virtual. It took my real body with it. My virtual self is intact, but is stuck on the server. Essentially, I’m a copy of my former self.”

That sucks. I’ve been worried about my parents finding an empty room during one of my uploads, and here it’s dawning on me just how bad things can get when the technology goes poof!

Beta seems to sense my worries, and waves his hand dismissively. “This was, as I said, the early days. We now keep a backup copy of every SMN user on our servers, just in case.”

I ask, “So you live on the SuperMegaNet server?”

“Yeah.”

“That sucks.”

“It does and it doesn’t. In virtual, my MS is history. I can change my body type as it suits me. I’ll be twenty-one forever, until I choose to have myself deleted—or until we have a catastrophic hardware crash at Taurus. I can visit anyone around the world via SuperMegaNet. Of course, I don’t actually exist anymore, but there are new game rooms coming out all the time, new chat rooms, new people to meet, new players to frag. I get around.”

“That’s terrible,” I say softly, not meaning to bring Beta down or anything, but catching myself too late.

“You’re sort of a tightly-wound little dude, huh?” He’s reached the self-help section of my bookshelf; he takes a copy of The Feeling Good Handbook in his hands and flips through.

“I’ve always been like this,” I say.

“Like what, exactly?”

“Tense. Insomnia. Tired, but never able to fall asleep on time.”

“Ever tried warm milk at bedtime? Red wine? Explosive sex with a redhead?” Beta chuckles. “Oh, that’s right: your profile says you’re twelve.”

I sigh. “It doesn’t work like that for me.”

“Well, I can guarantee the sex would—but we’ll have to work around the technicalities. What about St John’s Wort?”

“Herbs, diet—” I gesture at the exercise mat rolled up beside my desk. “—yoga, daily trips to my mom’s fitness club, CBT…if any of this works, it’s coincidence. It’ll take more than an hour for me to fall asleep once you’ve gone.”

“Yeah?” Beta replaces the Handbook back on its shelf and turns to face me. He folds his arms. “Well, maybe you just think too much. Maybe you just need to keep your mind occupied. Got any video games?”

“I have a Wii.”

Beta makes a face, nods. “Okay. You’re a casual gamer. That’ll have to do. Set it up.”

I’m halfway to telling him I’d rather tackle my insomnia on my own, but already he’s gone over to my computer and is poking around. Quickly I switch on my TV, hoping I can distract him before—

“She’s cute,” he says. “Your girlfriend?”

I swallow, embarrassed. I know he’s talking about Eva. “She’s…my friend—don’t you have better things to do than look at other people’s buddy lists?”

“Yes, but until the server work is finished, my options are limited.”

“I have school tomorrow.”

“School schmool. You want to spend the next hour laying awake in bed? Or do you want to get in a couple of rounds of Super Smash Bros?”

“But—”

“Shut up and let’s play, dude.”

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Robbie

@ernie

There’s a naked man standing over my bed. He’s holding a clear plastic pane in front of himself with one hand; with the other he’s, well, playing with himself like there’s no tomorrow.

I’m still half asleep, not thinking straight. I pull the blanket over my head, count to ten, lower it again.

The man is still there—only now he’s slowed his pace. He looks at me uncertainly, as if he’s not sure whether I can see him through his pane.

I swear under my breath. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I hope I sound pissed off.

The man stumbles back a step, now letting go of his ding-dong and clutching his pane with both hands. “Shit! You…you can see me?”

“Fuck yeah, I can see you!” I exclaim, squinting in the semi-darkness. My memory’s a little hazy, but I think I might have added him from one of the gaming rooms—Robbie. His name’s Robbie. “Now answer my question: What the hell are you doing?”

“I…I thought I was invisible.” Robbie reaches behind himself, fumbling for the keyboard, trying to upload back home.

I get out of bed. I’m grossed out. You hear about pedophiles in the news all the time, but meeting one in person is a whole new level of yuck. “This is what you do with your spare time?”

“I didn’t touch you, I swear!”

“Damn right you didn’t!”

“P-please, this is a-all just a m-misunderstanding. I’ll just be on my way…”

The more Robbie babbles, the more I realize he’s just some witless creep who doesn’t know how to use his messenger properly.

“There’s no misunderstanding,” I say, putting a swagger in my tone. “You downloaded yourself—naked—into a kid’s bedroom. And you were masturbating. So, let me repeat: there’s no misunderstanding.”

Robbie hangs his head. “What are you going to do?”

I think fast. All sorts of wicked ideas pop into my head. “I’m going to compromise.”

He blinks, a tear trickling down his cheek.

“Let’s go to your place.”

* * *

Oh, God…so good.

Robbie grunts.

He didn’t think I’d have this much fun with it.

“Oh, Robbie,” I swoon. “I’m going to drag this out for as long as possible.”

Ahem.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I’m not some love-starved orphan eager to jump under the covers with any man willing to give me love. I’m simply starving.

Allow me to explain. My grandparents are fossilized idiots. They do everything by the book. What book? Damned if I know. The thing has probably yellowed and cracked and fallen apart with age (not unlike my grandparents). Everything I do is metered and measured. A structured environment. Hence the lock on the refrigerator—a lock. How fucked up is that? They’re so sure fat little Ernie Goodale can’t keep his hands out of the Cool Whip that they’ve padlocked it away, they’ve forced me to improvise—hiding Oreos in my closet, chocolate bars in my hamper.

This Robbie jerk-off…he too has forced me to improvise. So that’s what I’m doing. I lick my spoon, savoring every last smidgen of fudge. I bet Robbie wishes I was licking something else. The two of us—fully dressed—are seated at his kitchen table.

“We have a deal, then?” I ask, looking over the contract I’ve drawn up.

Robbie nods.

“Once a week—mango gelato. Sugar wafers. Nacho platters from Rubio’s—not that Taco Bell shit?”

He nods. I’ve got him by the balls—and I didn’t even have to take off my clothes to do it. He supplies me with snacks, and I refrain from going to the police. You can say I’m a jerk or an asshole or a severely misguided youth, but really I’m just taking advantage of a sweet situation. Robbie would have done the same. If not him, then someone like mullet Brian and his pranksters. So, no, I don’t feel the least bit “bad” about what I’m doing. I won’t be the victim.

Fuck that.

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

The Semantic Web

@theo

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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

@ernie

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.

Click.

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

Click-click.

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:

“Um…hi.”

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.

Oh?

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

@eva

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?”

“213.”

“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.

@theo

Sleep deprivation.

Yummy.

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

SuperMegaNet

@jan

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!”

Forever.

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.”

“Oh?”

“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