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.

Byte Me

@ernie

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

Click.

And that absolutely flat tummy, those gently flared thighs.

Click.

And that absolutely munchable—

“Hi, Ernest.”

Fuck!

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry ladies, but I have to make friends tonight.

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

“I’ll go first,” Theo offers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. You Lithuanian or something?”

“Czech.”

“I thought you said you were from Brno.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theo chuckles.

Jan smirks.

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

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

“Wait, wait,” I say, interrupting.

Jan stops, stares.

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

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

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

“Are you on dial-up?” asks Theo.

“DSL,” Jan responds.

“Who’s your provider?”

“Um…DXL Pro, I think.”

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

Jan snorts. “Why? Are you paying?”

“Why? Are you poor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hey, I’m a realist.)

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

—then I see it.

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

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

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

“It’s still in beta, though.”

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

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

“Vaporware?” asks Jan.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” chime Jan and Eva in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happens.

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

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

“What’s the matter?” asks Eva.

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

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

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

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

His room!

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

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

Theo doesn’t look too sure.

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

Mrs. Thrailkill is a Chain Smoker

@theo

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

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

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

“Psst.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” Ernest snickers. “I knew that.”

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

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

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

Did she just say the “s” word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did…did she just say blowjobs?

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

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

We all nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She faces us again.

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

We straighten, mouths shut, palms tingling.

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

An instinctive groan escapes Ernest’s mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guidance Counselor from Hell

@thrailkill

You can kiss your respective summers goodbye.

Because it’s the first day of school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I’m going to need another cigarette.