Pet Monsters

@theo

“You’re late,” I tell Ernie as he joins Jan, Eva, and myself at our usual lunchtime table.

“It’s no fault of mine,” Ernie says. “I had to spend the last half hour in the principal’s office explaining why I was ‘cutting class’ this morning.”

“You were cutting class?”

“I wasn’t cutting class. I was killing time.”

“By wandering the corridors,” Jan explains, trying to avert Eva’s gaze by focusing full on his soggy ham and cheese sandwich.

I look at him. What an idiot. I mean, look at Eva. She’s still embarrassed about what she did last week, so she’s mostly turned off to the rest of us. But not to Jan. She’s sitting right next to him, practically in his lap—and he’s acting totally third-grader! If I had that kind of attention I wouldn’t be staring dully at my lunch, I’d be treating my girl like a princess, a goddess, a bug-eyed supermodel. I wish she’d tried to spy me in my underwear.

“What were you doing wandering the corridors?” I ask Ernie.

He says, “The teacher was giving the class an extra ten minutes to finish Friday’s homework. I’d already done all of mine, so I got a hall pass, stepped out for a breath of air.”

“A mouthful of Skittles is more like it,” says Jan, smiling amusedly.

“They were M&Ms,” says Ernie.

I spoon lemon yogurt into my mouth. “Oh, much healthier.”

“What is this, jerk around the fat kid day?”

“Sorry, continue with your story.”

“Anyway,” Ernie says, “the administration busted my balls over the whole thing, said I was slacking off, misbehaving, even though I fucking did all my work, and even though I was going to return to class after the ten minutes were up. Can you believe that? They assume I’m just a lazy, gassy fat-ass who’s up to no good if I’m not sitting quietly and waiting for the other students to get their shit together—which is bull, because you know us fat kids need all the exercise we can get.”

I can sympathize—about the stereotype thing, not the fat thing. I too always finish my work ahead of everyone else, and so have extra time to just sit and read or doodle while everyone else is still slaving away. If I’m not pissing off my teachers because I always look like I’m doing nothing I’m threatening the older kids because I’m small and smart and my mind hasn’t yet been corrupted by raging hormones.

“Fucking high school lemmings,” Ernie grunts. He wrestles open a bag of gummy worms. “They’d change their tune if I had my pet monster with me.”

“Pet monster?” asks Eva, blinking at Ernie as if coming out of a daze.

Ernie nods. “Yeah. You know, if any of us had enough free time and money, we’d buy a laboratory and develop a pet monster to take care of those who oppose us.”

“That’s dumb,” Eva says. “I wouldn’t do that.”

Ernie glares at her, then at me, at Jan. “You can’t tell me none of you has ever daydreamed about having a pet monster.”

I haven’t. But if I did, I’d never tell anyone that such a childish concept was lurking in the recesses of my brain. “What does a pet monster look like?”

“Whatever you want it to look like. It’s your pet monster.”

“What does yours look like?” asks Jan.

“Mine’s a Suck-u-bot 5000,” Ernie says proudly. “She’s big-titted, beautiful, and she’s programmed to give great head—and then bite your dick off right when you’re about to come.”

Jan makes a face.

Eva rolls her eyes and looks away, at one of the other tables.

I ask in deadpan: “Ernie, why would you want a robot to bite off your dick?”

“Not my dick, you moron! The dicks of my enemies!”

“You know, you’re talking about a robot,” Jan points out, “not a monster.”

“Robots can be classifications of monsters. They don’t have to be flesh and blood.”

“Yeah, but when you say ‘monster’ it brings to mind Frankenstein or Wolf Guy—”

“Wolf Man,” I correct.

“Yes, Wolf Man. And Swamp Man. People like that.”

“Fuck you guys,” Ernie says. “Theo, what’s your pet monster? And don’t pull any bullshit about you never having imagined one.”

Resisting the temptation to correct Jan on the Swamp Man thing, I bite my lip and think hard. Personally, I hate monsters, in movies, on TV, and under the bed—but I’ll play along because admitting I hate monsters would be like admitting I like Asia. The band. Which has already happened, and which has already brought me needless grief. “Um…I guess my monster wouldn’t look like a monster in the classic sense. He’d be one of those killers you don’t suspect at first, but it would slowly dawn on you that he might actually be responsible for a slew of vicious killings.”

Ernie looks disappointed. “That’s not a monster, Biclops, that’s just a serial killer.”

“Physically, yeah, but figuratively he’s a total monster.”

“Boring! Deform him somehow! Splice his DNA with a lawnmower! Slip a disgusting, super-intelligent parasite down his throat! Shove him into a giant vat of oatmeal and electrocute him!”

I raise an eyebrow. “An oatmeal man?”

“Sure!” Ernie says. “He’d have raisins where his moles used to be.”

“Ew!” gasps Eva.

“And his blood,” Jan says, snapping his fingers, “would be sucrose instead of glucose.”

“Sucrose?” I ask.

Ernie glares at me. “Table sugar. You are a gifted student, right?”

“I’m math and English, not science or biology or whatever it takes to conceive an oatmeal man.”

“This isn’t science,” Eva says, shooting me a knowing look, “it’s ridiculousness.”

“I agree,” I say, nodding back, smiling. For once we’re on the same level. It’s the sweetest moment of my life.

Ernie and Jan’s mindless jabber fills the background:

“We could call him Oates!”

“Harold Oates!”

“Oates: the high-fiber killer!”

“Eat your breakfast before it eats you!”

“Horror never tasted so good!”

Eventually, I raise my hand and flag them down: “Guys, guys, I don’t get it.”

Ernie blinks. “You don’t get what?”

“Why does this Oates fellow have to be evil just because he’s made of oatmeal?”

“Duh! He has sucrose for blood! That’s, like, the opposite of glucose, making him a giant oatmeal cookie. He can’t eat other cookies—that would be cannibalism! He has to eat people. It’s a wicked reversal. Breakfast eating you instead of you eating breakfast.”

“Trust us,” says Jan. “If oatmeal could walk and talk, it would eat you just as readily as you eat it.”

Eva narrows her eyes. “Regardless of the fact that if an oatmeal man tried to eat me all I’d have to do is grab the nearest blow dryer and aim it square at his face.”

Ernie frowns. “You’re no fun.”

Eva grins in triumph. “Nobody likes dried oatmeal, Ernie.”

I giggle alongside her.

“Too analytical for your own good,” Ernie sighs. “Both of you.”

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Janspeak

@jan

Eva’s burning a hole in my head with her gaze. I’m trying to be nonchalant about it, but it’s obvious I’m pretending not to watch her watch me as I sit slumped in first period English and wait for roll to be called. Every other glance, she smiles at me, waves, her ponytail bouncing cheerfully. I wave back the first time; after that it becomes redundant, so I just nod, shrug, and wonder what it was I did or said that got her all into me.

I was kind of hoping that it was the novelty of SMN, that Eva was just temporarily infatuated with the naughty aspect of always-on social networking—but that’s becoming less and less likely with each glance, each smile, each wave. She did sneak into my room that night. I guess I’m intrigued by the fact that a girl wants to see me in my underwear, but Eva…well, not to be mean, but she’s got major bug eyes. I’m not trying to insult her, nor do I want to humiliate her in any way, but I don’t think I could ever find her cute enough overall to warrant us becoming anything more than school buddies. Plus, with the ponytail, the warm-up suit and sneakers combo, there’s a little too much pretension there. Like, I’m discovering as I go along, the jocks who wear their lettermen jackets every day, every week, every month.

I pay her another quick glance.

She’s still looking at me.

I avert my gaze, trying to pass myself off as uninterested but not impolite. This is a first for me. How do you get a girl to un-like you without hurting her feelings? And an American girl, at that?

The teacher—Mr. Johnson—strolls down the aisle, calling off names. “Liza Homma?”

“Present,” answers Liza.

“Mark Howard?”

“Present,” answers Mark.

Mr. Johnson passes my desk, his pencil poised over his clipboard. “Jan Kounicova?”

I try not to wince at his exceedingly bad pronunciation of my name. “Actually, sir, it’s pronounced Jan.”

Mr. Johnson stops, turns, blinks at me. He’s totally a vanilla schoolteacher, from his plain white collared dress shirt to his conservatively-combed thinning hair to his totally average features and inability to grapple with anything outside his immediate comfort zone. I can tell from the look on his face that instead of, “Actually, sir, it’s pronounced Jan,” he’d heard, “Ecktwoolee, sair, eats pdonounsed Yawn.”

“That’s cute,” he says, mildly annoyed. “Now lose it.”

“Lose what?” I ask.

“The Chekov impression.”

I don’t know who or what Chekov is.

Eva speaks up: “Mr. Johnson?”

Johnson looks over at her. “Yes, Ms. Taylor?”

“If you mean Ensign Chekov, from Star Trek, he’s Russian. Jan is Czech.”

Johnson looks back at me. “Well, Czech is like drunk Russian, right?”

The class chuckles.

Mark, seated in front of me, reaches back and pats me on the shoulder, pretends he’s whispering even though he’s not. “Don’t mind Johnson. He’s just trying to be friendly.”

“Face forward,” Johnson tells him. Then, hoisting his clipboard once again: “Okay, let’s try this again. Jan Kounicova?”

“Present,” I answer.

The other students chuckle lightly. I’m positive they all heard me say, “Pdesent.”

Johnson finishes calling roll, then detaches the attendance sheet from his clipboard and hands it to me. “Here, Chekov, make yourself useful and take this to the attendance office.”

So, I think to myself, Chekov is to be my American nickname. Should I be flattered?

I take the attendance sheet, rise from my desk.

Eva cranes her neck, watches me leave the classroom.

Out in the hallway, I breathe a sigh of relief. Without her stare the air actually feels cooler, the walls less constricting.

A door opens some ways down. Ernie steps out into the hall. He waves when he sees me, starts waddling over. I’d turn away, but the attendance office is in his direction.

“What’s up, Janny Boy?” he asks when we’re face to face.

I hold up the attendance sheet.

“Oh. Bitch work.” He pulls out a bag of M&Ms from his pocket. He tears it open and downs half of it in a single swallow. “Myself, I’m on my way to my locker. Forgot some homework.”

I pay the M&Ms bag a wary glance. “You still making deals with that Robbie perv?”

Ernie shakes his head. “Fuck him. I have a girlfriend now. She provides for me.”

“Becky?”

“The Beckster.”

I frown. “Don’t you feel bad taking advantage of a girl you just met on SuperMegaNet to support your eating disorder?”

“We all have our problems. Me and food. Becky and food. You and Bug Eyes.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dude,” Ernie says, “she’s been giving you bedroom eyes all week. You haven’t noticed?”

I have noticed. That’s the problem. “No.”

“You like chicks, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Of course I do! Just not girls…like Eva.

“Then take it from me: Eva Taylor wants to make it with you.”

“So? Just because she likes me I’m supposed to like her back?”

“Why not?” asks Ernie, looking genuinely curious.

I shrug. “She’s fine as a friend, but otherwise she kind of scares me.”

Ernie thinks about this for all of two seconds, then scowls. “Is it the bug eyes thing?” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “That’s shallow, Jan.”

You use Becky for snacks,” I point out. “And you’re getting food coloring on my shirt!” I shrug him off of me.

“That’s not true. Me and Piglet have a thing going. Nothing like the sparks you and Eva would have, though, if you two shacked up for just a night, even.”

“If you think she’s so great, why don’t you get with her?”

“She doesn’t want me,” Ernie answers. “She wants a hard-body. A hunk. A muscled-up sex machine. You.”

This is getting out of hand. “I should get going.”

“Ugh, you silly Czech Bastard.”

I narrow my eyes. “Huh?”

“You’re ignoring the chance to tap a fine piece of ass—”

“Not that,” I say, cutting him off, “the Czech Bastard thing.”

“Oh, come on it’s not an insult. It’s like when I call you ‘jerk’ or ‘dork.’ Like a friendly nickname.”

“I already have a nickname.”

“What is it?”

I sigh. “Chekov.”

“The Star Trek dude?” Ernie throws his head back and laughs. “I can totally see that!”

“Thanks, fat-ass.”

He stops laughing, fixes me with a serious stare. “Hey…”

“It’s only a nickname,” I say, sarcastically. I walk away.

“Think about what I said!” Ernie yells down the hall. “At least get your hands down her pants before you make your final decision!”

I duck into the attendance office—and not a moment too soon, as an annoyed teacher has stepped out into the hall and is demanding to know what all the racket is about.

I approach the nearest desk. “The attendance sheet from Mr. Johnson’s class,” I announce.

The girl behind the
desk smiles at me. “Thanks,” she says, and takes the sheet. “Can I help you with anything else?”

I think for a moment. “Actually, yes.”

“Oh?”

“Can you tell me who Ensign Chekov is?”

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Schoolyard Logic

@theo

Someone’s getting creamed on the front lawn. The large swarm of teenagers chanting, “Fight! Fight!” makes this obvious as my mom and I pull up in front of Boca Linda High.

“Oh, my goodness,” Mom says, looking like she doesn’t want to let me out of the car. “Maybe we should drive around to the other side of the campus.”

I shake my head. “I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know, Theo…”

But I’m already grabbing my backpack and making my way out. I wave goodbye as I close the door, hope she won’t sit there with the car idling until I’m inside the building. I’m a high school freshman now. I’m entitled to see the blood and guts like everyone else—without my mommy’s supervision.

I walk along the sidewalk, heading towards class, sneaking glances over my shoulder until Mom finally pulls away. The instant she’s out of sight I change course, stepping from the concrete and onto the grass, into the melee. Everyone’s bleary-eyed, their hair still wet from their morning showers. I smell shampoo, deodorant, cologne, breath mints covering cigarette breath. I try to push my way through, but the mass of bodies won’t yield. The few boys or girls who acknowledge my presence do so in a way befitting someone’s pesky younger brother.

“Oh, my fucking God!” says a senior in front of me, to his pal. “Did you see that blond chick that just pulled up a couple of minutes ago?”

“Which one?” asks his friend.

“The one in the Prius. Dropped off her little brother.”

“Oh, her. Hells yeah I saw her. Must be a college cheerleader.”

“Had to be. Nice little titties, fit as fuck. I was just waiting for her to get out and show off that tight little booty.”

“You and me both.”

The boys exchange high-fives, then glance back at me. An “Oh, shit!” expression crosses both of their faces—they must not have realized I’ve been standing right behind them while they fawn over my mom.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn away from the senior jerks to find Ernie’s standing next to me. He’s wearing sunglasses.

“Yo,” he says.

I blink (out of my peripheral vision I can see the senior jerks sidling away). “What’s with the glasses?”

Ernie glowers at me. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing. It’s just that it’s seven forty-five in the morning.” And you look like you’re trying to hide a night of binge drinking.

“So, what? Am I not cool enough to wear shades when it suits me? Is that privilege reserved for rockers and movie stars only?”

“No, I…” I trail off, lost for words.

Ernie sighs and shakes his head. He adjusts his backpack. “Sorry. Long night.”

“Oh.” Right. He’s an insomniac, too. He probably got five hours of sleep last night—though his midnight marathons are intentional. Mine aren’t. And even when I’ve had a bad night I don’t snap at people when they ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses in the morning.

No matter. Eva’s coming up to us now. She’s fresh-faced and energetic, wearing her usual warm-up suit and sneakers combo, her ponytail bouncing cheerfully with each step.

I catch myself beaming and waving dumbly. “Good morning.”

She nods casually at me, gestures at the crowd. “What’s going on?”

“Fight,” Ernie answers, trying unsuccessfully to jump up and down so he can see over everyone else. Each time he jumps, his grandpa sweater gets stuck in a roll of fat, and each time he tries to pick it out without looking obvious.

Eva rolls her eyes distastefully. “How mature.”

She walks away. I watch her go, disappointed. I shouldn’t have smiled so eagerly when I said hello. I should’ve opened with a joke or something. I should’ve shown my own initiative instead of just standing and gawking like everyone else—

I look at Ernie again. He’s stopped jumping, but is still out of breath from the exertion.

“I can’t see shit!” he breathes.

I think I hear someone getting punched.

I say, “I think I hear someone getting punched.”

“That’s it.” Ernie charges forward. “I’ve had enough of standing out here in the boondocks.”

Head down, elbows braced ahead of him, he uses his bulk to open a path; I tag along in his wake. A couple of rude excuse-me’s and a wheezed, “Hey, that fat kid elbowed me in the balls!” later and we reach the inner circle. Two senior boys are thrashing around, bits of mud and grass (and a little blood, I think) staining their clothes. One is brutish, wearing a letterman jacket; the other is a tank top wearing pretty-boy. Both are musclebound.

Ernie and I watch in detached fascination as the pretty-boy is tenderized before our very eyes. Somewhere at the crowd’s perimeter, I can hear teachers and custodians shouting for everyone to disperse. None of us listen, though, and so the adults continue trying to out-yell the adolescents. They either don’t know or don’t care about the schoolyard code—they act as if we’re hindering the process when, in fact, we serve a crucial social function. We’re here to bear witness, to ensure completion, to demand blood before we’re locked away in our stuffy classrooms for the day.

The brute dodges a swing, retaliates with a well-placed punch in the pretty-boy’s face. Cartilage is cracked, teeth are dislodged; the boy’s hair is terminally ruffled. He goes down.

The crowd goes wild, not caring that there’s now a bleeding, whimpering teenage hulk laying on the lawn. In a moment we’re all going our separate ways. After all, the warning bell is about to ring.

“That pretty-boy had it coming,” Ernie says as we head towards the main building.

“How’s that?” I ask.

“Look at him. Tall, pretty, fit as fuck.”

I glance over my shoulder. The school nurse is trying to pick up the boy’s missing teeth with a napkin. In the background, one of the security guards is chasing after the brutish kid, who’s launched into a parkour escape routine. “Not so pretty anymore,” I say, facing forward again. “Why do you think he had it coming?”

Ernie removes his sunglasses and tucks them into his pocket (hall monitors like to cry wolf over things like that). “He gave off the impression that he can take care of himself. Did you see his bulging arms, his massive shoulders? They were screaming, ‘With guns like these, I dare you to try kicking my ass!’ Sooner or later someone was bound to accept the challenge.”

“So, you’re saying he likes to pick fights.”

“His guns like to pick fights. It has nothing to do with him.”

I try to wrap my brain around the concept. “Just because he’s built doesn’t mean people automatically pick fights with him.”

“Oh, it does.” Ernie stops in front of his locker. “Muscle studs get into fights for the same reason fat kids don’t.”

“What reason is that?”

“Fatness is a handicap. You’d never hit a handicapped kid, would you?”

“No, of course not.”

Ernie starts fiddling with his combination. “Why not?”

“It’d be fucked up. He’s handicapped.”

“Ere go, you wouldn’t hit a fat person. If I tell you I hate your shirt, you’d be like, ‘Lay off you fat fuck,
’ and that would be the end of it. If I was tall and muscley it’d be bloody nose and black eye time.”

I say, “That’s stupid. Fat kids get into fights, too.”

“Look at Kevin Smith.” Ernie continues to fiddle with his combination. “He basically tells his fans to suck his dick whenever he does a Q&A. And they love him for it.”

“That’s because Kevin Smith is famous.”

“It’s because Kevin Smith is fat. And because he’s got glasses. He’s got a double handicap. He can be twice as obnoxious.”

I fold my arms. “Is that why you’re an obtuse loudmouth? Because you’re fat?”

“Yup.”

“I thought so.”

Ernie finally gets his locker open. There are bags of M&Ms and chocolate chip cookies stacked high. Ernie grabs one of each and stuffs them into his backpack. He closes his locker. “Look around you. Watch the jocks versus the fat kids in the coming weeks and months. Jan’s fucked. He’ll get a black eye before the year is out. Eva, she’s lucky. She’s a girl. Picking a fight with her would be fucked up—like pushing a baby into a well.”

“What about me?”

“You’re good because of the glasses thing.”

The warning bell rings. I start down the hall. Behind me, I can hear Ernie ripping open a bag of cookies.

It’s probably a good thing Eva left earlier.

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Breakfast at My Place

@jan

If you look up lethargy at Wikipedia, you’ll probably find a picture of a Kounicova, tousle-haired and groggy. Monday mornings are about as welcome as termites in our home. Not that we have anything personal against Mondays. It’s just the timing—as in my family and I are still on Brno time. We haven’t Americanized in that respect.

This morning begins like all the others, with my dad lurching out into the living room and rasping, “Time to get up.”

I lift my head, open my eyes, yawn. I watch in mild fascination as Dad moves across the living room and into the kitchen with zombie-like coordination. I can hear plates and mugs being set on the table; as usual, Mom has gotten up five minutes early to pull the bread and cold-cuts out of the fridge.

“Come, Jan,” I hear her say. “Time to get up.”

As if I didn’t hear Dad the first time.

I move from my bed to my desk in a single rolling/rotating motion. Once in the chair, I straighten into a somewhat more respectable posture as I wiggle the mouse and wake the computer screen. My SuperMegaNet windows are lined up on the right. I can see Eva’s already awake and is blow-drying her hair. She waves, smiles—she’s a total early bird. I don’t know how she does it.

Theo and Ernie, on the other hand, are night owls, and while I know Theo, regardless of how much or how little sleep he got last night, will be dutifully arising in a few minutes, Ernie looks totally bricked, his arms and legs tangled in the blanket, his mouth hanging wide open, his hair sticking out at all the wrong angles. In the week I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him awake in the morning. I wonder how often he makes it to school on time.

“Jan!” Mom calls. “Nasnídat se!”

I can tell she’s getting impatient because she’s losing her English.

I go into the kitchen and seat myself at the table. Mom’s poured coffee for Dad and herself, tea for me. In addition to the meat and cheese, there’s butter, jam, honey, and rolls—my mom’s attempt at serving a traditional Czech breakfast even though none of the food’s homemade, and me and Dad are in our underwear.

We sip our coffee, our tea.

I start to butter a roll.

Dad clears his throat and asks, “So, where did you disappear to last night?”

The knife eludes my hand and ends up falling onto the floor with a loud clatter. “Last night?” I ask, leaning over to pick it up. I hope to God my parents didn’t catch me uploading to Theo’s place.

“We saw that you’d arranged the pillows under the blanket,” Mom says. “We figured you’d run away to a happier home.”

My dad chuckles, takes another sip of coffee.

I use the dropped knife as an excuse to go over to the sink. As I run it under the cold tap, I try to determine just how much my mom knows. She’s got a gruff way of putting things, and it’s sometimes hard to tell when she’s being serious and when she’s not. I thought I’d positioned my desk and dresser in such a way that it’s difficult to tell whether or not I’m sleeping in my bed, but apparently that isn’t the case. I might be busted. My parents might have seen me upload. Worse, they might have been poking around and found my cache of naked muscle babes. Oh, stupid, stupid Jan! I always assume they disregard me when we’re at home after school and work. They hole up in their room, I tuck myself into my corner, and we don’t speak to each other unless it’s to say “goodnight.” I always thought our respective worlds were separated by classic Czech formalities. Even when they pass by, to or from the kitchen, they never look in my direction. But that doesn’t mean they were never watching.

It’s a revelation.

It’s a nightmare.

I hate this apartment.

Back at the table, I try to sound amused as I ask, “Why would I run away?”

Mom looks at Dad, Dad looks back, and I can tell they had one of those discussions last night involving finances (or lack thereof), goals, timetables, and the like.

After a moment, Dad sighs, slips cheese, salami, and a dollop of honey between two slices of bread. He takes a hearty bite. “I promised you and your mom it would take six months to turn things around here in America. It’s been two years. I’ve moved us from a nice house in Brno to a decent apartment in San Angelico, to this cramped hotbox while I try my darnedest to make the business work. Now you’re a week at a new school, with new teachers to mind, new friends to make…” A bit of honey trickles down his wrist; he licks it up. “I thought you’d finally had enough and decided to strike out on your own.”

He’s joking. I know he is. And yet he’s testing me. That’s how he does it. “Your mom and I thought you ran away” means “Are you okay? Is everything fine?” He knows I’d never just up and leave like that, and it has nothing to do with my being only twelve.

“I stepped out for a while,” I say, hoping I won’t have to out and out lie. My parents brought me into this world. They’ve always treated me right. I respect them greatly—but it would be asinine to tell them with a straight face that I’ve been uploading and downloading from the Internet. They’d think I was making it up as a cover for something else. Drugs or alcohol. A promiscuous relationship with a girl, maybe.

There’s a tense silence in the air. This could turn out to be One of Those Mornings.

But it doesn’t.

Dad starts chewing again—as if the passage of time is directly related to the pre-digestion of his food. “Sounds like the boy merely has a healthy affinity for fresh air.” He winks at me when Mom isn’t looking.

Mom smiles, though not as easily convinced as Dad. “You didn’t hitchhike back home?”

Stupid question. I force a laugh. “How would I do that?”

“Maybe one of those large foam hands,” Dad offers. “You know, the ones you see at the ball games. You could stand on the runway and flag the planes down.”

Mom slaps him on the shoulder. “Don’t tell him how!”

Promiňte, promiňte!

I watch my parents play-fight, Dad dodging as Mom pinches his cheek, and I realize I’m off the hook.

I can breathe again.

Breakfast winds down. After a while, Mom leaves to get ready for work while Dad and I finish stuffing our groggy faces. Afterward, we put the leftovers away, set the dishes in the washer. Then we tag-team the bathroom.

I’m quiet during the car ride to Boca Linda High. Ernie often says I’m too much like Theo in that respect, but he’s only partly right. Theo’s shy as a wallflower; I’m just…homesick, thinking of Brno most of the time, remembering this little pub Dad used to take me to after work. They let me taste beer there. I never got drunk or anything, but it felt good to be included with the men. Here in America there are so many rules. I know hindsight is clouding my judgment, but it feels like all you can do here is go to school, then straight home, wait for your parents to get off work, go to bed, then wake up the next day to do it all again. At least, here in San Angelico. It’s so…big. There are people everywhere, but none of them have any time for you.

My parents are quiet, too. I know what they’re thinking. They want this to work, but as time passes it seems less and less likely that’ll happen. Still, this morning could have been such a homesick one. Dad turned it around. I owe him.

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Your Friends Are Weird

@summer

The thing about Eva is, she’s totally naïve. I’m not knocking her or anything, but sometimes she tries to be too nice to too many people—especially people she doesn’t know. This whole friendship thing with Theo, Ernie, and Jan…she doesn’t get that it was just an assignment. She doesn’t need to actually become friends with them.

I’m telling her this from the backseat of my dad’s Ford Excursion as he drives me to Saturday morning practice, my netbook propped on my knees, Eva’s video messenger window filling my screen. “You don’t owe them anything.”

“I know,” Eva says. She’s brushing her hair. “But it’s not like I can delete them from my buddy list. SuperMegaNet doesn’t allow that. At least, not yet.”

“Yeah. Stupid program, if you ask me. Makes you pay for your mistakes.”

Eva looks slightly offended. “I wouldn’t call Jan and his friends ‘mistakes’.”

“You’re not actually going to stick around with them, are you?”

“I’ll keep them as buddies, and I’ll see them at school.”

I roll my eyes. “But they’re weird. You want weirdos for friends?”

Eva looks away. She’s trying to pretend she’s fishing around her desktop for scrunchies. I think she’s blushing.

“Oh, I see,” I say. “You want Jan’s buns—like Ernie wants cinnamon buns.”

From the driver’s seat, my dad gives me a look via the rear-view mirror. “Who’re you talking to, sweetie?”

“Nobody, dad,” I reply, annoyed. “Just pay attention to the road.”

He faces forward again, chuckling to himself. I know I probably shouldn’t talk to him like I do, but, then, I am thirteen, his little darling, his little star—as long as my GPA and national ranking are impeccable, I can get away with the tart-mouth.

I bring my SMN window into focus. Jan’s huffing and puffing with a pair of dumbbells; Ernie’s inhaling a box of sugar cookies; Theo’s staring dully at his screen and typing furiously. “Hon, you need to start hanging around the training room with me and the girls. There are some fine ass guys on the boy’s gymnastics team.”

“Why are you turning Big Sister on me?” Eva asks.

“Because I love you, babe.”

“They’re harmless. Really, they are.”

“Clueless is more like it.” I give Jan another peek. He’s started working his triceps. Most non-gymnasts neglect their triceps—but from what Eva’s told me, Jan’s not on any teams, nor is he training for any reason other than to get the muscles. He hasn’t got any direction. That usually means trouble. “Didn’t you say Ernie embarrassed you in front of everyone?”

“Yeah…but he’s made it up to me in his own way.”

“How? By not spitting cookie crumbs at you when he speaks?”

Eva sighs and says, “You can’t hold everyone you meet to a specific criteria.”

“If you don’t, then you open yourself up for all kinds of heartache. That whole ‘give them a kiss and they’ll ask for the key to your house’ thing.”

“It’s a little late for that. With SuperMegaNet, we’ve all got the keys to each other’s houses now, don’t we? Well, figuratively speaking.”

I say, “Just because you have SuperMegaNet doesn’t mean you should use it. It’s a great idea for a chat program, but it’s socially flawed. You don’t make friends online. You make stalkers. That’s why these people are online in the first place: They think they can get away with everything that’s not allowed in real life.”

Eva gives me an unconvinced look.

“I should know,” I continue. “I was stalked once. Remember?”

“Yeah—”

“That nerdy creep. The one who saw me at the JO nationals this year. Pretended he was writing some kind of science fiction book and used it as an excuse to hit me up on MySpace. First he was asking about beam routines, then it was waist sizes and undie lines. To make his characters more realistic, you see.”

“I know the story, Summer—”

I cut Eva off again; she needs to get this. “Being a junior elite has taught me more than just the drills and skills. It’s taught me how to see through all the cow patty. You could train and compete at the local level for years and the only people you’ll ever see in the stands are family, friends, friends of friends. But the day you make your first national meet, the day you start getting your picture taken by more than just the moms and dads trying to out-do one another, well, that changes everything. Pictures or videos of you are on the news or the Internet and suddenly you have all kinds of friends, girls who idolize you, boys who want to date you, and grown men who want to become your very own personal bedroom coach. I don’t need to tell you that all it takes is a cute little butt packed tight in Spandex to get the attention of friends you never knew you had.”

Eva holds up her hand, cutting me off. “Okay, look. I didn’t meet the boys online, I met them at my school. We collaborated online afterward. And not one of them has asked to date me or be my bedroom coach. Whatever that means.”

“It means—”

“I don’t want to know.”

“It’s only been a week,” I say. “Things could change if, say, Theo gets the silly notion that you’re easy.”

Eva makes a face. “Why Theo?”

“Babe, he was totally giving you the goo-goo eyes yesterday.”

“He was not!”

“How would you know? You were ogling Jan’s legs the whole time he was downloading.”

The look on Eva’s face tells me I’ve hit home—she’s letting her infatuation with Jan get the best of her and she knows it.

“Jan and Theo and Ernie are there for me,” she says after thinking for a sec. “I know it sounds silly, but…they are.”

“They’re there for you because they have nowhere else to go.”

“So what? It’s hard being the underling at school. You may be a celebrity, you may have to deal with fanboys and stalkers, but I have the exact opposite. No one wants to talk to me or be around me. Everyone’s older, more ‘mature’. They all act like I need someone to change my diaper or fetch me a bottle. It may not be ideal, but with the boys I can spend my lunches not having to wander around the halls pretending I have somewhere to go.”

“So, you’re using them as a crutch.”

“I am not.”

“Babe, that’s not an insult. We all do it. My parents use me as a crutch, for crying out loud. ‘Our daughter’s a gymnast!’ they’re always telling their friends. ‘She just made a sweep of the golds at such and such meet! She’s going to the Olympics in 2012! Isn’t she wonderful?’ Who cares if I’ll even want to go by then? As long as they have a few years where they can ride the prize money and endorsement deal wave, they’re totally cool with whatever it takes to keep me a star.”

My dad looks back at me again, unsure if he’s heard what he thinks he’s heard over the roar of the engine. I simply dimple at him, say, “I love you, daddy!” and the whole thing is forgotten.

I’m such a little bitch.

On my netbook screen, Eva’s become frozen in her SMN window.

“What happening?” I ask.

“Look at Ernie,” she replies.

I switch windows, bringing Ernie’s into focus. He’s stopped eating, and is now standing up, adjusting his webcam. He’s got a sheet of looseleaf paper in his hand; he starts reading off of it:

“In light of my recent blog entry over at Jessture.com, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a formal apology to the writers and readers of SuperMegaNet. I was a little harsh regarding the recent hiatus, and while I was upset, I was by no means entitled to act the way I did. I mentioned that Jesse Gordon was full of shit; I am in fact the one who is full of shit. I was misinformed when I made my the statement. Jesse is a fair and attentive author, and would never do anything to jeopardize the well-being of myself or my fellow characters. There’s also no truth to the rumor that he threatened to delete me, nor is he waiting patiently with his finger above the delete key as I make this statement. Thank you for your understanding.”

He crumbles the paper, tosses it off-screen, and sits sulking at his desk.

“Okay, it’s official,” I say, restoring Eva’s window. “Your new friends are weird.” I want to say more, but we’re pulling into the Toepoint parking lot. I spot Lily, her gym bag slung over her shoulder, hopping out of her mom’s car. She sees me and waves.

“Well, I should be going,” says Eva. “My mom’s taking me clothes shopping today.”

“Wish I could be there,” I say. “TTYL, babe.”

“TTYL.”

Buy me a cookieBuy me a cookie

Buddy List Party

Note: This episode is a little longer than usual to make up for my absence last week. Influenza sucks. Anyway, I’ve thrown together some leftover characters from Heroes’ Day and an insight into how Ernie and Eva get along. Deep stuff.

* * *

@ernie

The party’s going to suck. I’m sitting here at my computer, my SMN window glowing dutifully in front of me…and I’m marveling at the odds. 213 friends on my list and not a single one has responded to my invitation. What’s up with that?

Earlier in the afternoon, my grandparents had caught me sneaking the extra folding chairs from the garage to my bedroom. Once they realized I was setting up for guests, it was all over. They grounded me to my room for the night to repent my sins. Still, I’d had hope. My computer’s here in my room; my friends could have all downloaded without trouble. As for snacks, I was going to hit up Robbie anyway, so again, the show would go on. Sure, we’d all have to keep our voices down, but…well…aw, shit. Who am I kidding? It’s almost five o’clock and there’s no sign anyone’s coming. Even if they did, it would be a totally lame affair.

I lean back in my chair, rub my eyes. I’ve nearly emptied a 2-liter of Diet Coke, but it hasn’t made me feel the slightest bit better.

I wait.

Five thirty creeps around.

On my screen, Theo, Jan, and Eva’s SMN windows are still empty.

This sucks hairy wet ass. Where the hell is everyone? Being a jockette, Eva can explain her absence—she’s probably at wrestling practice. Jan, well, he’s poor, and so probably has to walk home from school (meaning he might not be due home until seven or eight, depending on which chain gangs are working his neighborhood). But Theo, he’s all nerd. He has no excuse for not going directly home to study. Unless…unless Eva, angry at me for spilling her “secret” during lunch, somehow got the others to boycott the party. Maybe everyone’s hiding off-camera, avoiding me, going about their routines as if I don’t even exist.

Now I’m curious—and paranoid. Without thinking, I upload myself into Theo’s bedroom. He’s not there.

I tell myself he’s decided to hang out in his parents’ living room or something. Maybe he’s making a sandwich in the kitchen. I cross the bedroom, opening the door and stepping out into the hallway of some kind of Zen monastery. Everything’s clean, proper, uber artsy. It looks like an Asian family lives here. At the end of the hall is a staircase (so, Theo’s parents own a two-story house, apparently). Down I go, with two choices of direction once I reach the bottom: the dining room—and a converted shoin, complete with grass mats, sliding doors, bonsai, wall hangings, and incense.

I’m wondering if Theo’s parents adopted him when I make the transition into the dining room—and there they are, sitting at the dinner table. Theo’s blond-haired, blue-eyed mom and his 100% Chinese-looking father.

I stop dead in my tracks, caught. Game over. The gig’s up.

“Er, hello there,” says Mrs. Smole. She sets down her mug. “Who might you be?”

My usual eloquence escapes me—so I make my shit up as I go along. “I’m Theo’s friend. From school. I hope I didn’t startle you. I’m from back east. We all leave our front doors open.” I think. I hope.

Mrs. Smole smiles. She doesn’t look like a mom. She looks like a college girl. She’s trim, athletic—hot. Hot enough that I’m guessing her Chinaman beau fell in love with her so hard he took her last name when they got married. “Theo’s friend, eh?”

“Um…yeah. Well, I mean, we only met on Monday ’cuz we’re in the same program and all, but I consider him a friend, yeah.”

“Funny. He’s never mentioned you before.”

Shit!

“Or anyone else, for that matter,” adds Mr. Smole.

Shit!

Mrs. Smole clarifies: “Theo’s not very, ah, social. He rarely brings his friends over. You’re the first, actually.”

Shit…?

“Do you have a name?” asks Mr. Smole, smiling, gesturing for me to approach the table, “or do we simply call you ‘Theo’s friend’?”

I step forward, my tensions easing a bit. “Oh, I’m Ernie.”

We all shake hands; Mrs. Smole offers me a seat, a cup of tea.

“That’s very kind of you,” I say, “but I’m more of a hot chocolate kind of guy. Say, is Theo still on for our little get-together tonight?”

Theo’s parents look questioningly at each other.

“Get-together?” asks Mr. Smole after a moment.

I shrug. “Yeah. A DVD, some popcorn…maybe a few scoops of ice cream, if you’ve got any laying around. But I totally understand if tonight’s not a good night. That’s why I wanted to touch base with you first, make sure Theo’s got all his homework done and the like. You know how boys can be.”

Mrs. Smole laughs. “Such an old soul you are!” She rises from her chair, smooths her skintight T-shirt (which doesn’t need any smoothing whatsoever, I can tell you). “Theo’s with his therapist right now, but I’m actually going to pick him up in, like, ten minutes or so. Dr. Chandelier is always talking about the benefits of friends and activities—I’m sure Theo would love to have you over. I know I would.”

Love’s an apt word. I’m definitely feeling it. I wonder how Theo manages not to sport a raging hard-on at all hours of the day and night with this fine piece of ass living under the same roof. His mom’s trying to be dignified, but I can see in her face that she’s thrilled her son’s supposedly demonstrated a semblance of normality. Who cares if it’s a lie? It’s a productive lie.

Mrs. Smole leaves to pick up Theo. Meanwhile, Mr. Smole invites me into the den, where we set out cups, plates, snacks. It’s all healthy junk food, but it’s better than nothing at all. So I smile and nod and say “thank you” and “yes, sir” and all the other things an adorable little fat boy like myself should say when he wants to charm his way into the hearts of an unsuspecting family.

Five minutes in, I ask to use the bathroom. Mr. Smole cheerfully waves me upstairs; I take the opportunity to duck into Theo’s room and upload myself back home. The timing is beautiful, as Eva is just walking into her bedroom.

I adjust my webcam, clear my throat. “Hi, Eva.”

She ignores me for a moment, sets down her shopping bag and fiddles with her computer—I can tell she’s trying to figure out a way to turn me off, but she can’t.

I say, “I’m sorry for what happened at lunchtime.”

Eva frowns. “Yeah, well, it’s a little late for that now.”

“It would have come out sooner or later. I just wish I hadn’t blurted it out like that.”

She says nothing. She knows I’m right.

“Our cams are on 24/7. We’re linked together for good. Did you think no one was ever going to peek?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Eva says, finally looking at me. “I never planned on finding a program like this, or meeting people like you.”

“You mean fat and obnoxious people?”

She sighs. “You don’t think before you speak. You don’t take anything seriously.”

“If that’s true, why am I talking to
you right now?”

“I don’t know. That worries me. So does the Robbie thing. And telling everyone I was in Jan’s room.”

“Because you can’t run away and hide from it like you’d normally be able to.”

I’m being serious, but Eva takes it the wrong way. “You’re such a jerk, Ernie.”

“And you are a pessimist. You automatically assume everything I say is meant to harass you.”

“I’m not a pessimist!” Eva exclaims.

I hold up my hands. “Okay, you’re not. But let’s just…let’s just put it past us. We’re stuck together. For better or for worse. We have to be accountable. We all knew what you did, Eva—well, everyone besides Jan—and now we all have to deal with it. We have to move on.”

Eva’s face pales. “Theo knew? Why’d he act so surprised?”

“Theo always looks surprised.” I pause, wondering… “You like him or something?”

“Ew, no!”

“I meant Jan.”

Eva looks away, bites her lip—and holy shit, I see it now. She totally digs Jan; she’s out for more than just a glimpse of him in his undies.

“Come to the party,” I say, trying to sound gentle, supportive. “It’ll all work out, you’ll see.”

“I can’t,” Eva replies. “Even if I wanted to. It would be awkward.”

“Yes, but not impossible. He’s asking about you.”

“You’re joking.”

I’m lying, actually. “I talked to him earlier, and he said he doesn’t want one mistake to ruin a whole school year of possibility. He’s totally willing to forgive and forget. If you don’t show up, it’ll look like you don’t care. He’ll see you online every day after school and he’ll wonder why you’re ignoring him.”

“Oh, he’ll know why I’m ignoring him.”

“That won’t solve anything, Eva.”

She plays with her mouse. “Geez…”

“Geez what?”

“We’re really stuck together, aren’t we?”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“It can be.”

“If you think negatively.”

Eva sighs. “I can’t go to the party.”

“Why not?”

“My parents would never approve of me downloading into a boy’s bedroom.”

“Ah!” I exclaim. “So you admit maybe it’s not so bad meeting with Jan again after all!”

Maybe. But the timing would never work.”

“Lock your door,” I say. “Tell your parents you’re studying for an hour. If it makes you feel any better, we’re going to be in Theo’s living room. No sex or drugs or anything.”

“Really?” Eva looks surprised. “How’d you manage that?”

“I’m friends with his parents. They set up the whole thing. Please come.”

“Wait, so they know about SuperMegaNet?”

“Well,” I say, “they know that Theo’s having some friends from school over.”

It takes her a moment to decide. I can tell she’s oscillating between responsible daughter and naughty little girl—and even though she’s embarrassed by what she did to Jan, she so wants to see him again.

Eventually, she says, “If I go to the party, you have to do something for me.”

“Name it.”

“You have to cut Robbie off from this point forward.”

“But SuperMegaNet doesn’t let you delete friends—”

“I know. Just don’t go to him for junk food anymore. Ignore him.”

“Now wait a minute,” I say. “Why shouldn’t I take advantage of the guy who wanted to use me as his own personal masturbatory aid?” But I can see it in her eyes: One more sugary deal with that pervert and I won’t be your friend. I guess I should be flattered; a cute girl (bug-eyed, yes, but still cute) is willing to work things out with me. My only problem is snacks. It’s been a good week in that department, and I’m hesitant to give it up. Theo’s fridge and pantry are loaded with wheat grass and tofu products; Jan’s probably too poor to afford more than beans and tortillas (or whatever the Czech equivalent is); Eva’s a possibility, though her parents may or may not be as athletically inclined as she is, and they may or may not eat shit and work it off afterward. They could be just as prudish with the groceries as the Smoles.

Goddamnit. Time’s passing. Theo’s dad is probably wondering where the hell I am. I make a mental note to raid Eva’s fridge before agreeing to her terms—and insisting that she bring two friends with her to the party.

“Why two?” she asks.

“Why not? You don’t have two friends?”

“I have more than two friends.”

“Fine, then. You should have no problem bringing a pair.”

Eva smiles. “It sounds like you’re trying to make up for an empty guest list.”

I’m starting to get annoyed. “Come on, Eva. We’re wasting time here.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll see if Summer and Lily want to come. That way we can talk to each other instead of having to talk to you.”

Haw-haw.”

“When do we download?”

“Um, ten minutes.” That should be enough time for Jan to trickle in. I switch SMN windows; he’s sitting at his desk, slurping soup.

Fuck yeah.

“Jan,” I say.

He blinks, reaches out and taps his keyboard. “Oh, hey, Ernie.”

“Upload to Theo’s place.”

“Why?”

“Because he wants us to help him with something. I don’t know exactly what, but he seemed pretty insistent about it.”

Jan’s expression turns grave. He sets down his bowl. “Is he okay?”

“I don’t know. Me and Eva are uploading there now. Hurry.”

I don’t wait for an answer. Hopefully my urgency will supplant the need for a proper explanation. I upload myself back into Theo’s bedroom—just as Theo himself arrives home. Before he can say a word, I slam the door and lock it.

“Why are you home so friggin’ late?” I ask, grinning.

“I always get home late,” Theo replies, setting down his duffel bag. “Five on Mondays through Thursdays, six on Fridays.”

I notice out of the corner of my eye a pair of sneakered feet slowly materializing beside Theo. “Where the hell do you go?”

Theo looks embarrassed. “My mom’s gym.”

“The gym? You work out?”

“Yeah.”

“Damn.”

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just I’m the only fat-ass in a quartet of hard-bodies.”

Theo sighs, steps further into his room and looks around for any signs of tampering on my part. “It’s therapeutic, actually. I have trouble sleeping at night. My doctor recommends daily physical exercise to help burn off excess energy.” He turns around and faces me, folds his arms. “What’s this about a party?”

I start to explain, but at that moment three distinct shapes begin to materialize in Theo’s room.

Eva and her friends.

(Jan’s made it up to his knees.)

I only have a moment to reassure Theo, so I step forward, take him by the shoulders, and say, &ld
quo;We’re in high school now. Make this work for me, Theo. For us.”

Theo starts to answer—

—I cut him off: “I don’t want to be the fat kid with no friends. You don’t want to be the geek who’s never had a gaggle of cute girls over his house.”

“But you didn’t even ask me, you just invited yourself over—”

“Then I’m asking now.” I give Theo a hug. “Friend to friend, pal to pal. I need you, man. You need me.”

“Ahem.”

Shit. That wasn’t Theo clearing his throat. I peek around his neck and see that the girls have finished downloading. They’re looking at us with amused, slightly grossed-out expressions on their faces.

I immediately let go of Theo and face them wide-eyed. “Theo’s, uh, pet hamster died. I was just…being there for him, that’s all.”

Eva shakes her head and introduces her friends. I give Summer the look-over. Blond, bright gray eyes, she’s one of those gymnast-cheerleader types whose hand print P.E. shorts, tank top, and thong sandals do well to showcase her bod in that typically careless way girls seem to prefer. She’s got a Shawn Johnson-during-the-2008 Beijing Games thing going, small, husky, but certainly not fat—and without the Topo Gigio look. She’s cute as a button, hot as a summer day, but the look behind her eyes is cold as ice. Already she’s written me off as a blundering fat-ass, which may be a fair assessment, if somewhat premature.

Lily’s poofy-haired, and is wearing fetching baby-blue sweatpants and a midriff-baring sweatshirt. She’s a non-Asian version of Amy Wong from Futurama. When she sits or squats, the top of her butt crack shows. I guess that answers the age-old question: Do gymnasts wear undies? This one doesn’t, and it makes her look kind of slutty—which shouldn’t bother me. I mean, I look at slutty women all the time on the Internet. But when I see girls my age dress like exhibitionists at school I start imagining myself as the older brother. They don’t even have tits yet and they’re showing it all off. It just irks me. Like when boys sag. I want to go up to them and demand, “Who the fuck asked to see your boxers, dude?”

We all shake hands. I gesture at Theo. “This is Theo, the smart one.”

“And this is Ernie,” Theo shoots back. “The fat one.”

Summer chuckles, notices Jan, who’s waist has just appeared. “Who’s that?”

“Jan,” Eva offers, looking the slightest bit nervous.

“The poor one,” I add. I’m trying to be charming, but instead everyone just glares at me. “Er, maybe we should wait for him downstairs.”

Theo stops me before I reach the door. “What about my parents?”

“I told you, they’re cool.”

“About the party, maybe, but what about the idea of a bunch of people downloading into my bedroom?”

“Hmm. You’re right.” I rub my chin. “Can you create some kind of diversion?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know…draw your mom and dad away from the den so we can sneak in?”

“And later, when it’s time for everyone to go home?”

Damn it, does he have to worry about every last detail? “We’ll figure that out when the time comes.”

Lily puts her hands on her hips. “You two haven’t thought this through, have you?”

Theo jabs his finger in my direction. “This is all his work!”

“Quiet!” Eva hisses. She turns to Theo. “Why don’t you check out the situation downstairs so we know what our options are?”

He nods, sticks his tongue out at me, and leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

The rest of us sit on the floor, waiting. Beside us, Jan quietly continues downloading.

I nod at Eva. “So, how’d you girls meet?”

Eva shrugs. “We met while my old wrestling team was competing in Wisconsin. Lily’s mom was putting us up for the weekend.”

Summer, to Eva: “How’d you meet Ernie?”

“A school project,” answers Eva, rolling her eyes. “It’s kind of snowballed, thanks to the SuperMegaNet thing.”

Lily nods. “I know. Isn’t it freaky?”

“You know what’s really freaky?” asks Summer. “This room. I’ve never seen a boy’s bedroom so neat and clean.”

We all fall quiet for a moment, appreciating the Zen, using it as an excuse not to look at each other. It’s hard, because Summer is chewing gum, smacking her lips—all but demanding attention.

Eventually I open my big mouth: “So, you guys think Theo was adopted?”

Eva raises her eyebrows. “Why would he be?”

“He looks nothing like his parents.” I get up and go over to Theo’s desk; sure enough, there’s a small framed family portrait resting beside one of the computer speakers. I hand it to the girls to pass around.

“Wow,” Summer says, “you’re not kidding.”

“His mom looks like Elena Zamolodchikova,” says Lily.

“I can’t believe she’s a day over twenty-one,” says Eva. “I hope I look that good when I’m her age.”

“Must be all the homeopathic remedies and organic foods,” I say.

“Seems to work,” Summer says. “Theo has one of the nicest complexions I’ve ever seen—”

The bedroom door flies open; Theo stumbles in. He looks freaked out.

“What’s the matter?” I ask, getting up along with everyone else.

“This isn’t going to work,” Theo says. “My mom and dad want to meet everyone’s parents and set up trips to the mall, the movies—if they find out how you all got here…”

“Dude, relax, we’ll figure it out. How about this: You tell your parents that—”

“What’s going on?”

I look over my shoulder to see that Jan’s finished downloading and is now looking at everyone with a quizzical expression on his face.

“I think,” Summer says, “it’s time for everyone to go home. Oh, I’m Summer, by the way. This is Lily.”

Jan and the girls shake hands. Summer whispers something into Lily’s ear, causing her to giggle.

“But we haven’t even gotten to the snacks!” I cry.

“There’ll be other times,” Eva assures me. “For now it’s enough that we’ve met each other.”

“Could someone please tell me what’s going on?” asks Jan.

I sigh. “It’s time to go home. That’s what’s going on.”

He blinks at me. “But I just got here.”

In answer, I walk over to Theo’s computer and click the “Send Home” button.

“Hey!” he yelps—but it’s too late. His head has already begun to pixelize.

“Was that really necessary?” asks Eva.

I shrug. “Meh.”

“He’s been in transit for the last ten minutes,” Theo points out. “You could have let him go last.”

“Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Party’s over.” I retreat to my own corner of the room and slide down onto the floor. I hold my head in my hands and try to figure out where I went wrong. Was it the timing? The lies? Does God merely hate me?

The others whisper goodbye to each other, eventually uploading home. Eva’s the last the go. Before she does,
she comes over to where I am, squats beside me.

“You didn’t want to have a party so that me and Jan could patch things up, did you?”

I look up. Theo is fidgeting over by his desk.

“You did it,” Eva continues, “because no one on your buddy list responded to your invitation. You couldn’t stand not being popular, so you convinced yourself even if it was just the six of us, you could forgo the failure of not having a party at all by calling us here for an impromptu.”

My insides recoil. How the fuck does she know this shit? “And you only came to keep me from seeing Robbie again.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”

“Thanks. That makes me feel so much better.”

“You don’t need to be sarcastic.”

“I’m the fat kid. Of course I do.”

Eva sighs, straightening. “Goodnight, Ernie.” She steps in front of Theo’s computer, nodding at him to send her home. In a moment she’s gone.

“Your turn,” Theo says softly.

I get up. I assume the position.

“If it’s any consolation, my parents seem to love you.”

“Woo-hoo.”

“It’ll work out better next time.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say, though I don’t care if there’s a next time, because no matter what the possibilities are, we’re all still kids subject to our parents’ rules.

We’re all still stuck.

“Goodnight,” I mumble.

Theo sends me home.

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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