I Was an Undead Child Actor


It’s some kind of freak waking nightmare: I’m rushed into the auditorium, hustled onstage, and navigated between various jungle props crafted from Boca Linda’s finest foam and cardboard stock. I squint against the blinding stage lights, trying to make out the details of an impossible darkness beyond, trying to figure out if it’s just Mrs. Currant and a few lackeys observing the dress rehearsal—or half the school.

A flamboyantly-dressed Mexican incarnation of Hollywood Montrose (from the movie Mannequin) thrusts a rumpled script at me and hisses into my ear, “We’re doing the boulder-rescue scene. Just like we rehearsed. Got it?”

I nod and smile and kind of go numb for a second as I skim over my lines, wondering what the hell I’m doing and how the hell I let myself get here in the first place. I’m no actor! I’m not even a real jungle boy! Am I so mortified by the prospect of getting in trouble that I’d rather parade around school as an undead child actor than admit defeat and be done with it?

Lex Barker enters stage-left.

“Holy shit—it’s Lex Barker!” I scream, instinctively ducking behind Hollywood.

“What?” Lex spreads his arms. “Is something wrong with my skin?”

Oh, right. This isn’t the real Lex Barker (or Thrill-Kill’s unreasonable facsimile thereof), it’s some high school kid wearing a Lex Barker skin for rehearsal.

Mrs. Currant’s annoyed voice escapes the darkness: “Are we ready, gentlemen?”

Hollywood steps aside, shoves me center-stage. “Stop messing around, Tyler. We’re behind as it is. Marks, everyone!”

Lex crosses the stage and lies prone beneath a giant foam boulder, gives me a thumbs-up.

I glance at my script again and think to myself that this doesn’t sound so bad. I can do this. Say a few lines, save the day, and then I can be on my merry way. What could possibly go wrong?

Hollywood whispers into my ear, “By the way, Principal Sandalwood’s got the superintendent in the audience, so don’t fuck up.” He yanks the script out of my hands, pats me on the shoulder, and books offstage. “Action!

Ah, crap.

I crouch beside the boulder.

An expectant silence presses in on me.

A million worst-case scenarios play out in my head while my entire body bastes in retro sweat: What if I fart? What if my voice cracks? What if I sneeze? Vomit? Succumb to uncontrollable hiccups? To name a few.

They took the diamonds!” Lex hisses at me from over his shoulder.

“What diamonds?” I hiss back.

“That’s your line, dumbass!”

Oh. “They took the diamonds!” I proclaim with absolutely zero charisma. The sweat is now coursing down my forehead, cascading off my shoulders and chest, pooling beneath my legs.

Lex glares at me. “Use your knife to cut me free!” He wiggles his ankle for emphasis.

“They took the diamonds!” I shout again.

“You already said that!”

I dab at my face with the back of my arm and grasp for my knife, unsheathing it haphazardly—and not realizing until it’s too late that the handle has somehow caught on my loincloth.

Which parts from my thighs without delay.

And goes flying across the stage in epic slow motion.

Resulting in a very naked and very embarrassed Joey Martin now face-palming himself in shame before a hushed audience.

Dear God,

If you’re listening, please make my death a quick and painless one—

My prayer is interrupted by the sound of someone padding barefoot onto the stage. I look up and spot a second Joey coming toward me and Lex.

“Hey, everyone. Sorry I’m…” The other Joey trails off, pays my bare ass a look of shock and disbelief. “…late.”

Shut up, Tyler. You’re ruining the moment.


Your Friends Are No Help


The warning bell rings.

Eva sends Lily home, then stands and puts on her backpack.

Ernie does the same.

“Wait,” I say. “Where are you guys going?”

“To class, brainiac,” Ernie replies, and sighs wistfully. “In France they have two-hour lunch breaks, and only go to school three days a week.”

“You made that up,” Eva says.

“Google it!”

“Okay, I will—”

“Goddamnit, Bug Eyes—fine. I made it up. But my point remains valid.”


“What point?”

“That the state of school lunch in America is shit—”


Ernie and Eva look at me.

“Can we please focus on…” I glance down at my black-and-white self. “…the bod?”

Eva shrugs. “Cute. Now uninstall it before you get sent to the principal’s office for violating dress code.”

“Aren’t you curious how I got this way?”

Eva starts to say something, but Ernie immediately steps beside her, covers her mouth with his hand, gives me an authoritative look. “Dude. Warning bell.”

Mmf!” Eva groans, shoving him aside and wiping her mouth. “You’ve got dried pudding all over your hands!”

Ernie frowns and examines his palms, first sniffing, and then licking them.

Grossed out, Eva turns and leaves without saying goodbye.

“What’s crawled up her coin slot?” Ernie asks, continuing to lick his hands as he watches her file out of the cafeteria along with the other students.

I fold my arms. “I think she’s trying to come to terms with the notion that you’d eat yourself to death if covered with a sufficient amount of pudding.”

“I wouldn’t eat myself,” Ernie says. “Not all of myself, anyway. Definitely not my dick and balls. Bug Eyes is right, though. You should probably uninstall that skin before you get sent to the office or propositioned by one of Robbie the Friendly Pedophile’s talent scouts.”

“I can’t uninstall the skin—my phone was in my pocket when I uploaded to Thrill-Kill’s server.”

“I thought you were toilet-dunking for Janny Boy’s phone.”

“I was, but Thrill-Kill’s perv-cam caught me crawling around the boys’ room floor, and she called me into her office because she thinks I’m gay. Except her office is online now, and instead of uploading to it, she accidentally sent us to some Tarzan wonderland where Lex Barker wanted to bash my head in for playing footsie with his woman. But I wasn’t playing footsie with her, she was playing footsie with me. So, I jumped out the window, thinking I’d download back into my original skin, only it didn’t work. I’m actual again—I think—but my clothes, phone, and original skin are stuck on the Tarzan server, which is God knows where—”

Ernie cuts me off with a wave of his hands. “Wait—there are cameras in the boys’ restroom?”

“Really, fat shit?” I glare at him. “I’m stuck in black and white, and your biggest concern is the cameras in the bathroom?”

“Thanks to your potty-mouth attitude, my biggest concern now is the tardy bell. Good day to you, jail bait.” Ernie flicks me off and walks away.

Fine. Let him go. What I really need right now is a phone or laptop, and he has neither. I grab my backpack and glance around the cafeteria, which is quickly becoming empty—and the more students leave, the more obvious I become. I scurry into one particular stream of student bodies, using them as herd clothing, and try to pick out Eva from all the rest. But it’s too late. She’s long-gone—

“Tyler! There you are!”

Some tall, gangly dude in flannel, jeans, and carpenter boots runs up to me and, not letting me get a word in edgewise, guides me out of the cafeteria, across the breezeway, and toward the student parking lot.

“Mrs. Currant is spitting blood,” he says along the way. “She wants everyone onstage and in character ten minutes ago. Now, I know you and Foghorn Leghorn have been butting heads since day one, but like it or not, RKO Pictures in the Park is happening, you’re stuck playing Joey in the Tarzan sketch, and that’s that. Deal with it and help me get these props back to the auditorium.”

He pops the trunk of his weatherbeaten Toyota compact.

He hands me an enormous box overflowing with props, costumes, and a bunch of other theater stuff, the purpose for which escapes me at the moment. This is totally where I should tell him that I’m not Tyler.

But I don’t.

One, because my brain is currently stuck in an infinite loop trying to calculate the likelihood of accidentally installing a Joey Martin skin on the same day and in the same place as rehearsals for an impending high school production of RKO Pictures in the Park.

Two, because as Tyler, who just so happens to be playing the part of the exact same character I’m skinned as, my present wardrobe is actually appropriate on-campus attire. Meaning I won’t get in trouble for wearing a loincloth and carrying a hunting knife.

Until, of course, the real Tyler turns up.

Touch Bar


“Hey, back off, gas giant! Asia is an amazing band, and if you’d ever taken the time to really listen to the awesomeness that is ‘Free,’ you’d…” I trail off, suddenly becoming aware of the abundance of Apple products that seems to have proliferated throughout the cafeteria during my brief absence. Specifically, everyone’s got the new MacBook Pro.

Even fat Ernie.

“So…why do you look like Mowgli?” Lily asks.

“Joey Martin, actually,” I reply, my attention split in two.

“Joey who?”

“He was the boy character in those old Tarzan movies.”

Ernie looks suspicious. “There are old Tarzan movies?”

“There were, like, dozens of them. Don’t you keep up with the classics?”

“If it’s not Pixar, I don’t care,” Summer says.

“Oldies give me gas,” Ernie adds.

I frown. “Everything gives you gas.”

“You still haven’t explained why you’re some Tarzan boy from a hundred years ago.”

“First things first,” I say, “how and why does everyone suddenly have the new MacBook Pro?”

“Because we’re cool. Am I right, ladies?” Ernie tries to high-five Eva, but she ignores him completely.

“No, what I mean is—”

“What he means,” Ernie interrupts, “is that he’s a Mac-hating Windows fanboy who can’t stand living in a world where tech can be stylish.”

“I use Ubuntu, dumbass. You know that.”

Eva gives me a questioning look. “You’re a Mac-hater?”

“I don’t hate Macs,” I say. “I’m just not into overpriced novelty computers with limited usefulness.”

“What’s more useful than having style?” Ernie asks.

I start counting off on my fingers: “An SD card slot. Being able to write to NTFS-formatted drives. foobar2000. The ability to access an Android device’s storage without a third-party driver. Maximizing windows without having to go full-screen. Being able to connect devices and drives without having to bring several different dongles wherever I go. Not needing to reduce my productivity by glancing down at my keyboard at regular intervals in order to use the Touch Bar. For starters.”

“You only need to look at the Touch Bar once, bro.”

“Really?” I fold my arms. “Show me how you can touch-type effectively using the Touch Bar without having to look at it.”

Ernie stands, unzips his pants, takes out his wang, and, awkwardly maneuvering his hips into position, presses it along the length of the Touch Bar.

The amazing thing: no one seems to give a shit.

Dumbfounded, I ask, “What are you doing?”

“Duh. Using the Touch Bar to unlock my new MacBook Pro.”

“With your dick?”

Ernie blinks. “How else am I supposed to unlock it?”

“I don’t know—a password, maybe? A thumbprint? Anything but your dick?”

“Passwords are so 2015.”

The girls nod in agreement.

“It’s true,” Lily says. “2015.”

Why—what—why? “So, that’s it, then? Ernie just unlocked his MacBook Pro by fucking it, and you’re okay with that?”

Ernie puts on a haughty air as he tucks his junk back into his pants. “It’s not fucking your MacBook Pro, it’s applying the length of your wang against the Touch Bar so as to register your cock metrics. This is the wave of the future. You’re making a big deal over nothing.”

“I don’t care how many fancy words you use, you just fucked your MacBook Pro.”

“Fucking would mean a hard-on and eventual ejaculation. My shit’s dry.” He holds up his MacBook Pro for me to examine. “See for yourself.”

I wave him away and look to the girls for some semblance of sanity. But they seem only mildly offended that Ernie just genitally authenticated—and then only because he did so in front of them, not because Apple is now expecting its users to replace their passwords with their wangs. “This…this doesn’t make any sense. No one’s going to question needing to take out your dick every time you want to unlock your MacBook Pro?”

“Genital authentication!” Ernie barks. “More secure than fingerprinting or iris scans! Wave of the future!”

“What if you’re a girl? How do you unlock your MacBook Pro, then?”

Summer rolls her eyes. “There’s a dongle for that, genius.” She gets up, cradling her MacBook Pro. “Speaking of which, I need to check my Facebook. Where’s the girls’ restroom?”



Preteens don’t watch the presidential debates, or the Saturday Night Live sketches making fun of the presidential debates, even. We watch YouTubers making fun of Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon making fun of the presidential debates:

Satire version of Alec Baldwin’s satire version of Donald Trump (SVOABSVODT): She’s going to take the baby on the last day of the last month of the pregnancy, and she’s going to rip the baby from womb, she’s going to throw the baby on the floor. She’s going to step on it—

Satire version of Kate McKinnon’s satire version of Hillary Clinton (SVOKMSVOHC): Okay, that’s hardly true—

SVOABSVODT: It’s all true—

SVOKMSVOHC: —and that’s not how it works in these late-term cases, Donald. Let me tell you about some of the mothers I’ve come to know and love over these last—

SVOABSVODT: We’re going to build a wall. We’re going to build a wall, Mexico’s going to foot the bill, and we’re going to put Hillary on the other side of it.

SVOKMSVOHC: Donald, listen. We all like to make-believe. I myself pretended to be my own GMail for years on end. But there’s a time and a place—

SVOABSVODT: We’re going to make America great again!

Or, more precisely, our friends (Summer and Lily—ahem!) make us watch YouTubers making fun of Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon making fun of the presidential debates—while we suffer in silence, counting the seconds until the warning bell, wishing for lunchtime to just die already. I know that I don’t understand politics; I don’t need to copy everyone else, pretending I do.

Thankfully, Ernie walks up to our table.

Ernie and what appears to be a nearly-naked jungle boy.

Who’s in black and white.

“Who’s your little friend?” I blurt out, not really caring so much as I’m determined not to let what could be a very well-timed distraction slip through my fingers.

“He says he’s Theo,” Ernie replies, looking doubtful.

“I am Theo,” the jungle boy corrects.

Ernie folds his arms. “Prove it.”

The jungle boy sighs, thinks for a moment. “Your favorite food is honey buns.” He points at me. “Your bedroom is made up like a The Nightmare Before Christmas set.” Addressing the girls: “You’re Summer. You’re Lily.” All of us: “Ernie likes to call me Rich White Boy or Made in China. My favorite band is Asia.”

“Holy shit.” Ernie’s eyes widen. “It is Theo!”

I have to say I’m pretty convinced. Still, I have to ask, “How can you be sure?”

“Because no one in their right mind would openly admit to being an Asia fan.”

The Carlton-Hart Awkwardness


I follow Thrill-Kill down the hall. But instead of heading toward her office, we end up in the teacher lounge.

“Budget cuts,” she explains on seeing my curious expression. “The Boca Linda administration believes it’s more cost-effective for my office to be hosted on a SuperMegaNet server. Meanwhile, the football team just got new uniforms. Priorities.”

We sit at an empty table toward the back, and Thrill-Kill takes out her phone, fires up the SuperMegaNet app and hits “visit”—

—delivering us onto a cheesy RKO jungle treehouse movie set.

In black and white.

With me skinned as Tommy Carlton, she as Dorothy Hart—you know, Joey and Jane, from those ancient Tarzan movies?

W. T. F.

Thrill-Kill clears her throat. “Well. This is awkward.” There’s a large dinner table in the center of the room. She walks over to it, takes a seat, pulls a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her tunic. She lights up, takes a voluminous drag, exhales slowly. “I seem to have uploaded us to the wrong room.”

“Oh.” I glance down at myself. I’m wearing nothing but a skimpy loincloth. On the plus side, I do have a bad-ass dagger strapped to my left thigh. Unsheathing it tentatively, I test the tip with my finger, discover it’s made of rubber.

“I had a thing for Lex Barker when I was a girl,” Thrill-Kill continues. “Don’t act so offended, sweet thing. Thirty years from now, everything you hold dear will be as obsolete and out-of-touch to tomorrow’s kids as this is to you. Shall we discuss the security camera footage of your prowling around the boys’ restroom?”

After several botched attempts, I re-sheath my dagger and sit across from Thrill-Kill at the table (which, by the way, looks more like something from Donkey Kong Country than actual, feasible craftsmanship performed by a jungle-dwelling Greystoke). “There are security cameras in the boys’ restroom?”

“And the girls’.”

Let me rephrase that. “Why are there security cameras in the restrooms?”

“It’s purely a political correctness thing, I assure you. Now, to the matter at hand.”

I slouch in my seat. “I was, uh, looking for my friend’s phone.”

“And something else, perhaps?”

“Nope. Just the phone—”

“I get it. You’re twelve, jet-skiing toward thirteen. This is a new and exciting time in your life. The mind is sharp, the flesh is pert, the juices are flowing, there’s fresh grass on the lawn.” Thrill-Kill leans back in her seat, smiles amusedly as she brushes her foot against mine. “Here you are, on the cusp of puberty, surrounded day in and day out by legions of fine young specimens exuding power and potency like it’s nothing. I don’t blame you for wanting a peek, a touch, a taste. If I were a boy your age, I’d never make it out of the locker room.” She utters a nostalgic sigh, continues to molest my foot. “Just a glimpse, a gander, an innocent touch in the shower, a burgeoning friendship blossoming under the bleachers on a lazy Saturday afternoon—”

“What Joey doing?”

I’d been gripping the tabletop with both hands, eyes scrunched shut, teeth gritted, mind flooded with prayers to God for a snake to take the place of Thrill-Kill’s foot down below, but now I look up. The loinclothed and oiled Lex Barker incarnation of Tarzan has just swung into the room, and is all kinds of pissed.

“Hello, darling,” Thrill-Kill greets, blowing him a kiss.

Tarzan ignores her, stepping further into the room, hands on his hips, murder in his eyes. “What Joey do with Jane while Tarzan away?”

Amazingly, Thrill-Kill is still making love to my foot—I’m the one who has to break it off, yanking my leg back so hard that I topple out of my chair and onto the floor, where, rolling into a crouch, I wave my hands hastily back and forth and shout, “Nothing! I swear!”

Begin sarcasm:

Because shouting, “Nothing! I swear!” in a flustered manner is such an effective method of proving one’s innocence.

End sarcasm.

Tarzan narrows his eyes. “Joey plow Jane, Tarzan pound Joey!”


He pounces on me, intent on mayhem. But I’m smaller, lighter on my feet, and, apparently, more of an acrobat. I roll out of the way and handspring unnecessarily over the table, tumble across the room, front-flip out the open window—

—and back into the teacher lounge, sliding haphazardly across the tabletop, flopping (along with Thrill-Kill’s phone) onto the floor with a meaty thud!

As placidly as possible, I stand up and clear my throat. I step casually toward the door, aware that every single pair of eyes in the room is gawking in my direction. Fortunately, the dumbfounding is such that I’m able to make it out of the lounge without anyone saying so much as a word.

In the hallway, I take a deep breath and start toward the locker section, where Ernie’s preparing for his last two periods of the day by transferring large quantities of Chips Ahoy! from his locker to his backpack. The older kids are giving me weird looks—but, then, the older kids always give me weird looks. So, it’s not immediately evident that something’s actually wrong.

“Hey, fat shit,” I say when I reach Ernie.

He glares distastefully at me. “Are you supposed to be the new kid or something?”


“And why are you wearing altar boy bondage cave threads?”

I glance down at myself, three things becoming suddenly obvious:

I’m still in black and white.

I’m still in a loincloth.

And I’m still skinned as Joey Martin.



Jan loses his phone in the toilet, and I’m the one perving around the boys’ restroom like some kind of cockstalker.

When did my life become its own parody?

One of the urinals is being used by an older kid who’s apparently checking his Facebook on his phone while taking a very casual piss. Of the four stalls, three appear to be in use. Depending on whether or not Jan was taking a dump at the time of droppage, and assuming no one’s doubling up (don’t ask, don’t tell), that equals three, possibly four people more than I’d like to have to deal with under the circumstances. My instinct is to wait until the urinal boy finishes before I start poking around, but what if, in that time, another boy comes in? What if two more come in? What if Typhoid Mary’s zombified corpse has broken quarantine, and has been slinging Boca Linda lunches for the past few weeks—leading to a massive influx of sickened teenagers all converging on this very spot within the next thirty seconds?

I force my legs into motion, walking over to the urinals. The other boy is using the one on the far right. I take up post beside him, unzipping my jeans and presenting my junk to the porcelain. As casually as possible, I tilt my head to the left, spying empty, phone-free urinals. Facing forward again, I take a deep breath, psyching myself up for what’s coming next. Just a quick, incidental peek into the urinal on my right to check for my friend’s lost phone. It has nothing to do with high school dick, which is the last thing on my mind. In fact, it’s not on my mind at all until that fateful instant during which I make the glimpse, and simultaneously realize the following: I’m looking at another dude’s grasped wang; said dude is now looking at me; all is for naught, because Jan’s phone isn’t in the urinal. Of course it isn’t. Why would anyone just piss on someone’s phone? Unless that’s the new gallon-smashing?

I face forward again and wait for the boy to leave. The instant he’s out the door (and likely taking to his friends a twisted tale of being ogled by someone’s curious younger brother), I tuck, zip, flush, and turn my attention to the stalls. The open one is clear—no phone. That would be too easy. As for the other three, it occurs to me all I have to do is check which one isn’t currently occupied, thereby confirming the likelihood that’s the one Jan had been using.

Dropping onto my hands and knees, I peer under the stall doors—at just about the exact same moment two more boys decide to enter the restroom. With cockroach-like reflexes, I scurry into the third-from-left stall, which is empty, and freeze in place, listening, waiting, hoping to God no one saw me. Jeans are unzipped; the sound of urine trickling echoes against the tiled walls; in the stall beside mine, someone’s ass puffs the word “bouffant!” during a bowel movement.

Unsure if I’m doing so to complete my mission or to puke, I grab the rim of the toilet bowl and haul myself up for a look inside. Lo and behold, Jan’s phone is floating face-down in the water.

More boys enter the restroom.

More urine is expelled.

More turds are dispensed.

All the while, I’m gazing at Jan’s phone, spirit willing, but flesh all kinds of weak. I will say this about Boca Linda: the toilets are clean. But they’re still toilets—and with all the pissing and shitting going on around me, I’m reminded that people’s excrement has heretofore marinated the inside of the bowl before me. I feel like Willie in the bug tunnel scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. To save the day, all she had to do was pull a lever crawling with insects galore. This toilet is my lever. Any minute now, Jan’s gnarled fist is going to explode at me from the depths of the bowl, followed by a murky exclamation: “Do it now!

I’m really, seriously considering just up and walking away, making up some lie about the phone not being here. Phones get stolen all the time—why not from the bottom of toilet bowls?

I go so far as to turn around and grab the stall door handle. But then I stop, gritting my teeth, feeling a sudden surge of determination. Jan’s lost his parents, his apartment, and his bytes. The least I can do is dig around in a little poop water on his behalf. Besides, I’ve witnessed a wang that wasn’t my own, I’ve got piss stains on my knees and restroom musk in my hair—it’s not going to be for nothing!

I face the toilet again, bend over, squeeze my eyes shut, and reach into the bowl, fishing around momentarily before grabbing Jan’s phone and hauling it out. Holding it between thumb and forefinger, I fumble for the door handle and flail out of the stall, making a beeline for the nearest sink. I toss the phone in and blast the faucet.

As I’m scrubbing up to my forearms with hand soap, Jan’s friend Mark walks in. He stops when he sees me. “Hey, Theo.”

“Hey,” I reply.

He snickers knowingly. “Dropped your phone in the toilet, huh?”

I want to lie, or at least make up something witty. “Uh-huh.”

Mark heads over to the nearest urinal, takes a nonchalant leak while he goes on to say, “First-world problems. Phones spend as much time on the ground or in the toilet as they do in our pockets. When you get home, take the battery out and swab the thing with some high-concentration rubbing alcohol, then let it dry. You did take the battery out, right?”

“Of course,” I start to say—

—as Jan’s phone rings.

Calmly and quietly, I turn off the faucet, pick up the phone. I ignore the call with an annoyed tap of my finger. “I’m going to leave now,” I tell Mark.

“Your secret’s safe with me,” he chuckles as I exit the boys’ room—

—and run right into Thrill-Kill.

“Mr. Smole,” she says, folding her arms and frowning. “In my office. Now.”

Murphy’s Likelihood


The instant it happens, I’m reminded of one of Ernie’s more philosophical tweets:

It’s an inevitability of every friendship that you’ll one day see each other’s wangs. #cockwisdom

For me, that day is today. One minute I’m safely in a stall in the boys’ restroom, the next I’m standing back in Theo’s bedroom, pants down and čurák out.

The classic NES Konami pause jingle sounds.

Beta and Mini, sitting cross-legged on the floor, had been playing Super Smash Bros. before my untimely arrival, but now they’re frozen in place, gawking, jaws hanging open.

I yank up my pants, smile, wave, and say, “Hi, guys.”

The Konami jingle sounds again.

Beta and Mini unpause.

Mini wastes no time in asking the obvious: “Why did you show us your wang just now?”

“I think I dropped my phone in the toilet,” I reply.

“Is that a European thing?”

“Dropping phones in toilets?”

“No, peeing with your pants down.”

Beta glances sideways at Mini. “What’s wrong with a dude dropping his pants to take a leak?”

“Nothing. It’s just…unorthodox.”

“And you know this how?”

“Common knowledge,” Mini says. “Only freshly potty-trained toddlers making poo or high-school jocks about to get their knobs polished lower their pants in a public restroom.”

“Again, you know this how?”

Mini gets a far-away look on his face. “To quote Neil Peart, ‘the joy and pain that we receive each comes with its own cost—’”

“Okay, new topic, please,” Beta interrupts with a frown. He sets down his controller. “Jan, exactly how did you drop your phone in the toilet?”

I hang my head. “I forgot I didn’t have a shirt pocket.”

Beta smiles, amused. “Oh, Maurice Moss. What is it with you and phones?”

“I think I’m cursed.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Mini says. “Statistically speaking, you’re right on track. Murphy’s Likelihood.”

“Murphy’s Likelihood?”

“You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law, right?”

“Yeah.” I think for a moment. “That was the eighties movie where Eddie Murphy played a cop.”

Beta glowers at me, murderous. “Meanwhile, as I add Beverly Hills Cop to a VLC playlist titled, ‘all-time classic unseen eighties movies preventing Jan from ever attaining proper manhood…’”

“Murphy’s Likelihood,” Mini continues, “is an offshoot of Murphy’s Law. Where Murphy’s Law dictates that what can go wrong, will go wrong, Murphy’s Likelihood states that what goes wrong will occur sooner rather than later. Let’s say you get a new pair of glasses. The odds are high that you’ll damage them in some way at least once in the first year of ownership. The odds are even higher that you’ll damage them in the first half of said year rather than in the second half. Especially if you can only afford to replace your glasses once a year. That’s Murphy’s Likelihood.”

“But I don’t wear glasses,” I say.

“Phone, glasses, laptop, car—it doesn’t matter. You’re less likely to incur damage at the end of the term of ownership. It’s always at the very beginning so that you wind up having to use a damaged product for the remainder of ownership. It’s part of the universe’s ongoing cosmic stand-up comedy routine.”

“That sounds made up.”

Mini looks at Beta. “I’m not wrong, am I?”

“You’re not not right, is more like it,” Beta replies.

“Don’t be so double negative.”

“Good one.” Beta and Mini bump fists.

I shake my head. “Murphy’s Likelihood can’t be a real thing, can it?”

Beta glares at me. “Just ask anyone who’s ever dropped their new smartphone in the toilet the first day they got it.”

No Substitutions


Look at Jan 2.0. The jockettes are all over him, oohing and awing and squeezing his biceps, palpitating his pecs, literally absorbing him like two giant girl-shaped amoebas. I’ve let them have that side of the table—not because they ousted me or anything, but because I prefer this side. Always have. And anyway, I don’t need to be all up in Janny Boy’s shit. So with his fancy new skin he’s ditched his ridiculous orange frizz for a natural brown buzzcut. So he’s sporting a pair of earring studs. So his physique is all American Ninja Warrior. I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s not like he can turn water into soda or feed the entire cafeteria with a single loaf of Hawaiian bread.

Crap. I could go for a loaf of Hawaiian bread right about now.

“Are you bigger than before?” I ask, watching Jan’s shoulders flex obnoxiously as he squirms between Summer and Lily’s incessant coddling.

“A little,” he replies. “I think Beta exaggerated whenever he wasn’t sure about something. Plus, he seems to be a fan of big muscles in general.”

“I hope he gave you a nice foot-long, at least.”

“Sandwich or wang?” Mini asks, having crawled from out of nowhere to perch on Theo’s shoulder.


“I’m happy with my current size,” Jan says.

Mini adds, “Six inches and a Brad Pitt.”

Summer and Eva blush.

“Who’s Brad Pitt?” Lily asks.

“You do not have six inches,” I insist—wait. That sounds like I’m jealous. “I mean, only six inches? I guess it’s a start.” I nudge Eva. “You two have fun breaking in the new skin tonight.”

Eva’s blush goes full-tomato.

I wink at Jan. “Oh, you are so getting laid tonight!”

“Why, are you offering?” Jan says to me in a moment of uncharacteristic cunning, diverting attention from the smoldering Eva.

“I’m not gay!” I shout—

—just as an older student happens to walk by our table. He gives the six of us (especially me) a curious look before moving on.

“I was joking,” Jan assures me.

“I know,” I lie.

Theo snickers. “This is your head.” He grasps the top of my head with his hand. “This was the joke.” He mimics hurling a baseball over it.

Everyone laughs.

“Yeah, yeah,” I say, unwinding my middle finger and presenting it in panorama. “Fat kid doesn’t get anything that’s not food or porn-related, or otherwise doesn’t power his fat. Har-har.” I dig around in my backpack for dessert: a box of Junior Mints that won’t talk back.

Mini nudges Eva when he thinks none of us are paying attention. “So, you’re here.”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Eva replies, quietly.

“I would’ve thought you’d be eating lunch in the gym or something after last night’s shenanigans.”

“What shenanigans?”

“You know, you and Theo making out in your bedroom.”

Theo suddenly forgets how to breathe, goes into a choking fit.

“We didn’t make out—is that was he told you?” Eva glares at Theo. “Is that what you told everyone?”

Theo waves his hands back and forth—as much a gesture of denial as an urgent visual plea for someone to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him.

“Ugh. Don’t answer. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve decided not to hide from my embarrassments. Once you’re finished dying, you might want to take a hint and do the same.”

“Wow,” Mini says to Theo. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she just called you an embarrassment.”

Theo gets to his feet, and, taking several controlled breaths to restore proper respiration, starts digging around in his pants. “I’m going to the vending machine. Does anybody want anything?”

“Potato chips,” Eva says, and starts to reach into her backpack for change.

“My treat,” Theo clarifies, holding up his wallet.

“I’ll have a Coke,” I say. “Skittles, too—and some Funyuns.”

Theo nods and holds out his hand. “Change, please.”

“But you just said your treat!”

“Jan’s going through some tough times. Summer and Lily are guests—”

“And so that leaves the fat kid to fend for himself?” I bang my fists on the table, throw my head back. “Reverse racism!”

Mini sighs. “Here we go—”

“Once again an ordinary white boy is discriminated against because of the color of his skin, the notches in his belt!”

“No,” Theo says, “I’m discriminating against you because I know you. If I buy you snacks once, I’m going to be doing it every day for the rest of the school year regardless of whether or not you have change on you. You just want free snacks, or double the snacks.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing! “Okay, Jan I get. He’s poor and pixelated and totally fucked. But Summer Breeze and Butt Crack? Jockettes don’t snack! And Bug Eyes here…” I narrow my eyes at Eva. “What unholy hold does she have over you? I’d say it’s a good pair of tits, except she hasn’t got any.”

Eva glares at me with all the intensity her bulbous chihuahua eyes can muster. “Not everyone is lucky enough to be as big-bosomed as you.”

“I don’t have breasts!”

And fuck me, that same student who’d overheard me deny my homosexuality a few minutes ago is passing by our table again—and is now no doubt thinking I’m a flaming fat-ass wallowing in denial.

“Context!” I bark over my shoulder as I dig around in my pockets, finding a fiver with a piece of bubble gum stuck to it. I peel off the gum and hand the money to Theo, who holds it at arm’s length, between thumb and index finger. “I want all my change!”

Summer and Lily mention something about vitamin water and granola bars.

Jan requests a “Mr. Goodyear or Babe Ruth. Anything with peanuts.” Friggin’ Czech.

Theo nods and, stuffing Mini into his pocket, leaves the table.

I turn to Jan. “What happens to the food you eat?”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Does it upload back with you, or do you leave behind a pile of poop whenever you go virtual?”

“How about I sit on your lap, and we can find out?”

“Oh, you’re hilarious, pixel boy.”

“And you’re gross,” Summer replies on Jan’s behalf.

“You’re just jealous because I can do this…” I empty the box of Junior Mints into my mouth. “…without having to vomit afterward.”

“Whatever. You’re still gross.”

“She speaks the truth, Leviathan,” Jan chuckles, and gets to his feet. Prying the girls from his torso, he sets them down, one at a time; their bodies morph from chibi form back to regular ol’ gurl form.

“Where are you going?” Lily asks.

“Bathroom break,” Jan answers. He leaves the table.

I give Summer and Lily an annoyed look. “Why are you two even here? Boca Linda is a closed campus—and a high school. This is no place for little kids unless you’re special, like us.”

“Oh, you’re special, all right,” Summer says.

Lily giggles.

“What’s so funny?”

She giggles some more.

Eva sighs. “Head. Joke. And so forth.”

I chew my Junior Mints with extreme prejudice.

It takes forever, but Theo eventually returns bearing an armful of junk food. On noticing Jan’s absence, he asks, “Where’d Jan go?”

“To the shitter,” I reply, beckoning for my snacks with both hands.

Theo dumps everything onto the tabletop—and it immediately becomes obvious that he does not know how to take people’s orders. I specifically asked for Coke, Funyuns, and Skittles, but did he get me Coke, Funyuns, and Skittles? Fucking nar! He got Pepsi, Lay’s sour cream and onion, and M&Ms!

“What’s this?” I hold up the bottle of Pepsi. “What are these?” I wag the Lay’s and M&Ms in the air.

Theo glares at me. “Dude, they didn’t have exactly what you asked for, so I substituted.”

“No substitutions!” I wail.

“What do you care? You’re going to eat it all anyway.”

“That’s beside the point! If I’d sent you to the pharmacy for toothpaste, would you have come back with Bengay?”

Theo shakes his head, flings a dollar and some coins at me. “Here’s your change. Next time get your own junk food.” He sits, takes out his wallet, starts organizing his own change.

“What’s that for?” Lily asks, noticing the folded pink slip hiding between a pair of dollar bills.

“While I was buying food for five,” Theo replies, “Thrill-Kill happened to be standing in line behind me, and decided that I’m trying to fill some kind of bottomless emotional void by overeating. She wants me to come see her tomorrow afternoon. So, thanks for that, Your Fatness.”

“Hey!” I yell. “I’m not the only one you were getting snacks for!”

“No, but you definitely put me over the top.”

“You guys get pink slips for counseling stuff?” Summer asks.

Theo shrugs, pulls out his phone to answer an incoming call. “Hey. What? Where are you calling from? I thought you were just going to the bathroom. How come you’re in my room? Oh. Um…sure. No problem.” He ends the call, pockets his phone, and face-palms himself.

“What was that about?” Eva asks.

“Jan dropped his phone in the toilet, and he wants me to go get it for him.”

My arm drops onto the table and, of its own accord, starts moving slowly toward the Baby Ruth.

Where in the World is Jan Kounicova?


I’m planning on spending lunch alone. Not because I’m specifically trying to avoid anyone, but because after this morning I doubt there’s going to be anyone to avoid. Obviously, after the Kiss, Eva’s out. Jan’s probably knee-deep in The IT Crowd with Beta. Ernie’s probably working on getting back up to his optimal weight of two-thirty by lying in bed and playing Xbox while scarfing several large pizza with everything. Mini…well, plush dolls don’t count. But look on the bright side: in my current sleep-deprived state, a half-hour power nap in the cafeteria will offset the solitude nicely enough.

Too bad Ernie’s already seated at our table.

“Whaddup, Made in China?” he asks placidly, as if he’s just an ordinary, unsuspecting fat kid whose psychotic grandmother was not defeated atop an eight-bit girder palace the night before.

Made in China?” I repeat, removing my backpack and taking a seat.

“Take pride in your Asian heritage.”

“How come you never bring up my Russian half?”

“Because there’s nothing overtly Russian about you. But those Asian eyes of yours—you could totally get a job at Daiso, no sweat. Where’s Pixel Boy and Bug Eyes?”

“I saw Eva this morning,” I reply. “Jan’s with Beta, I think. Why?”

“Duh,” Ernie says, funneling Cheetos into his mouth. “That’s what you do when you’re friends with people—you ask where they are, how they are, how their dicks are doing.”

“Dicks?” I swallow, glancing quickly at my crotch and checking for signs of autonomous erection.

“Or tits, if you’re a girl. What’s got you all coffee-mode?”

I look up again. “Mini was on the news this morning.”

“Really? Which channel?”


“Was he doing a plush charity run or something?”

“He’s the suspect in a snapgrabbing investigation.”

Ernie looks impressed. “Cool!”

I sigh. “You would say that.”

“It’s not my fault that in today’s social media-centric society going viral is the coolest thing you can possibly do.”

“Even if it means assaulting a police officer in the middle of the night?”

“You worry too much, white boy.”

“Dude, a minute ago you were calling me Made in—”

“No one’s going to arrest a doll.”

“Who just happens to look exactly like me.”

“Or maybe you look exactly like him. Ever think about that?”

“Ernie, that doesn’t even…” I trail off, watching him finish off his Cheetos bag, then suck the life out of a Capri Sun pouch. He genuinely seems oblivious to everything that’s happened in the last twenty-four hours. I feel like this is Star Trek: Voyager. At the end of one episode, the ship is all damaged and in need of serious repair; at the beginning of another, everything is inexplicably hunky-dory despite the fact that the nearest Federation star base is seventy-thousand light years away. My life has lost all continuity.

I lean in close and, in a conspiratorial tone, ask, “Are you, you know…okay?”

“Sure.” Ernie shrugs nonchalantly as he struggles to open a pudding cup. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Friggin’ Voyager. I want to push the issue, I want to grab Ernie by the shoulders and demand that he acknowledge the events of last night, but instead he just looks past me and frowns.

“Aw, you two?” he moans.

I glance over my shoulder. Eva’s arrived, and she’s brought Summer and Lily with her, which is kind of weird considering they live all the way in Wisconsin—oh, right. SuperMegaNet.

The girls sit beside me—Eva to my right, Summer and Lily to my left—forming a sort of jockette-geek-jockette sandwich.

“Hello, Ernie,” Summer says, returning Ernie’s scowl.

Looking outnumbered, Ernie says, “Yeah, hi, Summer Breeze.” He nods at Lily. “Hi, Butt Crack.”

(Lily casts a backward glance at her baby blues, as if for the first time becoming aware of her own butt cleavage.)

“To what do we owe the unpleasant surprise?”

“We thought Eva could use a little company,” Summer replies.

“She’s already got company—” The lid pops off of Ernie’s pudding cup; banana cream spurts into his face, infiltrating eyes, mouth, and nostrils.

Eva’s jaw drops.

“I meant company in the non-satirical sense,” Summer snickers.

Ernie sets down his now-empty pudding cup and, with as much dignity as one can muster while wearing impromptu facial food, asks, “Did you practice that in front of your mirror this morning?”

“Nope. Made it up on the spot.”

“Charming. Get me a napkin.”

“I’m not a napkin dispenser.”

Lily frowns at Summer, removes her (Nintendo-shaped, I now realize) backpack, and fishes a napkin from the outer pocket. “Here, Ernie.”

Ernie takes the napkin, starts dabbing at his face.

Meanwhile, I’ve suddenly and inexplicably become immensely interested in talking to Lily. “That’s a cool backpack. Where’d you get it?”

“GimmeGimme,” Lily replies.

“Oh, that store at the mall?”

“Yeah. They’re all over Wisconsin. Have you been to one? They have everything.”

“Theo doesn’t go to malls,” Ernie offers. “He says they’re social capitalism run amok.”

Okay, that’s totally out of context! “What I said was, you can usually find cheaper online what you’d pay more for at the mall.”

“No, I’m pretty sure you used the exact phrase ‘social capitalism run amok.’”

“I just think there’s value in being discerning with your money.”

“Like it matters to your kind, rich white—”

I kick Ernie under the table.

“Hey!” he wails.

“So, Lily,” I say, “you’re, um, an eight-bit kind of girl, huh?” OMFG—you’re an eight-bit kind of girl? Who says that?

“Someone kicked me!”

Lily looks completely lost.

I continue to jam my foot (and much of my leg) in my mouth: “You know, you’re an NES fan. The NES was a third-generation video game console, which means it had the characteristic eight-bit CPU…”

Ernie face-palms himself on my behalf—or else he’s merely trying to dab more effectively at the pudding on his cheeks. I can’t tell which. “Dude. If that’s how you hit on girls, you’re going to be a virgin until you’re thirty.”

Eva smirks.

Summer shoots her a discouraging look that reads something like, “Don’t feed the walrus. You’ll make it lose its fear of humans.” Ernie being the walrus.

“I’m not hitting on anyone,” I insist.

“Oh, please!” Ernie exclaims. “All you need is the leisure suit and some hair on your chest, and you’re that creepy guy who tries to score at his friends’ kids’ birthday parties!”

Summer looks at Eva. “Is lunchtime always like this for you?”

Eva sighs. “No. Sometimes it’s awkward.”

That’s code for Monday through Friday.

Thankfully, Jan, now in super high-def, sits beside Ernie at the table, his mere presence distracting the girls, diluting the awkwardness.

Hi, Jan!” Summer and Lily coo in unison, so charmed by his brooding Czech countenance, so smitten by his bulging biceps that their eyes have literally been replaced with throbbing anime hearts.

“Hello,” Jan says, aware of the extra attention he’s getting, but evidently unsure of what to do with it. He takes off his backpack, folds his arms on the tabletop, looks at Ernie. “What happened to you?”

“Pudding attack,” Ernie replies matter-of-factly, and wipes a dollop of banana cream on Jan’s bare shoulder. “Looks like you’re whole again, Janny Boy. And baby-smooth.”

Jan stares at his puddinged shoulder in disbelief.

“Are you, you know…okay?” I ask him.

Ernie waves a sticky hand at me. “Why do you keep asking everyone that?”

“Beta wrote me a doctor’s note,” Jan answers, still staring at his shoulder.

“He can do that?” Eva asks.

“He can do anything, apparently.”

“Except remember to charge my Wiimotes after he’s used them,” I mutter under my breath.


“Nothing.” I tap Jan’s arm to get his attention again. “I’m talking about the whole pixelation thing. Did Beta find your missing bytes?”

“No,” Jan says, “but he’s letting me live on his server for a while. And he made me a skin.” He lifts and rotates his arms. “He also gave me a special phone that lets me go actual wherever there’s a wireless signal. Does anyone have a napkin?”

Lily to the rescue once again.

Ernie gawks at one of Jan’s armpits in fascination. “Wow, that’s a skin? Your pit hair looks so real.” He reaches out to touch it—

Jan quickly lowers his arms, nudges Ernie away as he dabs at his shoulder.

“Missing bytes? Skin? Armpit hair?” Summer looks exasperated. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

“Oh, the closet jock here lost his bytes downloading to Robbie the Friendly Pedophile’s phone,” Ernie explains.

“He what his what when downloading where?”

“It’s a long story,” I say.

“So, does this mean that right now you’re virtually actual,” Eva asks Jan, “or actually virtual?”

Everyone looks at me expectantly.

“It’s…a long story,” I say again.

“Hey, I have a question.” Ernie wags what’s left of his napkin at Summer and Lily. “It’s lunchtime here. You girls live in Wisconsin, right? That’s two hours ahead—how can it be lunchtime there, too?”

“Because it’s not lunchtime,” Summers says, “and we home school, remember?”

Lily smiles, nods proudly. “We set our own schedules.”

I feel Eva pinch me in the side. “When were you guys going to tell me about Jan?”

“Er…after lunch?” I smile sheepishly.

She shakes her head, leans forward, pokes at Jan’s arm. “Does it hurt?”

“It kind of pinches when people poke and prod me.”

Eva frowns, but doesn’t stop poking him. “Are your parents upset?”

“Actually, they don’t know.”

“How can you keep something like losing your bytes from your parents?”

“I’m not sure where they are. My apartment got towed yesterday.”

Aww!” the girls all coo together, their bodies going full-on minimalist chibi style, their eyes becoming throbbing hearts once again as they levitate from my side of the table to Jan’s. They settle beside him, coaxing, coddling. In unison again: “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!

Ernie sends me a dire look, grabs onto the tabletop and braces his soft bulk in an attempt to prevent the jockette ambush from ousting him off the bench completely. “The future is now, Asian Adjacent. Economy in the shitter, everyone’s apartment towed, the rest of us poor slobs living on a server in your bedroom.”

I resist the urge to work out in my mind exactly where in my room I’d place all those extra hard drives and server racks should the SuperMegaNet apocalypse arrive, and instead pretend to be busy searching for something in my backpack—when I unexpectedly find this certificate-looking piece of paper wedged between two of my textbooks.

“What’s that?” Ernie asks.

“The deed to my spunk,” I murmur, reading the title.


Blushing, I quickly stuff the certificate back into my backpack. “Don’t ask.”

“Don’t tell,” Ernie replies.

Bacon Maple Bars


When a hacker promises to help you find your missing bytes, you figure that means he’s going to spend the rest of the morning holed away in some darkened bedroom with an army of ThinkPads at his disposal—not sit outside a Mag’s Donuts and share a box of maple bacon bars with a gluttonous puppet and a pixel monster. Yes, Beta has his laptop with him, and he seems to have a lot of terminal windows (and one Photoshop window) open, but I can’t help wondering if his hacking would be more effective using both hands, and not just the donut-free one.

“So, this is where you do your computer work?” I ask.

“I like to get out occasionally,” Beta replies, keeping his eyes fixed on his laptop screen, his hand, on autopilot, hovering over the donut box, pulling out a maple bar, cramming a good third of it into his munching mouth.

Mini, sitting on the tabletop and lapping the icing off his own maple bar, scowls and says, “I don’t understand how you keep that LA Fitness ass of yours in business.” To me: “All this guy eats is tacos, Top Ramen, and donuts. I feel fat just talking to him.”

“I’m virtual, remember?” Beta says.

“Oh. Right.”

“And I’m wearing a skin. I don’t have to worry about what I eat.”

“So, what do you really look like, then?” Mini pauses. “Please don’t say Jeff Albertson.”

“Does it matter?”

“Who’s Jeff Albertson?” I ask.

“And isn’t that the point of the Internet? To express yourself when you’re virtual the way you can’t when you’re actual?”

“Comic Book Guy,” Mini says, answering my question. “You know, from The Simpsons?”

Beta looks floored. “That’s Comic Book Guy’s real name?”

“Google it.”

“I believe you. It’s just that he looks so much more like a ‘Stuart Bloom’ rather than a ‘Jeff Albertson.’ If anything, Stuart should be called ‘Jeff,’ and Jeff should be called ‘Stuart.’”

“Don’t dodge the question.”

“Sorry, I’m just trying to wrap my head around—what was your question?”

“What manner of male pattern baldness and chronic eczema are you hiding behind that pretty-boy skin of yours?”

Beta shrugs. “Besides the need for a disguise, my real body bailed on me. Working with what I had didn’t work out, so I figure I’ll work with what suits me.”

“Ever worry about the whole ‘people only like me for my looks’ thing?”

“Nope, because people can also not like you for your looks.”

“So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”

“I get the whole ‘be yourself’ thing,” Beta says. “But who’s really content just being himself or herself?”

“People who post those annoying ‘be yourself’ inspirational memes on Instagram, apparently—”

“Like it or not, we live in a very superficial society. We do judge books by their covers. All the time. We shave, we pluck, we change our hair, our clothes, we lose weight, we gain weight—we’re constantly changing ourselves to affect a certain image. Skinning’s no different.”

Mini waves a maple-covered mitt philosophically in the air. “I’m not saying it is. I just think there’s the risk of it becoming a cop-out. You—and Jan here, soon enough—playing into the whole ‘looks matter’ paradigm does nothing to solve the underlying issue—that modern society erroneously assigns social values based on physical appearance.”

“Society’s always going to do that. I’m neither adding to nor taking away from the problem. Realistically, what incentive do I have to be the only person in the entire world who, if given the choice, would pick being a cripple in a wheelchair instead of a hot piece of meat?”

“I don’t know. The Archduke of Self-Confidence?”


End conversation.

I fumble with my maple bar. I’ve been working on it for the last fifteen minutes, trying to get my pixelated hands to do what I want them to do, and only half succeeding. You don’t realize how complex a process it is manipulating and eating food until your fingers become giant blocks (breakfast at Ernie’s taqueria was a nightmare). But I guess I’m glad for the distraction. If you think about it, losing your bytes is scary. You kind of take it for granted that in today’s connected world, if you break your phone, you can just buy a new one and re-download all your stuff from the cloud. But what happens when your data doesn’t even make it to the cloud in the first place?

Yeah, I’m trying real hard not to think about it.

“I’m going to be late for school,” I say, more as a simple grouping of words to break the silence than a complaint about the speed or quality of Beta’s hacking.

“Better late than as a preteen pixel monster,” Mini says.

“Relax,” Beta assures me. “This is Newport Beach, not Anaheim. Truancy works differently when it’s assumed you’re affluent.”

I look down at my low-res scuffed jeans and tank. “I don’t feel very affluent.”

“You will in just a sec…” Beta types out a few more commands, hits Enter…and beams proudly at me.

“What?” I ask.

“Check out the bod, little dude.”

I look down at my hands, my arms, the rest of my torso. I’m no longer pixelated. “Did you find my bytes? Am I fixed?”

“I’m still working on finding your bytes. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait it out like as some eight-bit video game reject.”

I get to my feet, still checking myself out. “How’d you do that?”

“Custom skin,” Beta replies. “Regular SMN users can only install skins for video chat, or when they’re virtual, but I’ve got a hack that lets you keep your skin when you’re actual. I designed yours using a technique similar to the one that’s used to un-blur bank account or credit card numbers, only I applied it to you instead, with your Facebook and Instagram photos serving as visual references. Unfortunately, since you’ve never posted any nude selfies or dick pics online, I had to approximate the details of your ass and wang. I went with what I thought were reasonable defaults for your height and build—six inches and a Brad Pitt.”

“A measly six inches?” Mini scoffs. “Why don’t you restrict him to using just one leg while you’re at it? And is Brad Pitt’s ass even relevant anymore?”

Beta glares at him. “By all means, if you want to tweak anything, just let me know.” He reaches into his laptop bag and pulls out a smartphone, hands it to me. “This is a prepaid to get you started. Keep it handy, and you’ll be able to go actual wherever there’s a signal. Just watch your airtime, and switch over to Wi-Fi whenever you’re near a hotspot. That’ll cut down on your data usage. Oh, and for shit’s sake, keep the thing charged. You don’t want to wink out in the middle of some random street, because then you’ll have to go back and find your phone later—if someone doesn’t outright steal it the moment it hits the ground.”

I swipe through the phone’s app screen, spotting the familiar SuperMegaNet icon. “Do I have to use the phone all the time?”

“No,” Beta says. “It would only be for when you want to go actual in high-res. You can also do the same by downloading via any computer, tablet, or phone that’s got SuperMegaNet installed, but this lets you keep your resolution without having to stay within a Wi-Fi hotspot. Like, without the phone, you’re the Doc in Star Trek: Voyager before he was outfitted with his mobile emitter. Wander too far from a hotspot, and your signal will degrade until you’re dumped back onto the server. With the phone, well, that’s your emitter, so to speak. City-wide Wi-Fi is coming sooner rather than later. In a few more years you’ll be able to walk down the street like anyone else, with or without your phone.”

“Wait—a few years?” I look at Beta. “How long is it going to take to find my missing bytes?”

He gives me a sympathetic look. “Sooner rather than later, hopefully. In the meantime, there’s no reason you can’t lead an ordinary life. Well, nearly ordinary.”

“As a hologram.”

“Actually, SuperMegaNet doesn’t use holographic technology at all, but instead captures, compresses, and transmits matter as a data stream—”

“What I mean is, I’ll be a copy. I won’t be me.”

“Oh, you’re still you,” Beta says. “You’re just augmented by SMN tech.”

“I guess.” I pick up my maple bar without trouble, take a bite. It tastes so much better now that I’m high-res again. Everything feels better, in fact. Everything sounds better, everything smells better. But it’s still weird knowing I’m not entirely myself.

Beta seems to sense my uncertainty. “Hey, what if you went off to war and came back with an arm missing? Would you still be you?”

“Well, yeah,” I reply.

“What if you had two arms missing? What if you were just a torso?”

“Would he still have a dick?” Mini asks. “Or are we talking just a torso? Because that would make a huge difference.”

Beta ignores Mini. “You’re still you, Jan. Not to worry. It’s just that more of you is now represented digitally. It can be a little freaky—we get attached to our actual bodies. We identify with them, we rely on them as extensions of our personalities, our souls, and all that. Then something happens that makes you question how much of you is physical, how much isn’t, and how much you can shift from the physical to the mental before, well, you cease to be. For me it was MS. You, a botched download. The point is, it’s only when you lose some or all of your body’s functionality that you realize the possibility of being more than just the sum of your parts. You start to question whether you can interchange your parts without losing who you are. Glasses. Hearing aid. Wheelchair. Prostheses. SuperMegaNet.”

“Geez,” Mini says, shaking his head. “Who writes your dialogue?”

Beta grabs another maple bar, leans back in his chair, and stuffs his face. “I make it up as I go along.”