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.”
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.