The Day I Lost Respect for My Parents

@jan

Wow. I’ve never seen anyone’s grandmother turn into a winged beast before. That was totally and completely…wow. I now understand the source of Ernie’s crude, crass behavior: the pressure of living in the lair of a shape-shifting babička has driven him partially insane—

The front door opens, closes.

Mom and Dad are home.

I’d been staring, mesmerized, at Ernie’s video feed on my computer screen, but now I quickly minimize all my SuperMegaNet windows and resume my homework, watching my parents peripherally. They whisper something to each other. Then Mom disappears into the kitchen, and Dad crosses the living room, steps into my nook, folds his arms.

I pretend to be so absorbed in my bookwork that I don’t notice him.

He raps on the desktop. “Jan.”

I look up. “Hi, Dad.”

“Have you been using your computer to upload to other people’s houses?” he asks, displeased.

Uh oh. He knows. “Houses?”

“Yes. Houses, homes, structures in which your friends reside.”

I hate lying to Dad, partly because it’s lying, but mostly because I know I’m dead meatballs if he finds out I’ve been doing something I shouldn’t. So, I try a diffuse answer first (just so you know, it’s not a lie, it’s a non-denial denial): “With our Internet connection? That would take forever. DXL Pro guarantees between 1.5 and 3 megabits per second, and we get exactly 1.5.”

Dad stares me down, waiting, the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepening.

In the kitchen, Mom starts slicing carrots. Loudly.

“Oh, yes,” Dad says with his eyes. “Your mother’s only a holler away. And you know how she likes to handle these kinds of things.”

Swift and severe. I know.

Chop-chop.

“Well,” I say, “I let my friends, um, download here once or twice, and I may have tried uploading, er, once or twice too—but it was only so that we could work on an assignment for school.”

Dad nods. “I thought it was odd, that time your computer was left running with you nowhere to be found, pillows stuffed under your blanket.”

“I never used it to do anything bad,” I say, hanging my head.

“It’s enough that you felt you had to hide it from me and your mother.”

“I wasn’t hiding it. It just…never came up.”

“It’s a chat program that lets you transport yourself between computers,” Dad says. “You’d think something as amazing as that would come up during the many times I’ve asked, ‘How was your day?’ I mean, we’re not just talking MP3s and Jay Pigs here.”

“JPEGs,” I say, correcting him.

Dad steps back, points at the hallway leading into the bedroom. “I want your computer—the tower, monitor, keyboard, and mouse—unplugged and in my room.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Because he’s afraid I’ll try uploading into a bank vault or something? “How will I do my homework?”

“There’s an old Czech technique called ‘pencil and paper.’ It’s from way back, when there weren’t any computers, when apples were eaten and windows were scrubbed. Now, get moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I shut down my PC, then crawl underneath the desk, moving my dumbbells out of the way so that I can reach the power strip. I’m upset with Dad. Not so much because he’s grounding me off of SuperMegaNet (like I keep telling Ernie, we all live in the same city—we can visit each other without it), but because he doesn’t trust me. He’s lumping me into a category with the kinds of kids you hear about on the news, the ones who say “yes” to strangers. I’m mad at him for that, I’m mad at Ernie for insisting we all install SuperMegaNet in the first place—I’m mad at myself for going along with it.

I lug the computer into my parents’ room. Dad nods approvingly and tells me to go study quietly until dinner is ready.

I go back out into the living room and sit on my bed with my back against the wall, my schoolbooks spread out beside me. My desk looks so barren without the computer on it. I can see the spots where the faux-wood laminate is peeling off the pressboard. The monitor had also served as a makeshift partition between my nook and the rest of the room. Now I can see across the hall and right into the bathroom. Lucky me.

A few minutes pass, during which I try to focus on my schoolwork while Mom bangs away in the kitchen (she was the loudest cook in Brno, and now she’s the loudest in San Angelico). It doesn’t help that Dad has started puttering about in the bedroom, moving things, plugging something haphazardly into the wall outlet—my PC, I realize with a pang.

My PC with its vast collection of naked female bodybuilder pics stored conspicuously in a folder labeled “Naked Female Bodybuilder Pics.”

I hear the welcome screen chime. Dad’s set up my PC, turned it on, and is no doubt poking through my files, looking for trouble. Ježiši, if he stumbles on that folder I’ll just die. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe he’s going to reformat the entire hard drive as part of my punishment. No more Annie Rivieccio or Selena Vascularo…no more Atrocia Rivulet.

I lie down and roll onto my side, facing the wall.

This is bad. This is really bad.

After a while, I hear Dad come out of the bedroom and go into the kitchen, where he murmurs something to Mom. I’m assuming she follows him back into the bedroom, because I don’t hear anymore pots and pans clinking, and it smells like whatever she’d been cooking has started to burn.

I continue to stare at the wall. Mom and Dad come and go several times without mentioning my muscle babes—without speaking to me at all, actually—once, to take care of whatever’s burning on the stove, and then again to fetch something (beer, it sounds like) from the refrigerator. Back in their room, they start talking loudly. No, they’re laughing. And telling jokes. And getting pretty rowdy about it, too. And it sounds like there’s a third person in the room with them.

I sit upright, eyes wide. I’m sure I didn’t hear anyone come through the front door. That means…but no. My parents wouldn’t—they couldn’t be using SuperMegaNet, could they?

Tiptoeing into the hall, I press my ear up against the bedroom door. I still can’t understand a word being said, but I’m sure now: There’s a man laughing and joking with Mom and Dad, and unless he climbed in through the window, there’s no way he could’ve gotten in without being downloaded.

It’s hard to concentrate on my homework after that. I can’t help wondering what my parents are up to. Nine o’clock rolls around, and dinner still isn’t on the table. On the one hand, my muscle babes and I seem to have been forgotten. On the other, well, I seem to have been forgotten.

At nine-thirty, I clear off the bed, lie down and close my eyes. I’m not really tired, but there’s nothing else to do at the moment, and I don’t feel like lifting weights or watching TV. Without meaning to, I drift off to sleep, waking partially at regular intervals throughout the night to random bursts of laughter, whiffs of cigar smoke, beer, and cold cuts as several more of my parents’ friends download. This continues until dawn lightens the room. Usually my mom wakes me, but this morning I end up waking myself, ten minutes later than usual, which means I’ll have to walk that much faster to school.

By now I’m absolutely famished. I make my way into the kitchen—and stop dead in my tracks when I see my uncle Martin sitting there at the table, sipping a cup of coffee.

“Ah, rise and shine!” Martin exclaims, getting to his feet and stepping toward me with arms outstretched. “Look at you!” He grabs me by the shoulders, rattles me as if checking for loose teeth. “Little Jan, not so little anymore!”

“Little Jan.” That’s what they used to call me back in Brno. Little Jan, a diminutive form of my dad’s name—even though I’m as tall as he is.

“I didn’t know you were visiting,” I tell Martin.

“Neither did I! But your dad, he showed me a computer program. What do you call it? SuperMegaNet?”

“Yes,” I say, frowning.

“I uploaded straight from Brno. Your father’s going to show me the store today. Oh, it’s good to see you again, Little Jan!” He ruffles my hair and beams ear to ear.

Huh.

“Well, I have to get ready for school,” I say, and go back into the living room. Dad passes me on his way into the kitchen. I give him a suspect look, but he ignores me, starts talking to Martin about this or that.

A moment later, I hear the bedroom door open. The sound of half a dozen people conversing in Czech follows my Mom out into the living room. She’s carrying a stack of dirty plates and empty beer bottles.

“Oh, good morning, Jan,” she says to me. “Time to get ready for school.” She moves on into the kitchen.

I grab a change of clothes and head into the bathroom. I’m almost finished with my shower when the unthinkable happens: one of the half-dozen people visiting my parents barges in and avails himself of the toilet. It’s only after he’s had a powerful bowel movement that he acknowledges my presence with an embarrassed apology. Then he flushes, washes his hands, and leaves the bathroom door wide open on his way out. Which means I have to pretend I’m not naked and sopping wet and extremely disconcerted as I step out of the tub, quickly walk over to the door, and slam it shut. This has to be some kind of psychological punishment for installing SuperMegaNet without my parents’ permission, some overblown example of what can supposedly go wrong when you blindly let people download into your home. What other explanation is there?

I dry off; I deodorize, throw on my clothes, mess with my hair a little bit, brush my teeth. Back in the kitchen, breakfast is nowhere to be found. All the bread and cold cuts have been eaten, and there’s trash on the table, dirty dishes in the sink…and it occurs to me that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. What if this isn’t my parents’ way of teaching me a lesson by setting a bad example? What if they’ve tried SuperMegaNet for themselves and have somehow become hooked, grounding me off the computer so that they can have it all to themselves?

My stomach grumbles. I know I’m not the talkative type, but now more than ever, I wish Theo and Eva weren’t trying so hard to keep away. I wish we could all have lunch together at our usual table. We should be there for each other. Instead? Eva’s sworn off the rest of us; Theo’s going through some kind of reclusive phase; Ernie’s probably going to be in a coma for the next few weeks after what his grandmother did to his bedroom. SuperMegaNet was supposed to have brought us together, but instead it’s driven us apart, turned my parents into strangers.

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Not-So-Great Expectations

@becky

I’m watching the tail end of Mrs. Womack’s infiltration of Ernie’s bedroom, and I’m thinking to myself, this is wholesome. This is good. That fat turd spends so much of his time absorbed in himself—his food, his video games, his porn—it’s about time he was knocked down a notch!

I can’t believe I’ve been supporting his gross habits since the beginning of the school year. You know what he told me? He said that some pedophile named Robbie had kidnapped him and force-fed him honey buns for two weeks straight, and that’s why he has an eating problem: because Robbie likes to fatten his little boys before, er, going steady with them or whatever. What a dumbass I am. I felt so sorry for Ernie. I thought he was telling the truth, I thought I was helping him get through his trauma when I brought over the junk food. It turns out I’ve just been giving him free calories. He was never kidnapped by anyone, and he doesn’t care about me or my feelings. He just cares that I show up every few days with a new care package. Twinkies, Nutty Bars, Pirate’s Booty—those are his real friends. I’m just a convenient set of arms to shovel them into his gaping mouth.

I’m fat. I know it, as do the other kids at my school, and they frequently let me know that they know. As if I’ve never in a million years stood in front of a mirror and realized the futility of trying to squeeze into a pair of hip-huggers. I know that no boy will ever want to be with me for my looks. But it would be nice to be wanted in some way, to be…desired.

Ernie jokes that I’m too needy. “You take things too seriously,” he always says, usually after seeing my reaction to his calling me “Piglet” or “Fatness.” He thinks he’s being affectionate, or that I’m so totally cool with obesity that I don’t mind being called “fat” to my face. But I wouldn’t mind a lie or two once in a while. Something like, “You look beautiful today.” Or, “Theo asked to trade girlfriends, but I told him to fuck off. Why should I get the short end of the stick?”

I wanted Charlie Roberson, that cute skater boy with the beautiful hair who’s in my P.E. class. One of the few benefits of being fat is that when we run laps, I do more walking than running. I’m always behind Charlie, chugging, panting, exhausted, ready to pass out, but somehow able to keep my legs moving so that I’m never too far back to appreciate his perfect behind bouncing in those skimpy gym shorts of his, or his wild, unbridled hair as it does a slow-motion dance in the breeze, leaving the aroma of Head and Shoulders in the air. I could run the mile behind him forever, snorting his smell and slavering over his awesome skater butt. But he doesn’t like fat chicks. And the only class we have together is P.E. So, to him I’m just the greasy, sweaty, blubbery girl who’s always out of breath. He’s never seen me in my non-sweat-stained form.

I used to cry over it. All through sixth grade I tried to work up the courage to talk to him, to get out at least a few good words before exploding violently in front of him, leaving steaming, gooey bits of me all over his face, his clothes. Every time the end-of-day bell rang, I ran home in tears because I’d let another day slip by without making contact, without at least trying to snag him before some other girl did.

This year, I thought I might actually do it. I was practicing lines in my head to and from school. I was constructing backup conversations just in case there were any awkward silences. I was ready to “accidentally” bump into him. Then I heard he got caught making out with Katie Sigler behind the bleachers during lunchtime, and I knew it was over. He has a taste for lean meat now. I figured he’d eventually get suckered in by some cute and super-thin pixie, but Katie Sigler? She’s a slut! She used to sell kisses during recess! Making out with her is what boys do when they’ve exhausted all other possibilities—or when they simply don’t care who gets them to second base for the first time.

That’s why I settled for Ernie—and I do mean I settled. He’s fat, obnoxious, single-minded—but he never made it with Katie. I can guarantee you he’s never had a girlfriend before. I thought I could use the novelty to my advantage. Even though I knew better, I got with him. He was my Katie. The easy chick, the path of least resistance. I thought that maybe being with a girl would inspire him to chew with his mouth closed, or to make an effort to hold in his farts when he’s around other people. But no. He acts like a fourth-grader, which is ironic, considering he’s a high school honors student. (I have the feeling that someone somewhere made a paperwork error, because I’ve never seen him do his homework. Not once! How does someone like that get skipped ahead?)

I suppose it’s all for the better. If he doesn’t have the attention span to manage his academics, there’s little chance he could ever maintain a diet of any kind. No, he’ll never be more than what he is now: a pathetic, dateless butterball. I don’t need him. I can lose weight on my own, and when I do, when I’m thin and beautiful and all the boys want to go out with me, I’ll make sure I stop by Ernie’s for old times’ sake, just to let him see what he let slip right through his hands. Revenge is a bitch named Becky Bensonbutter. Remember that, Ernie.

I watch his SMN feed on my computer screen. The video of his bedroom bounces upside down as his webcam is dragged out into the hall by a still-screeching Mrs. Womack. He’s dropped to his knees and is now fishing remnant M&M’s from the shag carpet.

All right. Enough for today.

I reach beside my mouse pad, picking up the small Mrs. Womack-shaped paper doll I made earlier. I remove the claws and pull off the wings; I speak the sacred words. On Ernie’s end, the screeching dissipates, replaced with more traditional yelling and shouting.

His grandmother has been restored to normal.

The Only Real-World Example in Which Vangelis’ Mythodea is Totally Appropriate Background Music

@theo

I’m never going to get used to bedtime. Not like this, not with my special contact lenses out for the night and my sightless Hamster Eyes blinking into the vast nothingness. Before the whole New Eyes fiasco, night used to be dark—but not this dark. It makes me think how ridiculous it is, how some kids are afraid of the dark when they’ve never really been in darkness. There’s usually a digital alarm clock somewhere in the room, the standby LED of a DVD player, television set, or game console, or light from the street lamps outside filtering through the window. That’s not true darkness, that’s just dark.

Darkness is lying wide awake in bed and wondering…what if there’s a fire, or any earthquake, or a tornado? Would I have time to jam my lenses in before I’m burned to a crisp, crushed like a paper cup, or blown right out the window?

A creepy whisper coming from the direction of my desk distracts me from my thoughts: “Wake up, Theo.”

I sit up. It sounds like Mini-Theo’s found his way out of the closet. Annoyed—but glad for the diversion—I fumble for my lenses. I can hear the first bombastic notes of “Movement 1” off of Vangelis’ Mythodea blaring from my PC’s speakers. Quickly, I pop my contacts in and look over to where Mini-Theo has climbed onto my desk and is working the mouse with both hands. He looks at me for a moment, then points solemnly at the screen.

“Come…witness the end,” he says in a horrendous backwards whisper.

I get out of bed (I’ve recently switched places with Beta, reclaiming my bed and relegating his gear to a corner of my desk), pad over to the desk. On the computer screen, Ernie’s SuperMegaNet window has been maximized, allowing for a crystal-clear view of what can only be described as a visual cacophony. Mrs. Goodale has taken on an otherworldly form. She’s now eight feet tall, clawed, and bearing a gigantic pair of wings, and is moving through Ernie’s bedroom with tidal force. “Movement 1” scores her motions: a cymbal crashes in time with the swing of her arm as she knocks a shelf’s worth of PlayStation games into an oversized plastic garbage bag; the choir chants almost demonically as she moves over to the closet, ripping the door from its hinges and uttering a series of nonsensical screechings when a barrage of Twinkie cartons, M&M’s packets, and honey bun boxes comes tumbling out onto the shag carpet.

Behind her, Ernie, his hair mussed, his face bruised and bloodied—oh, wait, it’s only chocolate syrup—is screaming and flailing his arms and trying to get past her, to save what he can before it ends up in the garbage bag—to no avail. Mrs. Goodale has become a rigid hunk of remorseless, middle-aged grandma, impervious to assault, verbal or physical.

This is confirmed when Ernie, out of desperation, grabs his bedside lamp and hurls it at her. The lamp base shatters, the light bulb exploding, the lampshade fragmenting into a thousand pointy shards. Ernie covers his face with his arms and wails miserably as Mrs. Goodale lumbers toward his computer, her outstretched claws reaching for the webcam—

—a chat window pops up the in the middle of my screen. Eva’s sent me an instant message: OUR PARENTS ARE ONTO US. BE CAREFUL.

Ernie’s window goes black.

Huh.

So that’s what’s going on.

From the Passenger Seat of My Mom’s Lexus

@eva

My mom’s driving me home from wrestling practice, and I know from the instant she says, “So…” that I’m in some sort of trouble. Of course, a single word by itself isn’t indicative of how an entire sentence will turn out. She could be about to ask me how school was, how practice went—but it’s the way she says “so” that’s tipped me off. Long, drawn-out, italicized. So…

“So…?” I echo, carefully resisting the urge to squirm in my seat.

“I met the other parents today,” Mom says.

Of course, she can only be talking about a specific set of parents—but I play dumb anyway because that’s how you do it. The less you say, the less can be used against you. “What other parents?”

“Theo’s mom and dad. Mr. and Mrs. Womack. The Kounicovas.”

Huh. Womack. I’ll have to remember to call Ernie that if and when I ever see him again. “That’s nice. Did you all go out to lunch or something?”

“No, we had a little parent-counselor meeting. The topic: SuperMegaNet.”

Oh. That.

“What were you thinking, Eva? Networking with a bunch of boys you don’t even know? Uploading to their bedrooms? Letting them upload to yours?”

“Mom, it was a school assignment. Mrs. Thrailkill—”

“Yes, I met dear old Mrs. Thrailkill. Which reminds me: I don’t want you setting foot in her office ever again.”

“Mom—”

“I’m serious. She smokes in there. And her idea of counseling leaves much to be desired.”

We stop at a red light. Awkwardness prompts us to keep our eyes on the passing cars—as if we’re watching the procession at a Macy’s Day Parade. Only we’re not.

“It’s no big deal,” I say after the light’s turned green again.

“Of course it is,” Mom says. “Second-hand smoke is more carcinogenic than what the actual smoker is inhaling.”

“I was talking about SuperMegaNet.”

“As far as that goes,” Mom says, pretending not to miss a beat, “they’re boys. You’re a girl. Or don’t you remember that little talk we had about how these things work?”

Yeah, yeah. Boys and girls, the sperm and the egg, cause and effect, ball and chain. “If you knew them you’d know that they’re totally not, um, those kinds of boys. They’re…weird. Theo designs Web sites and listens to Asia; Ernie spends all his time eating and farting; Jan…” I bite my lip. “All he cares about is lifting weights and speaking with an unintelligible accent.”

“Mm-hm. But it’s an entirely different story once their hormones kick in. One day you’re just friends, the next they’ll want, they’ll expect privileges.”

I sigh. “It doesn’t matter. I stopped using SuperMegaNet last week anyway.”

Turning onto our street, Mom asks, “Oh? Why’s that?”

Because I wasn’t comfortable letting myself spy on a nearly-naked boy in his sleep. Because it’s not the boys’ hormones I’m worried about, it’s my own. Because I have no reason to talk to Jan ever again. “I don’t have time, what with homework and wrestling practice.”

Mom seems to relax somewhat—most likely the result of endorphins being released by what she’s about to say next: “Regardless, I want your computer out of your bedroom and in a box in the garage by dinnertime.”

What?” I exclaim. “Why?”

“Because you’re twelve, Eva, and I don’t like the idea of people using your bedroom as an Internet lobby.”

“Besides my classmates at Boca Linda, I only added Summer, Lily, and a few of the other girls at Toepoint to my buddy list—”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“Would you like me to upgrade you to an all-around grounding?”

Ugh! “No, ma’am.”

“Good.”

Good? Hardly! Totally unfair is more like it! “How long do I have to stay off the computer?”

“Until I decide it’s safe to go back on.”

“But I told you, the only people on my buddy list are…” I trail off, noticing the way the vein on the side of Mom’s neck is starting to throb.

The negotiations have failed.

We pull into our driveway. Mom shuts off the engine. “Okay. Your dad will be home any minute. Not a word of this to him, understand?”

As if the first thing I’m going to do is blurt out to Dad that I’ve been doing “naughty” things online. As if Dad would have a heart attack or simply implode on hearing such news. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now get cleaned up for dinner.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I get out of the car and trudge up the driveway, making a show of dragging my backpack and gym bag behind me. I unlock the front door; my first instinct is to dash down the hall and into my bedroom so that I can warn Theo and the others. Not that they care—not that I should care. Jan hates me; Ernie’s fat and obnoxious and always calls me Bug Eyes; Theo…well, I guess I don’t have anything against him. Maybe I’ll send him a quick instant message—if there’s time.

Parental Politics

@anya

So, this is a parent-counselor meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one. Theo’s never gotten bad grades, has never been caught cheating on a test or cutting class—he’s never done anything to warrant my hanging around campus any longer than it takes to drop him off in the morning or pick him up in the afternoon. I hardly know the place. It took me ten minutes to find the counseling office, and that was with Mike’s help.

The room is dimly lit. Myself, Mike, and the other parents sit in uncomfortable plastic chairs. No one’s said anything about the layers of cigarette smoke clouding the air, so I can only assume this is how they do things here at Boca Linda. I can’t say I like it. Secondhand smoke’ll kill you deader than dead, but Mrs. Thrailkill doesn’t seem to care. She merely sits behind her polished mahogany desk and stares me down through the haze.

Mrs. Womack leans forward and, holding her nose, shoots me an accusing look. “SuperMegaNet? What’s that?”

“Apparently,” Mr. Womack offers (and not without a hint of amusement), “it’s what’s been occupying our grandson’s time between school and lights out.”

“It’s a video chat program,” I explain. “It lets you upload to other people’s homes. My son Theo showed me.”

“Computers can do that?” asks Mr. Kounicova.

“They can send paperless mail too, miláčku,” replies Mrs. Kounicova, jokingly.

So,” Mrs. Womack huffs in my direction. “Theo’s the one who’s coerced my Ernest into installing this…this SuperMegaNet on his computer?”

The poor woman. A lifetime of cultivated dissatisfaction has left her face wrinkled, languid. Had we gotten off on the right foot, I might have offered her a free facial rejuve pack after the meeting as a friendly gesture between parents. Had we gotten off on the right foot. “Theo would never coerce anyone into doing something they don’t want to do.”

“Maybe he didn’t do it on purpose. Maybe he thought he was being helpful when he suggested—”

“Are you blaming Theo for your grandson’s inability to make his own decisions?”

Mrs. Womack puts her hand to her cheek, as if I’ve just slapped her across the face.

Thrailkill looks impressed.

“Regardless of who installed what where and when,” Mrs. Taylor says to Mrs. Womack, “the fact of the matter is your grandson now has unrestricted access to my daughter’s bedroom.”

“It works the other way, too,” Mrs. Womack points out. “Your daughter now has access to my grandson’s bedroom.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

A brightly-colored health meter has just materialized above Mrs. Womack’s head; daggers are about to fly—

“It means,” Mike says, clearing his throat loudly and making a cease-fire motion with his hands, “we can all agree that maybe we should’ve been contacted by Mrs. Thrailkill here before our kids were assigned to use the Internet in an unorthodox manner.”

Womack’s health meter vanishes.

We all look expectantly at Mrs. Thrailkill.

She seems slightly less amused, though she’s still smiling. “So, I’m to inherit the hot potato, am I?” She takes a long, slow drag from her cigarette, leans back in her chair. “I assigned Theo, Ernie, Eva, and Jan to work together online, yes. I assumed AIM was good enough, but it would seem my notion of online collaboration is antiquated. The little ruffians have improvised, purely of their own accord, I assure you.” Another drag from her cigarette. “I merely intended for them to network with one another as a means of improving their social skills. Busywork to keep their minds off the awkwardness of being Boca Linda’s youngest freshmen. Most kids just go home and masturbate to fill the hours until dinnertime. Yours decided to do the actual assignment.”

The word “masturbate” hangs in the air for a moment. I can almost make out the letters before they dissipate. I clear my throat—

Mrs. Womack clears hers louder. “Well, I don’t like it. All Ernie does now is sit in front of his computer—”

“He did that before SuperMegaNet, honey,” Mr. Womack interjects.

(One of the Kounicovas stifles a laugh.)

“—talking to goodness knows who and uploading to goodness knows where!”

“You always did want him to get out more. This is how they do it, kids these days.”

Mrs. Taylor shakes her head. “And that’s the problem. It’s not like when we were their age. No one had the Internet back then. You had to physically go somewhere to get into trouble. If you were in your room, you were pretty much in the clear. Kids today have the world at their fingertips. There are stories on the news all the time about creeps and perverts lurking in chat rooms—now they’re actual rooms.”

Mr. and Mrs. Kounicova converse quietly in Czech for a moment while Mrs. Womack tries unsuccessfully to interpret what they’re saying.

Meanwhile, Mr. Womack is shaking his head and waving his hand in the air. “This is no different than having a front door in your house. There’s a big, bad world out there. Chances are if your kid is looking for trouble, he can find it within fifty paces of the doormat.”

“My daughter keeps her computer in her bedroom,” Mrs. Taylor says. “The front door, as it were, is no longer down the hall—it’s beside her bed. And it’s unlocked. With something like SuperMegaNet, she doesn’t have to go looking for trouble anymore; trouble comes looking for her.”

“True,” Mike says, “if she’s carelessly added people she doesn’t know to her buddy list. But if used responsibly, there’s no reason SuperMegaNet can’t be as safe as old-school chat, right?”

“As if teaching a child responsibility is as easy as flipping on a light switch,” Mrs. Womack snorts.

“Are you saying,” Mrs. Taylor asks Mike, “we should just let our kids continue to use SuperMegaNet whenever they please?”

Use as opposed to abuse. That’s key here.” Mike shrugs, glances at me. “We believe in letting Theo make his own educated decisions. Right, honey?”

I smile, I nod…and yet, no matter how much of a proper example I want to set for the other parents, I just can’t get the image out of my head of Theo sitting beside me on the guest sofa, tears streaking his face as he rasps those three terrible words: “I’m blind, Mom.” He tries so hard to be my perfect little man, but I should know better. Just because he handles his Web design business with such maturity doesn’t mean he’s not still twelve years old. Oh, lord, I let him have too much too soon, and it’s cost him his eyesight. What kind of a mother am I?

I can feel a tear trickling down my cheek. Luckily there’s so much cigarette smoke clouding the air that no one notices as I dab at my face, straighten in my seat. Besides, all eyes are on Mike (bless him for diverting everyone’s attention) and Mrs. Womack, both of whom are going at it.

“No, I get what you’re saying, Mr. Smole,” Womack snarls. “You want us to sit back and twiddle our thumbs, romanticizing childhood and watching as our kids transport—”

Upload,” Mr. Womack corrects.

“—into the waiting hands of child molesters, terrorist groups, democrats!”

“Give your grandson a little credit,” Mike says. “Don’t you think he’s savvy enough to say no to a strange man in a van offering a lollipop and a ride to Chuck E. Cheese’s house?”

“No!”

By now, Thrailkill is nothing more than a vaguely human figure leaning forward behind a veil of smoke as she stubs out her cigarette, exhales, lights another. “It’s obvious you’ve overestimated the deviousness of your precocious little offspring. Your darlings have acquired the ability to transport themselves instantly around the world, and so far they’ve proved themselves too afraid or too stupid to find their way beyond our city limits. They went through all the trouble of finding and installing SuperMegaNet to keep in touch when they live not more than twenty minutes away from each other.” She leans back in her chair; all I can make out are her shadow and the lit end of her cigarette. “They can go anywhere in the world, and yet they’ve made friends right here. I think it’s safe to say they’ve missed the point.”

“That’s it?” Mrs. Womack barks. “That’s your advice on the matter?”

“Yeah,” Mrs. Taylor adds (with less intensity). “What kind of a counselor are you?”

Thrailkill’s answer is a puff of smoke exhaled with well-practiced patience.

“I’ve had enough.” Mrs. Womack slaps Mr. Womack on the shoulder, signaling that it’s time to go. She stands up, slowly, ominously, and with a distinctly theatrical flair. Indeed, a spotlight now shines down from above, illuminating her frame as she rotates slowly in place, aims an accusing index finger at each of us in turn. “Mark my words: SuperMegaNet is evil, and must be purged from our children’s lives!” She allows a moment for her words to sink in; then the spotlight fades, and normalcy is restored to her visage. “Good day to you all.”

She exits the room, dragging Mr. Womack along by the shirtsleeve.

Mike and I file out into the hallway along with everyone else, coughing and shaking the cigarette smoke out of our clothes (it doesn’t do much good). I wouldn’t be surprised if the time spent sitting in Thrailkill’s office has taken a few years off my life—but at least it wasn’t for nothing. Mrs. Womack, in her exaggerated, overblown way, is right: SuperMegaNet is trouble, and I need to wean Theo off it. I need to meddle—

—I need to mother.

Parent-Counselor Meeting

@thrailkill

Let’s be honest with each other: Parent-counselor meetings are bullshit. This isn’t about your children’s academic careers. It’s about you. Your child failed a test, defaced a brick wall, or lost her virginity in a toilet stall, and you’re worried it’s going to make you look bad in front of the other suburbanites. Your precious little ones have proved themselves to be not so little anymore; you simply can’t come to terms with the fact that they might be exploring their limits, pushing their boundaries, following their pubertal programming. Naturally, you feel the need to assign blame.

And I’m your first target.

It’s not your fault. With the possible exception of Grandma and Grandpa Womack, you’re all children of suburbia. You’ve spent more than half a decade turning your offspring over to the county five days a week, nine months out of the year. You hardly ever see them save for the occasional, unintentional conversation over breakfast or in the car while on the way to the grocery store. You haven’t a clue what sort of progress the public school system has made raising your children. Had you a clue, you might not have jumped the gun and organized this little impromptu meeting to rectify something that you yourselves should have been aware of at the very start of the school year.

So. Let’s see what we have here. Mr. and Mrs. Womack, the haggard grandparents, stuck with the responsibility of raising a fat little handful of a grandson long after you raised your own children and thought the worst was past. Judging from the way you’re slouching in your chair, I’m guessing your concern, Grandpa, is centered mostly around having to leave the safety of your favorite recliner for the unwanted privilege of attending a bona fide Parent Party—but you, Grandma, there’s ice in your eyes, venom dribbling down your chin. You have purpose. You’re the kind of woman who spends an entire weekend carefully composing hand-written letters to all the television stations broadcasting junk food commercials aimed at kids. You want blood.

You, Mrs. Taylor…you merely want an easy solution, a quick fix. I see your kind in here all the time. You’re the picturesque soccer mom (yes, I’m quite aware that Eva is on the wrestling team), thirty-something, slightly bedraggled despite the fact that it’s four-thirty in the afternoon. You’ve been housekeeping, running errands all day, and now you’re desperate to sort out your daughter’s affairs before dinnertime, before your office jockey husband comes home asking for a full report over chicken and mashed potatoes.

Mr. and Mrs. Kounicova—you’re the foreigners. Your presence here is strictly for show; you have no real interest in the nuances of American scholastics. Were you in Brno right now, and had your little Jan indeed been caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, the solution would be swift and severe punishment, plain and simple. But instead, you’ve got to sit here and chat it out with the other moms and dads, because here in America discipline is handled by the proper authorities. Here, parents who take matters into their own hands end up behind bars or on daytime talk shows.

That leaves us with you, Mr. and Mrs. Smole. The mismatched New Agers. An uncommonly youthful-looking, attractive, and empowered mother; a husband coping with an obvious inadequacy complex. Yes, you’re clinging by a thread, aren’t you, Mr. Smole? You’re trying your best not to be concerned about the possibility that the other parents are looking at you and assuming your son was conceived when you knocked up a middle school girl twelve years ago.

It doesn’t surprise me that it’s your wife, the alpha female, as it were, who’s clearing her throat, sitting forward, and, much like her son before her, looking overly concerned about the amount of cigarette smoke filling my office as she delivers the first allegation: “Mrs. Thrailkill. Theo tells me you assigned him a homework project involving a video chat program called SuperMegaNet?”

Cry “havoc” and let slip the dogs of war.

In the Library, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

@ernie

I’m a numbers guy. Letters mean nothing to me. I like words even less. Words compiled into monotonous biographies or strung along into chains of flowery phrases about dainty fairies and magic unicorns actually give me indigestion.

Naturally, it goes without saying that stepping into a building dedicated entirely to the preservation of words makes me extremely gassy. That’s why I fart on entering the Boca Linda library. That’s why everyone abruptly stops what they’re doing, turns, and looks at me while the sound echoes, reverberates off the walls and windows, and eventually fades into the stacks.

“Ew!” Summer shouts. “Did you just fart on my netbook?”

“No yelling in the library!” I shout back, slamming her netbook shut.

The librarian lady sitting at the nearby help desk looks up from whatever she’s doing and gives me a dirty look.

“Young man, can I help you?” she asks.

“I, uh, need to study for a pop quiz,” I say, and quickly move past her, trying to put as much distance between me and the stink cloud as possible.

The creamy center of the library is all cramped tables stuffed between towering bookshelves that reach up to the ceiling. There are desktop computers here and there, but they’re all being used at the moment. Stupid high schoolers. Probably checking their World of Warcraft accounts or looking up various cures for acne. I mean, J.H. Christ, look at all the nerds. Tall, skinny nerds, short, fat nerds, nerds with glasses, nerds with bigger glasses, nerds with big, brown, semi-Asian eyes and perfectly-smooth complexions on well-balanced semi-Asian faces—

—Theo.

Of course he’d be here.

I sidle on over to where he’s sitting and trying to hide behind his ginormous Toshiba Satellite.

“So, this is where you’ve been hiding out, huh?” I say, sitting next to him and setting Summer’s netbook beside the Toshiba. It looks like a flimsy plastic toy by comparison.

“Oh, hey, Ernie,” Theo whispers, totally pretending he didn’t see or hear me come in. “Did you get lost on your way to the cafeteria?”

“It’s nice to know the New Eyes haven’t affected your smart-ass tendencies.”

Theo’s eyes boggle, and he glances quickly around before grabbing me by the shirt collar and yanking me face-to-face. “Dude, that’s personal, remember?”

“Fine, fine,” I say, and loosen myself from his grip. I open Summer’s netbook. She’s still got her face pressed up against her webcam (or the webcam of whomever’s computer she’s using at the moment).

“Why don’t I have my netbook back already, Ernie?” she screams.

“Why don’t you calm down already!” I scream back. “Geez! I thought gymnasts didn’t get periods!”

“Um, excuse me,” the librarian calls out from behind her desk. “There’s no yelling in the library.”

The girl on the other side of me looks like I’m invading her space, and scoots her chair a few inches in the opposite direction.

“It’s not me,” I tell the librarian. “It’s the jockette here.” I point at the netbook screen.

The librarian frowns.

I nudge Theo in the ribs. “Hey.”

“What?” he asks.

“I need to borrow your laptop for a sec.”

He narrows his eyes. “What for?”

“So I can send Summer her laptop back.”

He pays the netbook a glance. “What are you doing with Summer’s laptop?”

“Duh! I’m sending it back to her.”

“Well, you can’t. I don’t have SMN installed.”

“Install it, then!”

Theo shakes his head. “No way. This is my work laptop.”

“Come on.”

“No, Ernie.”

“Come on.”

No.”

I sigh. “If you don’t, I’ll start having sex with the table.”

He looks at me, narrows his eyes…calls my bluff. “No.”

“Fine. Have it your way.” I grasp the tabletop with my hand, throw my head back, and start gyrating in my chair. I can hear several of the other students (Summer, too) gasping in disgust. “How long, Theo? How long are you going to let this go on? A minute? Five? Ten? Long enough for me to get my babies up inside this table so that, nine months from now, she’ll be giving birth to a whole litter of half-flesh, half-wood bastard tables that nobody will want because of the moral implications of human-furniture interbreeding—”

Theo’s resolve cracks; he slides his laptop in front of me. “Okay, okay! You can use my laptop—just stop humping the table!”

Placid Ernie mode activated.

I do my thing, downloading, installing, and launching SuperMegaNet. Then I set Summer’s netbook in front of Theo’s beast, click “Send Home,” and we’re good to go. The netbook winks out of existence.

“Oh, wow,” says the guy sitting across from me. “Did you just…how did you—?”

“Dude,” I say. “SuperMegaNet. Ultimate collaboration. Get with the times.”

On Theo’s screen, Summer is picking her netbook up, turning it over in her hands, scrutinizing the LCD for signs of fatness. When she’s satisfied I haven’t voided the warranty, she scowls at me one last time and walks away.

I slide Theo’s laptop back in front of him. I’m about to say thanks, but he’s not looking at me. He’s looking behind me.

I turn around; the librarian chick is standing over me, and she’s got an I-hate-you look on her face.

“Okay, you two,” she says to me, to Theo. “That’s quite enough. I want you both to go to the Principal’s office immediately.”

She hands each of us a pink slip.

Theo nearly chokes as he takes his. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I had nothing to do with this. I don’t even know who this fat-ass is! He just came and sat by me…” He trails off, realizing he’s just said “ass” to a teacher.

Mark my words: Theo may look all cute and innocent, but he’s got a temper.

Time for damage control.

“I apologize, ma’am,” I tell the librarian, scooping up Theo’s laptop, his books. “He’s kind of tightly-wound, if you know what I mean. I’ll make sure he gets to the Principal’s office safe and sound.”

Theo tries to set me on fire with his eyes as we make our way towards the entrance. “I’ve never had to go to the Principal’s office before. Thanks a lot, fat shit.”

Water douses fire. “You’ve got to watch that potty mouth, Junior. It’ll cause you nothing but trouble.”

Theo wrinkles up his nose.

I realize it’s because of the stink cloud hovering near the help desk.

“Ugh,” he gasps. “It smells like a fart in here.”

“It wasn’t me,” I lie.

Frosted Netbook

@jan

You know, I’ve had my suspicions before, but now I’m sure: Ernie is almost as much of a worrywart as Theo is. He just worries about different things, things that are inconsequential (and therefore unnoticeable) to the rest of us. Like the soda machine running out of cherry cola before lunchtime, ants infiltrating the stash of M&Ms in his locker, and, now, the possibility that he may be grounded off of SuperMegaNet for an undetermined amount of time. However, unlike Theo, who tires himself out at his mom’s gym everyday so that he simply doesn’t have the energy to worry anymore, Ernie’s approach is to medicate himself with food.

Chogurt, in this case.

I don’t really want to sit here and watch him convert calories to fat, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. High school kids don’t want to hang out with twelve-year-olds who have thick accents.

“Ernie,” I say, watching him dig chunks of chocolate out of his Mountain High tub, “I think an entire Hershey’s bar defeats the purpose of eating yogurt in the first place.”

“Shows what you know,” he snaps. “Yogurt has probiotic microbes in it. They digest all the sugar while I get to savor all the sweetness.”

“Um…I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“What do you know? Do they even have yogurt over in Brno?”

Yes.” I fold my arms, narrow my eyes. “And, for your information, they have running water and electricity, too!”

Ernie cradles his tub. “Yeah, well, good for the fucking Czechs and their post-war openness toward modern-day conveniences and premarital sex.”

I sigh. “You’re convinced your grandparents are going to tell you that you can’t use SuperMegaNet anymore, aren’t you?”

“They will.”

“Suppose they do, then. SMN can’t be uninstalled, remember? Not without a hammer, I’m guessing.”

“Or a bulldozer,” Ernie mumbles, and stuffs his mouth with another dollop of chogurt.

“Right,” I say. “Even if Theo’s parents tell our parents what we’ve been doing, and even if our parents end up punishing us, we can probably still find a way to use the program. And if we don’t, not having SMN isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”

“It’s a horrible thing!”

I roll my eyes. “I keep telling you, we live in the same city, we go to the same school. We don’t need SuperMegaNet.”

“But SuperMegaNet is ours. It’s our secret thing! You don’t know parents. You may think you know yours, but you don’t. They’re always working in the background, always doing things, moving pieces around on their parental chessboard. Mark my words, this very moment they’re swarming together to decide what to do about the chat software that’s turned their precious little Kounicova into an exhibitionist.”

“How am I an exhibitionist?”

“Come on. Conveniently falling asleep in your cute little lime-green undies that night Eva sneaked over?”

“It was hot—and I was tired. And I’ve worn pajamas to bed every night since then, just so you know.”

Ernie wags his wooden spoon at me. “Look, stop talking about yourself for a second and listen. We need to formulate our game plan.”

“I wasn’t talking about myself. I was pointing out that—”

“I’ve given it some thought,” Ernie interrupts, “and I’m not letting my grandparents get the drop on me. So, I took some proactive steps. You should, too.”

“What, like deleting the SMN shortcut icons from my desktop and Start menu?”

Ernie shakes his head, unzips one of the outer pockets of his backpack, pulls out a small Acer netbook. It’s pink; on the lid (which is partially covered by frost) is a decal of Shawn Johnson doing a split-leap during the 2008 Olympic Trials. “Let them take away my Internet privileges. Let them replace my computer with a life-sized Jesus statue. I’ll just use this netbook.”

“Ernie, that’s a girl’s laptop,” I tell him.

“Yep. I borrowed it from Summer.” He gives the Shawn Johnson sticker a good, hard look before opening the lid. “That Johnson girl is so hot. I could live inside her ass for a year.”

“That poor girl,” I say, shaking my head. “Lucky for her, you two will never meet.”

Ernie ignores me and starts working the touchpad. “I’ll just log Summer out of her SMN account—” He flinches suddenly. “Holy fuck.”

“What?” I ask. I can’t see the screen—but I don’t need to. Summer’s voice comes blaring through the laptop’s speakers loud and clear:

“Ernie! I should’ve known! You bring my laptop back right this instant or I’m going to—why’s my webcam picture so fuzzy? Is that…are those icicles?”

Ernie lowers his eyelids and waves his hand dismissively. “Relax, it’s just a little permafrost from my backpack.”

Summer’s voice raises several decibels. “You froze my computer?”

“I didn’t freeze it. It’s just a little cold. And besides, it’s only an Acer. If by some miracle I manage to break the thing, what’s that to you? A hundred bucks in couch cushion change?”

“But it’s mine!”

Frowning, Ernie says, “I thought you were an elite gymnast.”

“I am!”

“Well, there you go.”

“There I go what?”

“Everyone knows gymnastics is a rich white girl sport. That makes you a rich white girl who can easily afford to replace her puny little Acer netbook with one of the three or four Alienware laptops lying around your parents’ five-bedroom house.”

“Give me back my laptop, Ernie!” Summer screams, causing the laptop to jump in Ernie’s hands.

“I’m kind of at school right now,” he says.

“No excuses!”

“But I downloaded your laptop using my home computer. If I upload it from somewhere else, you’ll be getting a copy of the original—”

“I don’t care! Find a way!”

Ernie scoffs. He pushes the Mountain High tub toward me. “Here, cover for me.”

“Where are you going?” I ask as he gets up.

“If she wants it back so badly, I’ll just upload it to her using one of the computers in the school library. Let her deal with the rest, stupid flat-chested, cross-eyed, close-minded gurl!”

Before I can say anything else, he leaves the table, waddling angrily across the quad and shouting at Summer’s netbook at the top of his lungs.

Bože na nebi, he’s going to get himself thrown in detention.

Chogurt

@jan

“So, this is what it feels like to be on your way out,” Ernie sighs, sitting across from me at our usual lunch table. “To know your best days are behind you and yet to have to carry on as if anything you do from here on out will have the slightest significance—like Phil Collins after 1991.”

Wonderful. Another patented Monday afternoon Ernie Goodale Self-Pity Buffet. Not as gross as his usual cream-filled sponge cake inhalation ritual, but definitely twice as annoying.

“What are you talking about?” I ask (might as well be polite).

“I’m talking about our final days as SuperMegaNet users. I’m talking about Theo’s parents freaking out over what happened to him during the weekend. I’m talking about them calling your parents, Eva’s parents, my grandparents—”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about Theo, and Eva—”

“Don’t interrupt, Czech!” Ernie dabs at his sweaty brow with his shirtsleeve. I’ve never seen him so worked up over something not involving porn. “I’m talking about every legal guardian within a fifty-mile radius converging on a single Denny’s and laying out plans for the complete and total annihilation of SuperMegaNet!”

“Theo told his parents about SuperMegaNet?”

“You bet your European ass he did!”

I smirk. “So, he broke your little pact.”

Our pact! We’re all in this together! At least, we were supposed to be before our chinky computer nerd friend had a tattlegasm and laid everything out for his mommy and daddy!”

Makes sense. Not that I’ve been sitting around expecting Theo to be the first to blab; it just makes sense that if anyone blabbed first, it would be him. “What do you mean by ‘tattlegasm?’”

“I mean he pulled down his pants, jerked his meat until it was nice and raw, and then jizzed our secret all over his parents’ faces!”

“Why would he do that? The breaking our pact thing, that is. Not your twisted little fantasy about him masturbating in front of his parents.”

Ernie rolls his eyes. “Theo has hamster eyes. Geez, don’t you pay attention to anything?”

Hamster eyes? “Huh?”

“Apparently, he was jealous of you and how you’re like sex-glue to Bug Eyes. He couldn’t stand the thought of you plowing her first, so he got New Eyes last week. He thought he’d look less geeky without glasses, and would thereby be more attractive to her since jocks obviously make her giney tingle. But, stupid idiot he is, he got so worried that his parents would find out that he tried to get his old eyes back, and he ended up fucking his original eyes up period. But don’t tell him that I told you any of this.”

Wow. I didn’t know Theo liked Eva. “Is he okay?”

Ernie shrugs. “He’s got these special contacts. They don’t let him watch movies or see through girls’ skirts or anything, but I guess they’re better than nothing.”

I nod. I think I understand why Theo would want to stop using SMN—why our parents would want us to stop, too. It just makes weird kids weirder.

Ernie shakes his head woefully, removes a gigantic 64-ounce tub of Mountain High yogurt from his backpack, sets it on the tabletop.

What is that?” I ask, bewildered. Really, I’ve never seen anyone store an entire tub of Mountain High in their backpack until lunchtime.

“It’s yogurt,” Ernie replies. “Duh.”

You’re eating yogurt?”

“My grandparents are dead-set on having me lose weight. But I’m two steps ahead.”

He winks at me and reaches back into the pack, withdraws a Hershey’s chocolate bar, breaks it into a dozen or so chunks, and sets the chunks neatly on a napkin. He pops the lid off the yogurt container, fetches a wooden spoon, and starts stirring in the chocolate.

“Presto!” he exclaims after about a minute of careful ministrations. He holds out a gob for me to see. “Chogurt!”

The whole Theo/SuperMegaNet thing is momentarily gone from my mind as I watch Ernie avail himself of his new culinary creation. If you can call it that. “I’m amazed, Ernie. But is it safe to eat yogurt that’s been sitting in your backpack all morning?”

While continuing to eat, Ernie uses his free hand to tilt his open backpack toward me so that I can see inside. There are no books, no binders—just bagged ice.

Unbelievable.

A pair of older students passes our table. When they see what Ernie’s doing, they stop talking and merely stare, mesmerized.

I cover my face with my hand and wait for them to go away.

Sneaky Lip Maneuver

@ernie

“You’re late, Ernie,” Becky says, arms folded, freckles bunching angrily around her nose. It looks like she’s been folding my laundry to pass the time.

“Um…you’ve got red marker on your face,” I tell her.

She wipes the back of her arm across her forehead, and the ink disappears. “Don’t change the subject.”

I go over to my desk and drag one of my arms across the top, knocking empty soda cans and honey bun boxes onto the floor so as to make room for the nacho platter. “What subject?”

“You were supposed to meet me for breakfast this morning. You were supposed to be my Calorie Coach, remember?”

For fuck’s sake, not the diet thing again— “Oh, you were serious about that?”

“Um, yeah!”

Shit. I don’t really want to, but I turn around and face Becky, and, sure enough, she totally looks like she’s convinced herself that I’ve somehow fucked her day up.

She walks around me, putting herself between me and the desk. “I tried to tell my parents that I wanted to start watching my weight, but they didn’t listen—just like I knew they wouldn’t. ‘You’re too young to be thinking about things like diets!’ they told me. My dad said I was being silly, and my mom just piled more waffles onto my plate. I couldn’t help myself, Ernie. I ate everything. I wanted to vomit after. I’d broken my own promise—you’d broken your promise.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I say, jabbing my finger at her. “You may have asked me, in passing, to help you count a calorie here or there—the jury’s still out on that one—but I never made any promises.”

“Of course not! You never think about anyone but yourself!”

Lies! “That’s not true. I’m thinking about you right now.”

Becky looks hopeful. “Really?”

“Sure. I’m wondering when you’re going to upload back home and let me eat my dunch in peace.”

Storm clouds brew behind Becky’s eyes like some cheesy Hollywood effect. “Ernie, I…dunch?”

“Duh,” I say, rolling my eyes. “It’s the meal that’s between lunch and dinner.”

“That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as a meal between lunch and dinner.”

“Sure there is. It’s just like brunch, except it’s after noon and before five.”

“You can snack between lunch and dinner, you can have a late lunch or an early dinner, but there’s no actual meal between noon and five. That’s just stupid!”

“Meh,” I grunt, glancing past her and wondering if she’s the slightest bit aware that the cheese on my nacho platter is starting to congeal—and it hits me. I see what’s going on here. It’s a dominance thing. Becky can’t control her poundage, so she’s decided to try controlling me instead by placing herself in a position of power—between me and my food!

I grab her shoulders and move her out of the way. She stands off to the side, watches in grossed-out fascination as I avail myself of Tacoman’s glorious culinary handiwork.

“Don’t you see what you’re doing?” she asks quietly after I’ve devoured the topmost layer.

“What?” I ask her, my mouth full. “What am I doing?”

“You’re medicating yourself with food—you need this diet more than I do.”

“You make it sound like I’m snorting cocaine—”

“You clearly have an eating problem, Ernie!”

“And you clearly have an acute case of the nags!”

Becky goes quiet for a moment. Then she says, “I saw the photograph.”

“What photograph?” I ask.

“Look.”

I glance over my shoulder.

Becky pulls a piece of paper out of her jeans pocket, unfolds it. “I was bored waiting for you to get back, so I went on your computer for a while.” She holds the paper out for me to see. On it is a photograph of me and my parents from two years ago. They look so alive. And me, I’m so thin, so reasonably fit, a healthy ten-year-old—

Goddamnit! I knew I never should’ve given her my password! I grab the printout from her; I turn around again, angry, ready to attack the nacho platter with renewed vigor, but Becky grabs me, brings me face-to-face with her so that her pug nose is pressed into my cheek. She nibbles sloppily at my mouth, trying to find the right positioning—then she locks in, plants one on me like some kind of vacuum hose with eyes. Never mind that I’ve got sour cream on my lips and pinto bean skins stuck to my teeth; she’s got me in an air-tight lip-lock, one of those dirty ones where the girl basically jams her tongue down your throat and all you can do is grab onto her butt for support. It’s kind of gross…but it’s kind of cool. I mean, I’m kissing a girl. Even if it is just the Beckster.

After a while she breaks it off and steps back.

“Now,” she says, spitting a stray piece of tomato into her hand and frowning distastefully. “Wasn’t that better than nachos?”

I blink at her. “Are you trying to seduce me?”

“I’m trying to show you that there are other things worth your time, things beside food. And if you come on this diet with me, we can keep our mouths occupied in…other ways.”

She is trying to seduce me!

“I think you should know,” I say, “that offering your body to me in exchange for my going on your little diet makes you look really slutty.”

Becky throws her arms up in the air, exasperated. “Ernie, I’m not offering my whole body to you, I’m—oh, never mind! Are you going to be my Calorie Coach or not?”

“Can’t I coach your calories without touching my own? Sort of like how a P.E. teacher eats Subway while telling his students to run the mile?”

“Okay, bottom line,” Becky says. “Me or food. Choose.”

I want to help her. Kind of. But, well…nachos, you know?

My hand slides across the desk of its own accord, reaches for the computer mouse—

“Ernie! Don’t you dare!” Becky warns—

—but it’s too late. I’ve already clicked the “Send Home” button.

She vanishes.

I sit at my desk. I’ve still got the family photo in my hand. I look at it once more before grabbing another nacho. This one’s got two pinto beans and an olive slice on it that makes it look like a face. “Stupid girl,” I tell the nacho. “She thinks my eating is the result of some sort of repressed emotion, a shitty substitute for coping with the loss of my mom and dad in that freak Wal-Mart stampede. Doesn’t she know it’s because you taste so delicious?” I tickle the nacho with my tongue. “Yes, you do. Yes, you do!”

I resume my eating, subconsciously crumbling the family photo in my hand and dropping it into the wastebasket beside the desk.