Waiting for Theo

@eva

Okay, so he’s ignoring me. Maybe I overreacted with the whole “Ew!” thing, but he doesn’t have to ignore me. He’s not even at his computer anymore; he’s in the kitchen making small talk with his dad. He never makes small talk with his dad.

I sit at my computer a while, check my e-mail, my Facebook—I’m pretending I’m not actually waiting to see if Jan comes back so that I can…what? Apologize? Confront him? Throw myself at his knees and beg him to like me back? What’s wrong with me? I’ve never done this before. How do you tell if it’s love or infatuation? Why’s Jan so special? Why is he the one who’s activated this mushy alter-ego inside of me?

Ugh. I need to sound off on someone. I get up from my desk and pull off my warm-up jacket, kick off my sneakers and socks. Lily’s good at listening, but she’s not online right now. Neither is Summer—which is probably a good thing. I already know what she’d tell me if I mentioned my crush on Jan: “Sure, he’s got muscles, but he hasn’t got any direction. That usually means trouble, babe.” I don’t really know anyone else on SMN. Not well enough to talk about this kind of stuff. Offline, my parents are out of the question. They’d flip if they knew I was event thinking about boys. Ernie…absolutely not. Theo…hmm. Maybe. Too geeky for his own good, but sensitive. A good listener. He always seems to be the most fair-handed whenever an argument erupts during lunchtime.

I glance at his SMN window. He’s not home yet.

Darn it.

Someone knocks on my bedroom door.

“Yeah?” I call out.

“Homework, sweetheart,” my dad calls through the door. “And don’t forget to get washed up for dinner. Cordon Bleu tonight.”

“Okay, daddy.”

I’m not in the mood to shower right this instant, but it’ll give me time to think things over. And maybe Theo will be online by the time I’m done. I start to undress—I catch myself with my shirt halfway off, remembering the “always on” nature of SMN.

“Take it off, baby!”

I look at my computer screen. Ernie’s smiling at me and giving me a thumb’s up.

Scowling, I rearrange my shirt. I reach for a pair of shorts; I toss them over my webcam.

Ernie moans in disappointment. “Tease!”

“Screw you, Ernie,” I say, and glance at Theo’s messenger window again. “If you sneak over here while I’m in the shower I’ll clobber you!”

“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetness,” Ernie says. “I only download on girls with actual tits.”

It’s such a crude, Ernie-ish thing to say, but I’m not listening. I’m thinking to myself: Theo, where are you, darn it?

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Does Eva Really Like Me?

@jan

It’s really bothering me, what Ernie said about Eva’s liking me. I mean, it’s not as if I hadn’t noticed—but if it’s obvious to him that a Bug Eyes has a crush on me, then it must be obvious to a lot of other people, too. And I don’t know if I want that. To a lot of older kids it’s the most important thing in the world to be going with someone as soon as you start high school, but I don’t want to do that just to do it. I don’t need to fit in that badly. Not yet.

I’m going to confront her. I’ve been sitting here at my computer for an hour, waiting, doing homework, waiting. Finally I see motion in her webcam frame, her bedroom door opening, closing. She’s just gotten home. She smiles at me as she unloads her duffel bag.

Here I go.

“Hi, Eva,” I say.

“Hi, Jan,” she replies, and starts to say something else—

—I cut her off before my brain can impose any shyness on me. “Do you like me?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Do you, you know, like me?”

“Ew, no!” she exclaims, too quickly. Her face reddens; she seems to catch herself. “I mean…no, I don’t like you. What gave you that silly idea?”

“But I thought…” I trail off, puzzled. I wonder if I came off as too cocky, as if I’d expected her to like me. I wonder if maybe she never liked me at all, if maybe all this has been in Ernie’s head. Has it? “I, er, that’s okay, because I don’t like you either.”

We blink at each other. I can’t see my own face, of course, but I’m sure I’m blushing just as badly as she is.

After a moment, she says, “Um…okay.”

I’m flustered. I really don’t like like her, but I still like her, if you know what I mean. It’s on the tip of my tongue to clarify this, but the dreaded shyness has overcome me, and so I bury myself in my homework. A moment later, when my dad comes walking through the living room, I use him as an excuse to leave my nook, follow him into the kitchen. He’s talking about something, but I’m not listening to a word he’s saying. I’m wishing Ernie wasn’t so blunt so that I could talk to him in a meaningful way about Eva; I’m sneaking glances at my computer screen every few minutes and wondering when Theo is going to get home so I can perhaps ask him his opinion. It makes sense: he eyes her as much as she eyes me. Maybe there’s something to that. If he’d get home.

I poke my head into the living room. I can see his SMN messenger window is still dark. Ernie says his mom drags him to the gym after school. Why does he go, anyway? He’s not on any sports teams, and he always dresses in clothes that are two sizes too large for him. No point in working out like that if you’re going to cover up. He likes to hide, though.

But I’m not in the mood for hide-and-seek right now.

Theo! Where are you?

Your Friends Are Weird

@summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I love you, babe.”

“They’re harmless. Really, they are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva gives me an unconvinced look.

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

“Yeah—”

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

“I know the story, Summer—”

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

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

“It means—”

“I don’t want to know.”

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

Eva makes a face. “Why Theo?”

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

“He was not!”

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re using them as a crutch.”

“I am not.”

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

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

I’m such a little bitch.

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

“What happening?” I ask.

“Look at Ernie,” she replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“TTYL.”

Buddy List Party

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

* * *

@ernie

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

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

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

I wait.

Five thirty creeps around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit!

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

Shit!

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

Shit…?

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

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

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

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

Theo’s parents look questioningly at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She says nothing. She knows I’m right.

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

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

“You mean fat and obnoxious people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a pessimist!” Eva exclaims.

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

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

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

“Ew, no!”

“I meant Jan.”

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

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

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

“That won’t solve anything, Eva.”

She plays with her mouse. “Geez…”

“Geez what?”

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

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“It can be.”

“If you think negatively.”

Eva sighs. “I can’t go to the party.”

“Why not?”

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

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

Maybe. But the timing would never work.”

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

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

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

“Wait, so they know about SuperMegaNet?”

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

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

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

“Name it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why two?” she asks.

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

“I have more than two friends.”

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

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

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

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

Haw-haw.”

“When do we download?”

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

Fuck yeah.

“Jan,” I say.

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

“Upload to Theo’s place.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The gym? You work out?”

“Yeah.”

“Damn.”

“What?”

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

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

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

Eva and her friends.

(Jan’s made it up to his knees.)

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

Theo starts to answer—

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

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

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

“Ahem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you, they’re cool.”

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lily nods. “I know. Isn’t it freaky?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that really necessary?” asks Eva.

I shrug. “Meh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”

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

“You don’t need to be sarcastic.”

“I’m the fat kid. Of course I do.”

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

“Your turn,” Theo says softly.

I get up. I assume the position.

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

“Woo-hoo.”

“It’ll work out better next time.”

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

We’re all still stuck.

“Goodnight,” I mumble.

Theo sends me home.

SuperMegaNet 2.4 is Late

Ernie – Hi, everyone. Ernie here with the unfortunate news that the latest episode of my series, SuperMegaNet, is late. What a freakin’ surprise (not!). Jesse says his laptop’s broken, but I happen to know that he does all his writing at home, on his main PC. It’s obvious he’s full of shit. “Next week,” I keep hearing. He’s way behind schedule, and so he’s made up this half-assed story about the CPU cooling fan on his Acer (who the hell buys an Acer in the first place?) wonking out. Apparently this hasn’t stopped him from posting a handful of worthless blogs all throughout the week. I mean, that crayon picture? A couple of cliched opinion pieces about the publishing industry dying? Pickup lines? Are you serious? What kind of pathetic attempt at stuffing your Google rank is this? You want a pickup line, Jesse? How about, “Do you like sledgehammers? Good, because I’ve been looking for someone to crack open my writer’s block.”

Theo says I’m overreacting. I’m not. He may be able to spend his in-between time meditating in a Yogi trance, but I’m not for that New Age comfort zone stuff. I’m out of work. We all are until Jesse gets his ass back on track. You know what happens to out of work characters? They spend their free time in fucking purgatory. Think of it as the green room from hell where the soda’s flat, the Doritos are under-flavored, and there are only two DVDs available: Anchorman and Step Brothers.

I’m done for. Jan’s not saying anything, but I can tell from the way he’s staring lifelessly off into space that he’s ready to strangle himself with his own shoelaces—but you still have a chance. You can leave your computer, go out for the rest of the day, follow hot chicks in the mall as they drop their cell phones and bend over to pick them up again. If you must continue browsing the Web, I’d highly recommend you go visit another blog, one whose author knows how to deliver on time.

(By the way, Eva’s PMSing over the sneaking-into-Jan’s-room thing, so don’t expect her to answer any fan mail.)

I Can’t Believe He Said That

@eva

Ernie’s sour attitude is sucking the life out of an otherwise sunny, blue-skied Friday afternoon.

“What kind of school is this?” he cries, and plops himself across the table from me. Beside him, Theo scowls and makes room.

“What’s the matter?” asks Jan.

“A couple of idiot boys in my English class stole my cell phone and were looking through my pictures. They saw the Playboy chicks I have on there and told the teacher I was looking at porn during class! So the teacher took my phone away and told me to behave!”

“That’s your fault,” Theo points out, “for keeping pictures of naked women on your cell phone.”

“It’s my phone,” Ernie says. “I should be able to keep anything I want on there!”

“All I’m saying is—”

“No one questioned those ass-wipes stealing my shit! They’re the ones who misbehaved. Just because I have naked chicks on my phone doesn’t mean I look at them during class time. I had those pics on there at my old school, too, and no one ever took my phone. Kids were mature about things like that. These goddamned high schoolers…they just want to make it obvious that I don’t fit in.”

“None of us fits in,” I say, trying to be comforting simply because I don’t like the other students looking at our table whenever Ernie yells something. This first week at Boca Linda has been easy for me. The boys have been busy hitting on girls their own age; the girls treat me as one of their own. From a distance, yes—but no one has bullied me. That’s a guy thing. “Tell me it was any better when we were with kids our own age.”

Ernie seems not to hear. “They think I’m so fucking amusing because of my weight. Theo’s probably picked on because of his glasses, Jan because of his accent. And if you had boobs, Eva, they’d probably be too saggy or lopsided. Everyone’s a critic around here.”

I nearly choke on my apple juice, that uppity voice in the back of my head exclaiming, “He did not just make fun of my flatness!”

I clear my throat. “You’ve got boobs—is that what they say about them?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Theo tries to hide his laughter.

Jan (perhaps on purpose, perhaps not) draws attention away from my insult: “Did you do anything to provoke the boys who stole your phone?”

“No!” Ernie pauses. “Well, I might have said something beforehand.”

“What did you say?” asks Theo.

Ernie rolls his eyes. “They were talking nonstop about their girlfriends. Annoying shit like, ‘I swear I was doing her so hard I ruptured her cervix when I came.’ So I turned around and said, ‘Maybe if you didn’t stick your dick into every random girl who breezed by it wouldn’t burn when you pee in the morning and you wouldn’t have to spend your weekends waiting in line at the free clinic.’”

Jan giggles. “That’s pretty funny.”

“That’s rude,” I correct, though I’m charmed by Jan’s laughter, intoxicated by his toothy smile. And, truthfully, Ernie’s statement isn’t without merit.

“Yeah,” Ernie says, “but they were asking for it—and I’m the one who gets punished. Apparently talking about monster cocks and cervices during class is far more acceptable than my having some inappropriate pics stored away on my cell phone.” He digs into his backpack, pulls out a box of peanut butter wafers, a bag of M&Ms, and a can of soda. He slams each item on the tabletop in succession. “Fuck them all.”

Theo looks at the snacks with a worried expression. “That’s your lunch?”

(Theo’s what you’d call a health nut. When it comes to food, he shops exclusively at the local Vitamart, where everything is organic—which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except that he tends to fret way too much over other people’s eating habits. Sort of a “you shouldn’t eat that because it’s bad for you” thing. It bugs me.)

“Did you rob a convenience store?” I ask Ernie.

“Har-har,” he replies, flicking me off. He faces Theo and Jan. “Actually, check this out. This pedophile guy downloads into my bedroom, right? He’s got a privacy screen with him, but it isn’t working—the fucking perv is standing there naked and trying to get his jollies watching me sleep. I catch him in the act and he loses it, starts groveling at my feet not to tell. So, I strike a deal: he has to supply me with unlimited snacks or else I’ll go to the police.”

I don’t usually resort to metaphorical descriptions, but dead silence literally falls over the table like an oppressive fog (Theo even waves his hand in the air, as if trying to chase some of it away). Ernie’s beaming with pride, but the rest of us are aghast.

After a moment I find my voice: “You’re blackmailing a pedophile?”

Ernie shrugs, pops a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. “We have an agreement.”

“Even though he’s a sexual deviant.”

“His problem, not mine.”

“Ernie, you’re twelve years old. You’re his type. It might very well become your problem!”

“He wouldn’t dare touch me.”

“That’s all good and well,” I say, “but we’re on your buddy list, too. What if he takes a liking to one of us?”

“Relax. He only likes boys.” Ernie ruffles Theo’s hair; Theo swats back. “If Robbie takes a liking to anyone, it’ll be Theo here.”

The dire expression on Theo’s face says it all: I don’t want to wake up with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile snuggled up beside me!

“You’re an idiot, Ernie,” I say. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”

Ernie snorts—and catches me completely off guard with his next statement. “No more so than your sneaking into Jan’s bedroom the other night.”

Dead silence.

Again.

Ernie is gorging himself on wafers, taking them two at a time; this spectacle is secondary to what Theo and Jan are shooting me: two perfectly composed expressions of, “What the hell?” Gradually I hear a slight choking beside me. Jan is reaching somewhere deep inside his impeccably placid facade for a handful of outrage.

“I can’t believe you spied on me!” he cries.

I disregard him out of necessity, aim my wrath squarely at Ernie. “I can’t believe you said that!”

Ernie, between gulps of carbonated corn syrup: “I can’t believe you’re a voyeur.”

Ugh! I want to leave this instant, but I won’t give Ernie the pleasure of knowing he’s pissed me off. Suddenly the rest of my turkey sandwich is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted, and I avail myself of it, head bowed, eyes on my napkin.

The others are talking about me as if I’m not even here:

“Are you serious? She was…she was in my room?”

“Yeah, man. That first night we all got together. But don’t worry, she didn’t take photos or anything. Not that I noticed. Nice undies, by the way.”

“Wait—you were watching her watch me?”

“Your webcam was on.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up or something?”

“I was captivated by your undies.”

“Ugh! You’re as bad as she i
s!”

An uneasy silence passes between us. No doubt we’re all thinking the same thing: SuperMegaNet has turned us into a bunch of voyeurs—and Ernie is friends with a pedo.

And Jan will probably never speak to me again.

Ernie belches loudly, and I look up. “You guys are still on for tonight, right?”

“What’s tonight?” Theo asks.

“Duh. My buddy list party.”

“Are you sure there’s room for us and your 213 friends?” I ask, bitter, unable to help myself.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s going to be great. Tell Summer to come—her and any other lovelies on your list. Theo, you can bring that Beta fellow.”

Theo cringes. “You were spying on me, too?”

“Oh, come on, guys!” Ernie exclaims. “This is the nature of the program! Of course we’re going to see each other changing for school or blasting farts in our sleep. So what? We’re roommates. What if we were in college together? Would you still be overreacting like this?” When he gets nothing from the others, he taps my hand, smearing peanut butter on my knuckles. “Are you coming tonight, Eva?”

I grab my things and leave the table.

Fuck you, Ernie.

I never wanted to be your friend anyway.

Red Bull Gives You Broken Wings

@ernie

It’s not like you don’t know any better. I mean, you installed the SMN client on your computer. You don’t install a social networking program unless you intend to network, right? Right. So don’t get your panties in a knot when someone new drops by.

That’s what’s going through my mind as I materialize in amber268’s bedroom, as she looks at me and screams, drops her hair brush. I’ve brought a box of SnackWell’s with me as a gift, but she doesn’t seem to care as she backs away from her computer and stands holding her towel around herself.

It seems I’ve caught her just out of the shower.

“Hello, darling,” I say, trying not to stare at her legs.

She points at her computer. “Fuck off!”

“That’s no way to treat a fellow SMN user.”

“I don’t care! Get lost!”

“Really, now. My feelings are hurt.”

“Ugh! Little boy, didn’t your parents ever teach you to knock?”

I shrug. “My parents are dead. And besides, this is the Internet. There are no doors. Here…” I open the cookie box. “Have one.”

Amber blinks, looks the slightest bit sorry. I’m imagining what she looks like without the towel. “Is that true?”

“What, the doors thing or my parents being dead?”

“Your parents.”

“Yeah, it’s true. They died when I was little. Black Friday stampede.”

“That’s so sad!”

“Yeah,” I say. Most people react like that when I tell them about my parents. If my timing had been better, Amber might have let me snuggle up against her bosom and “talk” about it. “I’m still dealing with the trauma. My shrink says it’s important to work on my intimacy, supplement what I haven’t been getting from my parents.”

Amber cocks her head, fathoming—but, as I mentioned, my timing is off. She’s still pissed that I’m here, and it only takes a moment for her to recover her attitude.

Pointing again at her computer, she says, “Go away.”

“Fine.” Go back to shaving the barnacle from between your legs, or whatever it was you were doing before I got here.

I upload back home, sit at my desk, the SnackWell’s box propped on my knees.

It’s almost midnight.

Click.

I should probably finish my homework—but instead I pop the tab to another Red Bull.

Click-click.

I swallow another dose of caffeine.

I move on down the list in a state of denial, a part of me screaming bloody murder because I’ve very nearly visited every one of my 213 “buddies” and I haven’t anything to show for it (Theo, Eva, and Jan don’t count—they’re the defaults). I figured there’d be more of a sensation to the whole SMN thing. So far, no one gives a rat’s ass about fat little Ernest Goodale. No one cool, anyway. No one old enough to drink or buy porno. It’s like having a MySpace full of people you never talk to, and it’s annoying the hell out of me.

Even more annoying: the fact that the SuperMegaNet “Make Friends” interface is so surprisingly simple. Simple, but not easy. It’s really just a table of thumbnailed, real-time video feeds. There are users logged in from all over the world, some talking, others typing, writing, eating, drinking, singing, playing guitar, performing acrobatics, kissing, having sex—anything goes, it seems (the sex displays never last long, though, which leads me to believe there’s some sort of moderation system in place). My favorites are the college girls. I’ve filtered my search results to include only females, ages eighteen to twenty-two…and I’m realizing with each rejection that online women are exactly like offline women: the prettier you are, the more likely it is that you’re a bitch. Still, you’re my yummy favorites, and, like a fool, I keep trying.

I discover the SMN skins feature on accident. I should know better, I should recognize the warning signs—I should have read the help page before trying to make friends with all my buddies. It’s hard. From my perspective, I’m about to visit an enthusiastic brunette with humongous boobs and an empty dorm room.

“Sure, c’mon over,” she says after we’ve exchanged pleasantries. She beckons to me via the video chat window. “My roommates are out for the night, and I’m so bored.”

Jackpot! screams my libido.

Too easy! Danger, danger! screams my conscience.

Shut up, I tell them both. My virginity salutes me, says it’s been an honor serving me, and prepares to bail out. As soon as I finish downloading, however, I know I’ve been had. My busty brunette turns out to be an overweight oaf of a man wearing the most horrific mullet I’ve ever seen. He says that his name’s Brian and that he’s having a sucker party.

“pwned!” his friends shout, pronouncing the “p” with gusto. They snap my photo, point, laugh. They begin to chant: “Fat kid gonna get some! Fat kid gonna get some!”

Now I’m really pissed. I want to punch everyone in the face. I want to overturn the furniture. I want to rip the mullet from Brian’s scalp and banish it back to the horrific dimension from which it was conjured.

While all this is going through my head, Brian sends me home. It takes a full five minutes for me to notice the change in scenery. Afterward, sitting at my computer and angrily clicking here and there, it’s another five minutes before I realize I can’t seem to remove the bastard from my buddy list.

I open the SMN help file, which looks like it was thrown together at the last minute. Typos abound, and some pages are missing altogether. There is no mention of adding / removing buddies. Skins are briefly described:

Skins are a beta feature of SuperMegaNet. Using the Skins add-on, you can alter your digitized appearance, including hair style, eye and skin color, height, weight, build, and more. Currently, this only works in video chat, but with version 1.0 you can expect skins to function throughout your SMN experience. Finally, you can be who you always wanted to be!

I hold my head in my hands.

Fuck Brian and his gay posse. Fuck SuperMegaNet.

I’m so deep in self-pity that I don’t hear her materialize—not that I would, even if I’d been paying attention. This isn’t Star Trek; there’s no chiming or ringing or cheesy flickering lights, only the something-from-nothing sound of clothes rustling behind me, a muffled greeting:

“Um…hi.”

I swivel around in my chair, inadvertently knocking an empty soda can onto the floor. It rolls across the carpet and stops at the sneakered feet of a girl who’s just downloaded herself into my room. She’s carrying a grocery bag.

I want to tell her off, but am too exasperated to give her more than, “Who are you?”

The girl is slow to respond. It looks like she’s having a hard time getting the words out. It’s probably her first time downloading. “I’m Becky. I, um, saw what happened to you, and…I felt so bad I…I thought you could use a friend.”

Yeah, yeah. Rub it in. “I haven’t had the best of luck with this SuperMegaNet bullshit just yet.”

“Tell me about it,” Becky laughs, nervously. “The whole thing is a popularity contest, just like at school.”

I study her. She’s fat, like me, freckled, and has a pig nose—and her laugh sounds like chocolate frosting. Th
ick and gooey. I don’t know how else to describe it. She must eat a lot of dairy. However, she does have several things going for her: she’s my age, she’s actually come to me in search of friendship—

—and she’s brought snacks.

“Ginger snaps are my favorite,” she says as she sits cross-legged on the floor with me. She empties her bag; the space between us becomes cluttered with junk food. “The fruit bars are good, too.”

I’m speechless. I grab a ginger snap. And a fruit bar. And more.

I totally forget about pretty college girls.

This must be what it feels like to fall in love.

Between the Chapters: An Interview with the SuperMegaNet Cast

Theo, Ernest, Jan, and Eva. They’re the latest literary darlings to hit the blogosphere, the core of Jesse Gordon’s new SuperMegaNet series—and they’ve taken a few moments out of their busy schedule to talk about SuperMegaNet, jockettes, and life in general.

What is SuperMegaNet all about?

Theo: Well, a lot of things.

Ernest: Good answer.

Jan: Yes, very concise.

Theo (glaring): Hey, lay off. What I mean is, SMN—that’s short for SuperMegaNet

Ernest: Duh.

Theo: —isn’t about any one thing. Sure, there’s the back story about four kids who get tangled up in each other’s lives after installing a beta program on their computer. The first few episodes set this up, but after that it’s kind of more about life in general. The SMN thing is just the springboard on which Jesse presents his ideas regarding life and technology.

Ernest: It’s also an excuse to shit on us as much as possible.

Eva (nodding): Jesse likes to embarrass his characters. Look at anything he’s done and you’ll find a naked person somewhere along the way—though I suspect he’ll keep us in our undies since we are playing 12-year-olds.

Jan, you’ve already had two underwear scenes, correct?

Jan: Yes. The first time was when I was downloading into Theo’s room and Ernie decided to prank me. The second was when I was sleeping and Eva kind of spied on me.

Was it embarrassing?

Jan: Oh, very. In situations like that I just keep reminding myself that it’s fiction.

The SMN ensemble has made it through five episodes and one “spacer”. Do you think you’ll make it to ten? Twenty?

Ernest: Reader response has been abysmal so far. Clickheads, the last blogfic I worked on, was an instant hit because you knew what it was all about from episode one. The writers did that on purpose—they knew how to get the most out of their online readers’ brief attention spans. SMN is like, “Whatever, whenever.” I think that’s the official tagline, too. Five episodes in and even I’m wondering where the hell it’s going. To be honest, I don’t think we’ll make it past episode six. Jesse is known for not finishing what he starts. But I’m there for him until he calls it quits. And if this thing works out, it could be really cool.

Is it safe to say you’re a pessimist?

Ernest: I’m a realist. People often mistake that for pessimism.

What’s it like being professional characters?

Eva: You never know what’s next. One day you might get a call to play a 40-year-old housewife, the next they want you to be a middle-schooler. You have to dye your hair, or you have to gain weight, or lose weight, or regress age-wise—or go forward 20 years. It just depends.

Ernest: I did some work for Terry Pratchett years ago, and I’ve become typecast as the fat kid ever since, though sometimes I get to play characters that don’t “wobble,” if you get my drift.

Jan, you too have done this sort of thing before, haven’t you?

Jan: Yes. I played the part of John in Heroes’ Day.

Also by Jesse Gordon.

Jan: Yeah. I guess he liked what I did, and so he asked me back for SuperMegaNet.

What was Heroes’ Day like?

Jan: It was tricky. They wanted me to be sort of the tall, dark, and handsome boy. I had to be smooth, but I had to be uncertain as well. I also had to work out a lot—I had to look like a gymnast. I did a lot of my own stunts, and all of my own accidents (laughs). But I got to kiss the girl, so it wasn’t all bad.

Can you give an insight as to what’s in store for SuperMegaNet 1.6 and beyond?

Theo: New characters will be introduced—Jack SQL, for one. He’s a kind of disembodied AI that’s part of the SuperMegaServer. And some leftovers from Heroes’ Day who’ll be playing Eva’s so-called “jockette” friends.

Ernest: I hate jockettes.

Oh?

Ernest: They’re too cocky. All that training and competing—they don’t know how to turn it off when they’re hanging with you at the pizza joint.

Theo: Do jockettes even go to pizza joints?

Eva: No, they stick to Jamba Juice.

Ernest, does your apathy in this area affect your on-page relationship with Eva?

Ernest: No. Eva’s a jockette, but she’s cool with us. Summer, her best friend, is the overbearing know-it-all.

When will we meet her?

Ernest: Never, with any luck.

SuperMegaNet deals a lot with cyber life. How computer-savvy are you?

Ernest: Theo’s actually a geek, no shit. He’s got this laptop bag he carries around with him. Between blog entries he plays MMORPGs. Jesse decided to use his actual screen name for the series.

Which is?

Theo: ‭l33t_master.

Eva (snickering): He reads a lot of Megatokyo.

Jan: He thinks he’s l33t.

Do readers have to be l33t in order to “get” SuperMegaNet?

Ernest: Not at all. As Theo hinted, it’s really just about four kids growing up together in an unusual way and working through their problems. Theo’s got insomnia issues, and his mother is a tree-hugger—and his dad is Chinese. His mother is Russian. Me, I’m battling with obesity. Eva has a crush on Jan, but he’s clueless. And so forth.

Sum up SuperMegaNet in one word.

Ernest: Super.

Theo: Mega.

Eva: Um…net? (laughs)

Jan: Damn. You guys took all the cool words.

The Morning After

@eva

It could have been much worse. I mean, being grouped together with three idiotic boys to collaborate on homework assigned by a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking guidance counselor should have resulted in a total disaster. On any other day in any other town, it would have been a skewered reiteration of the obvious fact that the four of us are “gifted” and in dire need of lives. But we’ve beaten the odds. We’ve bypassed all that is awkward and uncomfortable about the First Day of School—and in a way that has completely changed my regard toward computers. I mean, I’ve heard of Moore’s law, I know the power of modern-day computer circuits is increasing exponentially, but a program that can turn people’s webcams into teleportation devices—that’s genius. Inconceivable. As mind-boggling as it was a hundred years ago to imagine that one day entire symphonies would be stored on cheap plastic discs.

SuperMegaNet is that next amazing thing. I don’t know how it works, but it does. I was there. In Theo’s home and, later, in Ernie’s…in Jan’s. And now I’m back at school, blinking in the dim, smoky light of Mrs. Thrailkill’s office as she goes over our questionnaires. My ordinary, mediocre life has become a dream within a dream. I don’t think I mind. I don’t think any of us minds. Each of us is tired, swollen from lack of sleep, but nevertheless beaming as we sit and wait. We’ve gotten to know each other by now, and not just because we finished our paper assignment. That came later, once each of us had finally returned home to get what little sleep there was to be had (I actually scribbled in my answers during breakfast). The real assignment lay in the populating of our respective buddy lists. I filled mine with friends from my old school: Susie, Summer, Maria, and Lily. The SMN “invite” feature let me e-mail each of the girls a copy of the installer. Once they got past the “this is a prank, isn’t it?” phase, they added me, too, and set up dates and places where we could meet in person. Theo did the same with several of his friends; Ernie (I know his name is Ernest, but he’s cool with the nickname—and besides, his maturity level is more “Ernie” than “Ernest”) and Jan followed suit.

Oh, Jan. I think of him now, tuning out whatever Mrs. Thrailkill is saying as I recall last night. For a moment I’m back in Theo’s bedroom. We’re all dressed down for the night. Sadly, Jan has put a shirt on. I felt so bad when Ernie pulled his pants down, but I enjoyed it, too. I mean, he really looks good all over, and I’m replaying the memory back in my head every chance I get. The whole night Theo’s being really nice to me, probably because I’m the girl. He seems to have some sort of obligation to put me on a pedestal—it’s flattering and annoying, and I find myself mostly ignoring him, mostly watching Jan. I can do this uninterrupted because Theo’s parents respect his privacy—but he’s a boy. I’m my daddy’s little girl, so I’m always being checked on, my dad sticking his head inside my bedroom at regular intervals and asking me, “How’s my little girl?” I always have to pretend I’m doing homework—it’s a hassle, and I wonder how I’m going to manage my SMN time without getting caught.

For now I’m allowing the risks. You’d do the same if you were me. At midnight I tell everyone goodnight, and download myself back home. It feels naughty, like I’m swimming naked in a pool full of ice cubes—not that I’ve ever done anything like that before. And not that I’m a prude either. I have nothing against those old people who run the nudist camp down at Moon River. Swimming naked in a pool filled with ice cubes is merely an approximation. I wouldn’t mind if Jan were with me.

I can’t believe what I’m about to do. Surely I’m going to get caught. I don’t even know why I’m doing it, sitting here at the computer in my mind’s eye, physically at school but mentally curled up amongst the dozen or so life-sized The Nightmare Before Christmas dolls that fill my bedroom. I’m watching, waiting for Jan to return home. When he does, I totally feel like a voyeur, for he leaves his webcam on as he shimmies out of his clothes and plops himself into bed. I wait for him to fall asleep before clicking “Visit.”

At first I think I’m in a large bedroom, but then I realize it’s a living room—Jan’s room is his parents’ living room. He has a futon tucked beside a small desk, with a dresser acting as a makeshift privacy screen (his parents get the bedroom, I’m guessing). I stand very still; my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I can see him laying sprawled between the sheets, his darling bottom clad in lime-green briefs.

My goodness. The Internet has brought out the worst in me. Here I am standing over an almost-naked boy I’ve just met, and yet I’m not caring as I’m imagining him a man, watching him sleep with his arms around his pillow—I’m wishing he was cuddling with me instead. I have to force myself to look away. Go back home, I tell myself. This isn’t right.

I can’t budge, though. In the glow of the computer screen I can make out the murky details of Jan’s space. There are dumbbells on the floor beside his backpack. I move closer to the desk and spot a variety of bodybuilding magazines stacked atop a dozen or so black and white printouts of some naked female bodybuilder named Rivieccio. Ernie had made fun of his affinity for Amazonian women, but I think it’s cute. Jan likes his women strong. I’m strong. Not musclebound, but sturdy. I’d always considered my build an unfortunate side effect of being on the wrestling team, but now…

My mind merges itself with the present-tense once again. I look at Theo, Ernie, and Jan through the carcinogenic haze of Thrailkill’s office. Everyone looks like hell. It’s been a long night. I don’t know how we’ve managed to get our assignment done. I glance over Ernie’s shoulder; his list on Jan reads:

  1. Czech
  2. Poor
  3. Has a girl’s name
  4. Likes to bone steroids chicks
  5. Has a shitty DSL connection

That fat-ass. What does he know? Jan is gorgeous. Sure, he’s frizzy, clothes loose-threaded—even his dollar store dye job has made his hair look orange instead of blond—but he’s still gorgeous. I think I’m in love. I shouldn’t feel like this, should I? I’m only twelve. It’s wrong and it’s right and I don’t know what to make of it.

“My ex-husband loved Asia,” Thrailkill snorts, bringing me back into focus. “Loved it so much he decided to marry a flight attendant after one weekend in Shanghai.” She glares at Theo. “But it’s not your fault your favorite band chose such a pretentious name.”

* * *

The euphoria wears off around lunchtime. Part of it is the fact that I’m really starting to feel the effects of last night’s SMN binge, but mostly it’s the dawning audacity of me being a ninth grader. Everyone else is taller than me. The girls have hips, boobs—and boyfriends. Their clothes are too small. I step into the Boca Linda cafeteria and it’s bare midriffs and butt cracks galore. I’m quite out of place in my jogging suit and sneakers. I feel like an uninvited guest at a masquerade party.

Walking past the jocks staging arm-wrestling matches with each other, past the nerds playing Nintendo DS, the theater queens rehearsing their lines, past the Goths counting down the minutes until their next act o
f self-mutilation, past the svelte California boys wearing the form-fitting “I was fucked over by Prop 8” T-shirts, I find my friends.

Theo waves to me, makes room for me to sit.

We’re no longer on assignment, but we stick together anyway because we know it’s pointless to try to make friends with the older kids—or to sit alone at opposite ends of the cafeteria while brooding over our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We must look like fetuses to the others,” Theo says.

With peanut butter smearing his chin, Ernie adds, “Or circus freaks.”

Jan rests his head on the tabletop. Behind him, at the next table, a group of shaggy senior boys is giving us a “Who are you supposed to be?” kind of look.

“Fuck them,” says Ernie. “Let them smoke their cigarettes and feel each other up between class—we don’t need them. We’ve got SuperMegaNet.”

It’s a silly thing to say. Ernie looks like he means it, but I can tell there’s a trace of resentment in his voice. I want to change the subject, talk about my classes, my teachers. It won’t do any good, however. Physically we’re here, but socially we’re not. I’m feeling it through and through. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if I’m someone’s younger sister, or if I’m lost. When I show off my class schedule, I get a stupid smile in return. I’m cute, they all say. I’m special.

“I noticed last night that you all left your webcams on,” I mention after several minutes of quiet eating. “What time did you guys go to sleep?”

“Sleep is for the dead,” Ernie says, and pops open a Red Bull. (That’s his lunch: Red Bull—and Doritos.)

Theo looks curious. “Did you guys have trouble shutting off your computers, too?”

Jan lifts his head, concerned.

“Yeah,” says Ernie. “I was too tired to figure it out, though.” He glares at Theo. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“You’re the geek, aren’t you? What’s wrong with our computers?”

Theo looks thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe SuperMegaNet is an ‘always on’ kind of thing. Like how certain games or media players disable your screensaver when you use them.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t just disabling our screensavers,” I say, “it’s keeping us from turning our computers off.”

“It could be a failsafe.”

“How’s that?” asks Ernie.

“Well, it’s probably not a good thing to have our computers turn off during a download—or before we’re able to return home.”

“So…so we have no more privacy, then?” asks Jan.

Theo adjusts his glasses. “Not as long as we’re using SuperMegaNet, I’m guessing.”

Jan swallows hard. “You mean…?”

“Yes,” says Ernie. “I’m afraid we’ll be seeing a lot more of your lime-green undies.”

I laugh, but it’s a forced sound, now that my brain is entertaining the possibilities. Oh, God—what if Theo or Ernie had seen me sneaking into Jan’s room? I study them both from behind my juice box, looking for hints, clues—thankfully Ernie starts talking about himself.

“I’m throwing a party,” he announces, emptying the rest of the Doritos bag into his mouth. “You guys are invited. You too, Eva.”

I scowl.

“When?” asks Jan.

“Friday night.”

“Your parents are cool with it?” asks Theo. “Or are we going to have to whisper the entire time?”

“I live with my grandparents,” says Ernie. “They stay out of my business, I stay out of their medicine cabinet.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing special. Just a buddy list party.”

“So, that’s…me, Jan, and Eva.”

“For your information,” says Ernie, “while you losers slept like little girls—no offense, Eva—I was networking.”

Jan asks, “How many buddies do you have?”

“213.”

“You don’t know 213 people!” Theo exclaims.

“No, but after this weekend’s shindig, I’ll be the talk of the town.”

I shake my head. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous adding random people to your buddy list—especially now that we know you can’t just turn off your SuperMegaNet connection?”

Ernie waves his hand dismissively. “Hey, you’ve got to meet people to make friends. I’m networking. And if worst comes to worst, I can always unplug the fucking power cord.”

“I suppose you’re right,” says Theo. “Still…”

“Oh, there he goes again with the worrying!” Ernie rolls his eyes and winks at Jan. “Just wait till he’s getting a lap dance from a busty college chick with a thing for bottle-end glasses. Then he’ll understand the true power of the Internet.”

What a pig. I want to chide him for being so crude, but I’m too busy scolding myself over last night’s transgression—

—I hope to God I haven’t been caught.

Tips for 2:00 A.M.

Lame excuse window

@theo

Sleep deprivation.

Yummy.

It’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m laying sprawled on my bed.

But I’m also sitting in a chair at the center of my bedroom. There are images flickering between the shadows, sounds echoing between my ears. I think I’m asleep…or else I’m hallucinating. Maybe a little of both. Someone—Ernest’s afterimage, perhaps—is putting on a record, which is strange because I don’t own a turntable.

“You Can Do Magic,” by America, starts playing.

I try to say, “Quit touching my stuff, Ernest.” Instead, it comes out, “Quee touth mm sluh, Unsth.”

Ernest crouches beside me, gives me a wet willy. “I told you to call me Ernie.”

Damn it. He’s getting crumbs on my floor. I can see them now as they dance across the room. I want to clean them up, but I can’t budge. I’m certain now that I’m not yet fully asleep but caught in that purgatory of the mind that often accompanies insomnia. I get like this often. I’ve always had trouble falling asleep. Two-thirds of any given night is usually spent staving off much-needed REM. In effect, I’m power-napping, but not actually sleeping.

It’s pissing me off. Why can’t I just take sleeping pills? Oh, that’s right, they’re not natural. My mom’s already had this discussion with me. She’s a homeopath. Herbs, aromatherapy, and acupuncture are her tools of the trade. She’s been practicing natural on me for twelve years and the best she can come up with for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT.

Learning the hard way.

I sigh. It’s just like a finger puzzle, I tell myself: the harder I try to sleep, the more agitated I become. But if I let the imagery distract me from trying to fall asleep, if I concentrate on not concentrating…well, you see why I sometimes wish I could pop some pills and be done with it. Tricky stuff.

For now, I convince myself I’m watching a movie. The chair beneath me reshapes itself into a plush recliner; the furniture in my room has been fitted with wheels—everything is flat as cardboard, like cheap props in a high school play. My things are wheeled away, replaced with Ernie’s things: bed, dresser, numerous shelves stacked with Maxim magazines, bottle caps, baseball cards, Carl’s Jr. plastic tickets, movie theater stubs. On the floor: forgotten underwear, socks, potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and, ironically, a copy of the Little Hercules Hollywood Workout for Kids DVD. I laugh, remembering how funny it was the first time I saw it.

“You know darn well,” Ernie lip-syncs angrily, “when you cast your spell you will get your way…”

Jan and Eva look at each other and shrug. They step out of the way, for the invisible stagehands are at it again. Ernie’s room is wheeled away, everything replaced with hanging tinsel. My clothes are pulled off; I’m lifted out of my seat and dangled in mid-air so that my bare torso is at the mercy of the tinsel (which reaches easily from ceiling to floor). I realize this is supposed to be a mock-up of what it was like uploading into Jan’s room. It tickles so much and for so long that I think I’m going to die, but eventually it fades, the tinsel is removed, and the backdrop is replaced with a small living room. There’s a futon, desk, and dresser arranged as a makeshift partition in one corner. Thankfully, my clothing has been replaced just as Ernie and the others appear alongside me.

“Fucking poor people,” Ernie says, lifting an entire cheesecake to his lips and nibbling vigorously. “Talk about saving the worst for last.”

Okay, so I’m pretty sure the cheesecake is an exaggeration. The scattered female bodybuilder pics cluttering Jan’s desktop, however, aren’t.

“Dude,” I say, holding up a half-wrinkled black and white print-out and reading the caption. “Who’s Annie Rivieccio?”

“Give me that‭!” Jan cries, yanking the sheet from my hand.

Ernie snorts, spewing graham cracker crust onto Jan’s computer monitor. “Wow. Creepy, but cost-effective jack-off material.”

Jan is lobster-red.‭ Hastily filing his musclebound beauties away,‭ ‬he clears his throat and says, “‬Can we please stick to the assignment?”

“Relax. This is all fact-gathering—hey, look, everyone! Jan’s a closet jock!” Ernie struggles to lift one of Jan’s dumbbells, but gives up when his arm falls off.

I know I’m dreaming, so I laugh hysterically.

“That’s not nice,” Eva says, slapping my shoulder. She bends over to help Ernie re-attach his arm. As she does so, her skimpier-than-they-actually-were gym shorts ride up just enough to catch my attention, and I suddenly discover my own burgeoning affinity for the female posterior.

I have to look away, lest my eyes pop out of their sockets. A barrage of adjectives floods my mind: cute, perky, perfect, apple bottom, honey buns, and so forth. Luckily my brain has relaxed to the point where shifting from thought to thought isn’t a problem. I blink once, find that I’m standing over my bathroom sink and brushing my teeth. Everyone else has called it a night—well, everyone but Ernie, who’s uploaded himself behind my back and who’s now standing behind me in his bathrobe.

He wants to know if he can borrow some toothpaste.

I shoo him away, sending him back home and turning off my computer. I make a mental note to upload into his house tomorrow and replace his box of SnackWell’s with a bag of fresh carrots. Or, better yet, I’ll sneak over and mess with his SMN settings so that the next time he uploads he’ll be all pixelated, like Jan. No! Even better, I’ll replace his Maxim collection with issues of my mom’s Cooking Light

And that’s how I fall asleep this crazy, crazy morning: thinking up things to do to unsuspecting friends who are but a click away.

Cognitive behavioral therapy—it works.