Kinder Chocolate

@jan

I’m sitting slightly apart from Mini on a bus bench in front of Carl’s Jr. and trying very hard not to notice how good the food smells every time someone picks up their order from the drive-through window. The fact that I’m not dressed for the cold doesn’t help.

“I thought you were from Brno,” Mini says.

“I am,” I reply, shivering.

“Isn’t it cold there?”

“In the winter, yes.”

“Shouldn’t you be accustomed to the cold, then?”

I pull my cell phone out of my pocket. “Cold is cold. Just because I’m used to it doesn’t mean I like it.”

Mini looks at me with that same “I knew that” expression Theo gets whenever he asks an obvious question. After a moment: “You have a cell phone?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Oh. I just assumed…I mean, no offense, but I didn’t think you could afford one.”

In fact, I can’t afford a cell phone. That’s why this is a prepaid. That’s why it took me two weeks of saving my lunch money to buy a cheap Tracfone from Wal-Mart. When my parents asked me where I’d gotten it from, I told them Theo bought it for me. When they insisted that I reimburse him, I took the money and bought more minutes. That’s how you do it when you’re poor and you don’t want to resort to out and out theft. Like, ski mask and crowbar theft.

I try calling my parents. Neither of them answers. Maybe they’ve turned their phones off, or forgotten to charge them, or simply left them inside our apartment before uploading to another of their all-day poker parties at Uncle Martin’s.

“Well?” Mini asks expectantly.

“They’re not answering,” I tell him.

“Call Theo, then.”

I scroll down my contact list, highlighting Theo’s number, hesitating. I know we’re friends, but that doesn’t make it any easier to admit to destitution.

Mini climbs onto my leg, tries to peek at my cell phone. “What’s the matter? Ran out of minutes? Low battery? Don’t tell me you don’t have his number stored—”

“I have his number,” I say, shooing Mini away. “It’s just…”

“What?”

I sigh. “It’s embarrassing, you know?”

Mini shakes his head. “Dude, now is not the time to be grappling with your pride.”

“That’s easy for you to say. Your nickname isn’t ‘The Poor Kid.’”

“Your only other option is to ask someone for bus fare.”

“I’m not begging for change.”

“Fine. Ask for it. Borrow it. But whatever you do, make it quick—the next bus gets here in five minutes.”

I fret, looking up and down the sidewalk for prospective contributors, but there’s no one else walking about—everyone’s in their cars and headed home for the night. At least, on my side of the street. Across the way, next to the flower shop, a homeless man has just convinced someone to drop a dollar into a tattered hat resting at his feet. He thanks the guy, then looks over at me. He smiles and gets to his feet, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a giant magic marker, which he uses to draw an equally giant scoreboard on the wall of the vacant suite behind him. When he’s done, the scoreboard reads:

ME: 1

YOU: 0

“What a dick,” Mini murmurs. “Come on, Jan. You can totally earn more than that threadbare jerk-off in the next five minutes.” He glances down the sidewalk; an attractive-looking woman has exited the nearby drug store and is walking our way. “Quick, take off your shirt and flex for the lady.”

“I don’t think she’s going to give me money just for taking my shirt off.”

“Wait till she sees those heaving pecs!”

“Mini, no.”

“Well, at least offer to help her cross the street or something.”

“She’s perfectly able to cross the street on her own.”

Mini goes quiet as the woman passes the bus stop. For a moment I think he’s let the matter drop—that is, until I spot him toddling directly in front of her. Not expecting to cross paths with a doll, she trips, stumbles.

“Ma’am!” I shout, instinctively darting forward, catching her in mid-fall. Her momentum takes us both down onto the sidewalk where, for a brief but utterly embarrassing instant, I’m lying on top of her, my front pressed against her backside, my hand inadvertently (I swear!) wedged beneath one of her breasts. Worse, in the midst of my unplanned assault from behind, I drop my cell phone. It slides across the sidewalk and goes tumbling into the storm drain.

“Oh, my God!” screams the woman, beating at me with her elbows and fists as she wriggles free. “Help! Rape!”

I quickly roll off her. “Ma’am, I’m sorry—”

“Creep!” she yells, getting to her feet, adjusting her skirt, her bra strap. She gives me the finger, then turns and stalks away.

“You big lug,” Mini says.

I prop myself on all fours, gaze wistfully in the direction of the storm drain. “My phone…”

“When I threw myself in harm’s way, I meant for you to help her regain her balance, not get your babies up inside her from behind.”

“Quiet. You’ve caused enough trouble.” I pick myself up off the ground and glare at Mini as I take my seat on the bench once again.

Across the street, the homeless guy updates his scoreboard:

ME: 1

YOU: -1

Mini joins me on the bench. We sit together in silence and watch as the homeless guy makes ten dollars in five minutes, updating his scoreboard along the way. I’m considering finding a less-competitive bus stop to wait at when a Geo Metro with Oregon license plates pulls up on my side of the street. The window rolls down and a fortyish guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt leans over from the driver’s side, smiles at me.

“You need a ride?” he asks.

Hm. Geo Metro; unshaven stranger wearing a Hawaiian shirt; unsolicited offer for transportation—this is everything they warn you about in stranger danger class. But it’s late, it’s cold, and I’m hungry. My brain is absolutely willing to loosen the rules by providing me with plenty of positive hypotheticals. I start thinking about the statistics and whether or not I actually know anyone who’s ever been kidnapped. Not that kidnappings don’t happen all the time. It’s just…cold. And late.

I look down at Mini, who shrugs and mouths, “It’s your call.”

Across the way, the homeless guy looks a little disappointed that I’ve got a ride.

That settles it.

I scoop Mini up and get into the car.

On settling into the passenger seat, I notice three things. One, the entire backseat is piled high with honey bun boxes and what look like camping supplies; two, Justin Bieber is playing on the stereo; three, a printout of Ernie’s SuperMegaNet profile pic is taped to the dashboard.

Whew. Thats a load over my shoulders. I pay Hawaiian Shirt Guy another glance, and though I don’t recognize him, I assume he must be a relative of Ernie’s—an uncle or something. That would explain the honey buns and total lack of fashion sense (though not necessarily the Justin Bieber thing). And maybe that’s why he stopped to pick me up: he knows I’m a friend of Ernie’s.

“So, where are you headed?” he asks, pulling away from the curb and easing into traffic.

I freeze up, realizing that I don’t know exactly where Theo lives.

“San Joaquin,” Mini offers, scooting off my lap and lowering himself onto the floor. “Take the twenty-two to the fifty-five to the five and get off at Buckaroo.”

I look over at Hawaiian Shirt Guy; he’s still waiting for me to answer.

“You’ll have to do the talking,” Mini says. “I don’t think he can see or hear me.” He disappears beneath the passenger seat.

I repeat Mini’s directions.

Hawaiian Shirt Guy nods. “That’s a good half hour drive. What are you doing all the way out here without a ride? I’m Rob, by the way.”

Rob. Why does that sound familiar? “I, er, my ride canceled at the last minute.”

“Well, lucky for you I pulled up when I did, huh?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Rob…Rob. I don’t know any Robs, but I feel like I should know this Rob somehow. I glance at him sideways.

He starts tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “So, how about that Justin Bieber? ‘Your lips, my biggest weakness…’”

Mini tugs on my pant leg. He’s crawled out from underneath the seat, and is holding something in his hands—a JCPenney kids’ catalog.

I frown, using my foot to shove him back under the seat. I don’t need to see that—I don’t want to see that.

“You into movies?” Rob asks.

“Um…sure.”

“Have you seen Super 8?”

“No.”

“Great flick. I have the Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray. That Riley Griffiths is hilarious. Best thing since Jeff Cohen from The Goonies. Well, before he lost all that weight. I tell you, twelve to fourteen—that’s the age to be.”

Mini reappears, this time with what looks like a candy wrapper—

—it’s Kinder Chocolate.

And blackjack. Geo Metro, Hawaiian shirt, the incessant talk of boy singers and overweight child actors, the piles of honey buns in the backseat, Ernie’s profile pic, the irrefutable Kinder Chocolate—I now know why Rob is so familiar to me: this is Robbie, Ernies Robbie, the pervert dude who used to supply him with junk food. Milý Bože na nebesích

—I’m hitchhiking with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile.

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There’s a first time for everything…except this.

@mini-theo

And on down the societal totem we go.

Despite having been tossed through a window and left for dead on Eva’s lawn, the soldier in me is determined to keep on keeping on. A little after nine o’clock, the bus deposits me on the corner of Main and La Veta. From there it’s a four or five block toddle to Jan’s apartment, which is in a lower-middle-class neighborhood comprised of single-story, well-kept houses sandwiched between a chain of fast food joints and the freeway. Ernie’s always ratting on Jan for being poor, but I’m thinking this actually doesn’t look at all like the crumbling, crime-infested poverty zone Theo had imagined—that is, until I reach the Kounicovas’ apartment complex, with its faded fudge exterior, three-quarters-dead lawn, and high-voltage power lines running directly overhead. The whole place looks like someone dropped a gigantic trailer into a muddy lot, and then it rained and the trailer took root and started growing more trailers over time. At some point, the cable company must have done a hurried splice job, because there’s a low-hanging cable running from the main line to the side of Jan’s building; it’s tied off on the end of an overhanging wood beam like a length of rope for a tire swing. If I was looking at a Highlights “What’s Wrong?” picture, this would totally be the item that doesn’t belong. The building’s owner must get routine death threats from neighboring homeowners furious over their plummeting property values. I mean, this is the physical manifestation of a real estate black hole.

I cross the event horizon, ascend and descend the waterlogged modesty mound in front of the Kounicovas’ door. There’s no doorbell, but as luck would have it, I don’t need one: momentarily, Jan, sporting his usual scruffy tank top and jeans combo, steps out, his bulging arms hefting a pair of swollen garbage bags. It looks like I’ve caught him in the middle of his chores.

“Hey!” I yell, dodging out of the way when he almost steps on me. “Watch where you’re going!”

Jan stops, looks left, right, up, and, finally, down.

I glare at him, continuing: “That’s right! I’ve been riding the bus all day and I have grass stains on my penis! I don’t need a split seam to add to the list, thank you very much!”

Jan raises an eyebrow; something in one of his garbage bags goes glop! “You’re that doll Theo brings with him to school, aren’t you?”

“You’ve heard of me?”

Jan shrugs. “Not many twelve-year-olds carry dolls with them wherever they go. Well, unless they’re girls. Possibly.”

Huh. Ernie was delirious with fever; Eva’s into dolls…but Jan, well, it seems he can see me just because. I guess I always assumed he doesn’t notice anything unless it’s female and made of rock hard muscle. Maybe it’s his foreign blood—maybe Czechs just see things differently.

“So…you’re not going to throw a disbelief tantrum?” I ask.

“I don’t think so.” Jan starts walking again, around the corner of the building and down a narrow alley, toward the dumpster.

I follow.

“I mean, if UFOs are real,” he continues, “then I guess talking dolls can be real, too.”

“You believe in UFOs?”

“Don’t you?”

“Of course not.”

“Funny,” Jan says, chuckling. “That’s like a ghost saying he doesn’t believe in other ghosts.” He reaches the dumpster, chucks the garbage bags inside, first one, then the other.

“Dude, just so you know,” I say, “Theo’s not effeminate or anything.”

“He’s not a what?”

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. What’s important now is that you wash your hands—preferably with some sort of antibacterial soap—and come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“Ernie’s dying. Eva’s gone all girlie. Theo wants to pound pelvises with her, but, ironically, he’s being too much of a dick.”

Jan looks horrified—about Ernie’s impending death, I think, and not the pounding pelvises thing. “Ernie’s dying?”

“Well, maybe not dying,” I reply. “But he’s in some kind of anti-spunk-induced funk—possibly caused by food and porn withdrawal. I tried talking to him, but he won’t listen to a doll. He needs a good friend, someone who can reach him.”

“Er, wouldn’t that be Theo, then?”

“In another age, on another world.”

“But I thought between the four of us, Theo and Ernie were the closest.”

I roll my eyes. “Yes and meh. The two of them are like brothers: stubborn, pig-headed, impossible to work with. They need some kind of intervention. You.”

Jan sighs, glances down the alleyway. “I don’t know how helpful I can be. Ever since my parents became addicted to SuperMegaNet—”

“Your parents are SuperMegaAddicts?”

“—I’ve had my hands full. I like the guys—and Eva—I really do. But times are thick. I have to manage my priorities. I have enough time for school, homework, cooking, cleaning, and a few reps with my weight set before bedtime. But that’s it.” He starts back toward his parents’ apartment. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to steal twenty dollars from my mom’s purse so that I can buy groceries for the week.”

I chase him down, tugging on an unintentional tear in his jeans. “You’re turning your back on your friends!”

Jan spreads his arms wide. “What am I supposed to do? Drop everything? Forget about my family and run off with you?”

“Your family forgot about you.”

Jan slows, bites his lip. “I know. But two lefts don’t make a right.”

“I think you mean ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’ And before, when you mentioned that times were ‘thick’—”

Můj bože, you sound like Theo now.”

I’m about to point out that duh, I’m part of Theo’s conscience and so, naturally, I share many of his annoying tendencies when a rumbling and rattling knocks me off my feet. For a brief instant I’m positive the Big One has finally hit southern California, and is now in the process of shuffling us sun-loving, latte-drinking, 24 Hour Fitness members into the Pacific once and for all. But then I spot the source of the mini-quake: a fleet of tow-trucks has pulled up in front of Jan’s apartment, bringing with it several dozen city public service goons wielding an assortment of hooks, chains, pulleys, and jacks—

—which they start fastening to the Kounicovas’ building.

I clear my throat (yes, figuratively). “Jan?”

“Yeah?”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say those city workers are about to tow your apartment.”

“Naw, they’re just…that’s not…” He trails off, watching in bewilderment as several helmeted workers start jacking up the side of the building—at which point he sprints ahead of me, waving his arms in the air to get the city goons’ attention. “Pro Krista pána! What are you doing? Stop!”

The head goon glances over his shoulder. “Eh?”

“You can’t tow a building!” Jan shouts.

“We’re city public service,” the goon replies. “We can do whatever we want. Besides, you’re clearly parked in a red zone.” He points at the curb.

“But this is where I live!”

“I’m sure it’s where a lot of people live. Regardless, we have our instructions.”

Reaching where Jan and the goon are arguing, I bellow, “‘Instructions?’ Who in the world gives instructions to tow away an entire apartment building?”

The goon looks down at me, seeing me, not seeing me, mouthing “what the fuck?” before addressing Jan once again: “Look, it’s nothing personal. We’re just doing our job.”

“But my parents are still inside!” Jan says.

The goon shrugs, scribbles something on his clipboard, hands Jan a piece of paper. “Sorry, kid. If you want ’em, you’ll have to come down to the impound lot to get ’em.” Turning back to his cohorts: “All right, boys! Take it away!”

The trucks hoist their hooks, rev their engines, and start down the street, unearthing Jan’s building from its foundation and dragging it behind. Across the way, several neighbors have stepped outside to witness the spectacle, and are standing with mouths agape, cell phones extended, camera lenses twinkling.

Satisfied with the job, the head goon nods at Jan, gives me another dose of WTF, and climbs into his car. He speeds away, leaving us to literally bite his dust.

“I don’t believe it,” Jan mutters, watching him go.

Neither do I.

Jan looks down at the paper. “It’s the address for the impound lot.”

I mean…what just happened?

“My apartment building had been impounded.”

This is unreal.

“Aren’t you going to say something?”

Can plush dolls hallucinate? “I think I believe in UFOs.”

“Huh?”

I shrug. “If someone’s entire apartment building can be towed for being parked in a red zone, then I’m convinced little green men from Epsilon Eridani can and do visit excitable farmers in the deep south. But there is a silver lining here.”

“What’s that?” Jan asks, unenthusiastic.

I smile up at him. “I know the perfect place for you to crash tonight.”

Theo Likes Me?

@eva

I’m lying sprawled on my bed, muscles aching from wrestling practice, brain reeling from too much schoolwork, when I hear Theo calling to me:

“Eva, we need to talk.”

Totally disturbing—for three reasons: one, I’m not expecting visitors; two, I didn’t see the door open; three, since it’s almost bedtime, I’m kind of in my underwear.

Doing this sort of improvised, awkward back roll, I shift into a defensive crouch. “Theo? What are you…?” I pause, glancing down at the floor. The cutest little plush Theo doll has just squeezed its way through the crack beneath the door, and is now toddling toward my bed. Halfway to the point, it stops in its tracks and gawks at my non-existent breasts.

Ugh. Boys. Even in doll form they only have one thing on their minds.

I scowl and quickly put on a T-shirt.

The doll shakes its head, freed from the Siren-like effects of my chest. “Theo and Ernie are in trouble.”

“Okay…” I reply, slowly, uncertainly, half-amused as my brain jumps to the nearest conclusion. I know my birthday’s coming up at the end of the month; my parents are aware of my affinity for dolls, and, for some reason, have decided to gift me early with, er, a motorized doll. Of Theo.

“You’re a doll,” I say, “and you’re talking.”

“You’re a gurl, and you wrestle,” the doll shoots back.

I narrow my eyes, getting out of bed and cautiously padding over to where the Theo doll’s standing. I sit after a moment, reaching toward it. “Do you mind?”

The doll shakes its head, and I pick it up with both hands, poking, squeezing, feeling for batteries.

“Oh, baby,” the doll sighs. “You don’t know how long Theo’s been waiting for you to touch him like this. I’m Mini, by the way.”

I frown, quickly removing my finger from between the doll’s legs. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Really? You don’t know?”

I shake my head.

Mini shakes his head harder. “He likes you.”

I let Mini go, setting him back onto the floor and folding my arms. “He does not like me.”

“Babe, he stares at you like you’re a steak dinner with all the trimmings.”

“Theo’s a vegetarian—he doesn’t eat meat.”

“Well, he wants to eat yours.”

Oh, yuck. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

“No, really. Remember the New Eyes thing? That was all for you.”

“Whatever.”

“Mm-hm. He thought that by getting rid of his glasses he’d stand a better chance against Jan at, er, hacking your GirlSpace page, so to speak.”

“You’re making this up.”

“You don’t even know! You’ve been too busy fantasizing over the impossibility of ever handling Jan’s honey buns to notice that all along Theo’s worshiped and adored you.”

“I thought he was being attentive, sure, but I…” Huh. Now that I think about it, Theo does tend to look a little dazed whenever he’s around me. I always assumed it was because he was the shy, introverted type—now I don’t know what to think. I mean, Theo’s nice and all, but he’s not the kind of boy you really, er, want. If you know what I mean. Glasses or not, he just looks like someone’s little brother. And at times he can be a little—a lot—smart-alecky. Not like Jan. Jan who hates me, but Jan whose bulging biceps and darling accent make me want to play hookey and snuggle with him all day. I try to imagine Theo snuggling with me, and it just seems wrong—like one of those perverted babysitters you hear about on the news who’s hired to watch someone’s kid, but instead ends up getting pregnant with his child.

Ew, ew, ew. “That’s gross, Mini. He’s nine.”

“He’s twelve. Like you.”

“Not where it matters.”

“I happen to have it on good authority that Theo’s hiding the body of an Olympic god underneath all those geeky clothes.” Mini winks at me conspiratorially. “And you know he’s a health nut, so no zits once puberty gets into full swing—and with all the ginseng he drinks, you know he’s got, well, stamina. Wink-wink. Get my drift?”

I want anything but to get his drift! “Why are you telling me this? I thought you came here because Ernie and Theo are in some kind of trouble?”

Mini nods. “Theo’s got a bad case of virginitis, and Ernie’s dying.”

“Oh, please,” I say, rolling my eyes and purposely ignoring the part about Theo’s supposed virginitis. “Whatever Ernie’s doing, he’s not dying. He’s…exaggerating. Remember the time he imagined an evil cassette tape of banda music was downloading into girls’ bedrooms and getting them pregnant?”

“This is different. He’s really, really sick.”

“He probably just ate too many Sara Lee cheesecakes at dinnertime—why am I having a conversation with a plush doll?”

“Because you’re bored!” Mini insists. “Your mom and dad have locked you down so that between school and wrestling you only have a measly hour to yourself at the end of each day. You’d jump at the chance to fill that hour with something meaningful. Make this hour matter, Eva. Come with me—you’ll be sticking it to your parents and saving someone’s life in the process.”

Okay, that’s creepy. This doll shaped like a miniature Theo just confirmed one of my deepest, most carefully-hidden secrets, something no one but Mom could possibly know. “How did you…?”

Mini shrugs. “I’m a terrific judge of character. So’s Theo, by the way. You should talk to him sometime, confide in him, share a bubble bath…” He trails off, catching the Evil Eye I send hurtling his way. “Uh…too far too soon?”

I shake my head. “Are you some sort of programmable spybot? Did Dad buy you to check on me? Make sure I’m being a good little girl?”

“Look,” Mini says, lifting his shirt, dropping his pants, and standing spread-eagle. “No cameras, no mics. Now, are you going to help me or not?”

I sigh, getting to my feet. I’ve had enough. Mini’s touched a nerve—and he’s anatomically correct. This is crazy. “I’m obviously suffering some kind of psychotic breakdown. I’m going to bed. But first…” I reach down and pick up Mini. I carry him over to the window; I open it and toss him through.

He lands on the grass with a soft thud.

Spunk-Related Illness

@mini-theo

“I’m on restriction,” Ernie says, letting me in and closing the door. “My computer’s been impounded. There’s a lock on the fridge. Grams picks out my clothes each and every morning. That’s what the fuh’s happened to me.”

I glance around the bedroom. Mrs. Goodale’s mutant tirade attack has left the place a barren wasteland. Where once there were posters on the walls, there are now only dust outlines, remnants of Scotch tape; the shag carpeting is intact, but is wilted, like a once-mighty lawn of grass that’s gone for too long between waterings; the desk…well, let’s just say the 1970s called, and they want their pre-Commodore era panel desk back.

Ernie coughs loudly, clears his throat. He sounds like he’s catching a cold. “So…am I having a hunger hallucination or something?”

“Probably,” I say. “But that’s a good thing at the moment. It’s left you more open to the state of perceptive flux in which I exist.”

Ernie snorts, sits at the edge of his neatly-made bed, and coughs some more. “You sound just like Brainiac. Like nerd, like doll, I guess.”

I frown, watching him wipe his mouth on the back of his hand. “Are you always this phlegmy?”

“Blech. I think one of the lunch ladies peed in my food. I’m coming down with something. And also going insane.”

“You’re not going insane. See, I’m Theo’s psychic apparatus in physical form, and I’m quite real. And I need your help.”

“With what?”

“I need you to help me rescue Theo’s spunk.”

Ernie wrinkles his nose. “His spunk?”

“Yes.”

“Like, his splooge? His baby juice? His rich, potent—”

I hold up my hand, cutting him off. “Spare me the adjectives, Leviathan. We’re not talking biology here. Well, we kind of are, but it’s more important than that. What you’re talking about is just a biological manifestation of the procreative essence; spunk is what powers that pure essence, your heart and soul. Without his spunk, Theo will grow up shooting blanks, emotionally, socially, romantically. You need to help me help him get back in the game. We need to get him back on SuperMegaNet, meeting people, exchanging favorites lists, uploading to house parties—”

“Wait a minute,” Ernie says. “I thought Theo said he wants to stop using SMN because it makes him go all Sam Winchester, sans the demon blood.”

“Sam Winchester?”

“The bitchy younger brother from Supernatural.”

“You watch that show?”

“Fuck yeah I do. Well, I did before my TV got taken away.”

I smirk. “No offense, but Supernatural is kind of a chick show, isn’t it?”

“Um, wrong! It’s about a pair of bad-ass demon hunters—”

“Who look like Calvin Klein models.”

Ernie narrows his eyes at me. “Theo’s a neat freak. By extension, you of all people should appreciate a couple of guys combing their hair and brushing their teeth more than once a week.”

“Oh, I do. But that doesn’t change the fact that a real hunter would be all grizzled and leathery, with an eye patch, or a wooden leg—someone like Mickey Rourke in Sin City.”

“Sure—if you’re a shitty hunter. A good hunter would know better than to let some random monster-of-the-week get close enough to hack off his leg.”

“I disagree. That’s like saying a carpenter can have soft, un-calloused hands and still be a good carpenter. Dean and Sam aren’t good hunters. They’re merely hunters who look good.”

“They’d kick your ass if they saw you.”

I frown, an ominous thought suddenly occurring to me. “You’re not on Team Edward or anything, are you?”

Ernie jabs his finger at me. “Twilight is relevant. Relevant!

“Fine. Whatever. Are you going to help me?”

“I don’t know.” Ernie sighs, slowly and carefully lying on his side. “Even if I knew something about other dudes’ spunk—and I definitely don’t—why’s it so important for me to be the one to do it? Why not Jan or Eva?”

“Because Theo’s closer to you than he is to the others.”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really. He’d never admit it, but you’re like a brother to him.”

“Cock fat.”

“Think about it. Jan’s merely a classmate with a funny accent; Eva’s just some girl who’s too good for him. But you, you’re his friend.”

“Double cock fat. He told me so the night after he went blind and I ate his apology pizza. He said that we were never meant to be friends, that if it hadn’t been for SMN we never would’ve kept in touch after meeting in Thrill-Kill’s office—despite the fact that we live in the same town and go to the same school.”

“He didn’t mean that. He was upset, confused.”

“Yeah, well, judging by the desolation you see before you, he was right.” Ernie closes his eyes. “We used SuperMegaNet behind our parents’ backs, and it’s ruined our lives.”

“What’s with you, dude?” I ask, toddling over to him. “Just last week the most important thing in the world to you was ‘defending the pact.’”

“Last week my food and porn collection wasn’t locked inside an impenetrable safe.”

I’m about to stomp my plush foot on the floor and demand that Ernie stop putting food and porn before his friends when a vicious revelation sucker-punches me right in the gut:

Ernie’s lost his spunk.

He’s lost his spunk and it’s making him physically sick.

I gawk at him, not wanting to believe it’s true.

Feeling my stare, Ernie opens one of his eyes a crack. “What?” he wheezes.

“You’ve lost your spunk,” I murmur.

“Load,” Ernie says, scowling—or, rather, wincing.

“No, it’s true—don’t you see? Theo’s merely suppressing his spunk, but you’ve had yours taken away. It’s like…it’s like your grandparents are withholding your daily protein, calcium, and vitamin C.” I climb up onto the bed; I lean against Ernie’s cheek, gently stroking his forehead. “It’s killing you.”

In response, Ernie shifts his head so that he’s facing me. He opens his mouth as if to say something—and sneezes on me. A long, viscous rope of green snot shoots out of his nose and splatters against my torso in horrific slow-motion.

“Ugh,” he groans, wiping his nose and rolling onto his side facing away from me. “I don’t feel so good. I need to rest up for dinner. Tonight we’re having steamed brussel sprouts. Fuck off, little talking doll hallucination.”

Well. This is super. Ernie’s eating brussel sprouts, I’m soaked in fowl-smelling mucus, and not only do I have to save Theo’s spunk—

—it would seem I have to save Ernie’s as well.

Old Paperback Smell

@mini-theo

So, this is where Ernie lives. I’ve never seen the place from the outside (and have only felt it from inside Ernie’s room, thanks to the New Eyes fiasco). Not that there’s much to see. The Goodales live in your typical suburbial environment: all the compact, single-story houses are variations on a cookie-cutter theme, right down to the obligatory yard gnomes standing watch over cost-effective concrete lawns.

I toddle up to the front door. I knock. After a moment, Ernie’s grandmother—in human form, thank goodness—answers, frowning, looking up twice, down twice, left, then right, then left again, then right again—her own inadvertent rendition of the Konami Code, I realize. On the bus ride over, I’d been preparing a variety of stranger-danger techniques to get me into Casa Goodale, but I don’t think any of that will be necessary. Ernie’s grandmother is looking too hard to see me, perhaps because of my perceptive probability qualities, or perhaps because she simply doesn’t have her glasses on. Either way, I take advantage of the situation, quickly darting between her legs and into the house.

“Listen up!” she shouts at a nonexistent gaggle of punk teenagers. “If I ever find out which one of you crazy kids keeps ringing my doorbell and running away I’ll chase you down and clobber you myself! In fact…”

I glance over my shoulder. Mrs. Goodale has stepped outside, and is now rapidly erecting a seven-story scaffolding made of crooked girders and ladders. Nearby, a small pile of barrels has appeared out of nowhere.

Wow.

I face forward once again, making my way past the parlor, down the hall, and into the living room. There’s a faded sofa, two fragile-looking rocking chairs, a pair of rickety end tables (both smothered in flowery doilies), and a large glass display showcasing a collection of plates, statuettes, and figurines. No TV. The place looks like an antique shop—and I start to get it, I start to get what Ernie’s all about. Everything here’s old and brittle and boring. It even smells old. Like when you open a paperback that was printed in 1988. Everything here has begun to yellow at the edges. Growing up in such an environment would drive anyone to Internet porn and excessive eating the first chance they got.

At the far end of the living room is the entrance to another hallway, this one giving access to the bedrooms and bathroom. Through the process of elimination, I find Ernie’s door. I bang on it a couple of times, and Ernie eventually answers. He’s wearing a stuffy-looking sweater over a collared shirt, khakis, and his hair is nicely combed. He looks like he just got back from Harvard…or a golf tournament. He’s no longer the same Ernie whom Theo was forced to meet on the first day of school—he’s an unreasonable facsimile thereof.

We share a moment of mutual bewilderment.

Then I find my voice: “What the fuh happened to you?”

Riding Public Transit for Plush Dummies®

@mini-theo

Unbelievable. We’re living in the digital age, an age of cell phones, wireless Internet, HDTV, Super-fucking-MegaNet, and here I am riding the bus like it’s 1982 because the gang’s gone AWOL, because Beta can’t drive (well, he probably can, but he’s afraid of being hassled by the feds, or by a gang of rogue programmers from one of Taurus Labs’ competitors, or by human rights activists looking to string him up as an example of the dangers of modern-day technology)—because little Theo’s growing up and getting his spunk, and he’s being a total dick about it. Or not being a dick, as the case may be. And here I am, perched precariously on a smelly, slightly moist seat inside this moving purgatory on wheels as it ambles in the general direction of Ernie’s neighborhood. Because if I don’t do anything about Theo’s spunk, no one will.

You may be wondering how a walking, talking, preadolescent plush doll made it out of the bedroom, down the street, and onto a public bus without being confiscated by some random brat or tossed into a lost and found box. Allow me to explain. It’s simple, really: utter astonishment. See, the general population is a hopelessly complicated mess of bumbling idiots stumbling over one another on the way to and from the office, the supermarket, the DMV. It functions because everyone is too beside themselves to do anything whenever something extraordinary happens. Watch any of Roland Emmerich’s doomsday movies and you’ll get it. When someone sees an uprooted tree tumbling toward them do they stop and stare dumbly, or do they turn and run? The former, of course. That’s utter astonishment. That’s them thinking, “I don’t believe it!” or, “This can’t be!” when clearly something can be without you believing in it. Someone gets his wallet lifted in an alleyway, and he doesn’t go running after the thief; he merely stands there dumbfounded and yells the obvious to passersby: “He took my wallet!” Thieves are aware of this social flaw and exploit it on a daily basis.

The flaw’s what keeps people who see me from doing anything about me. They don’t believe in me. They assume my toddling is a trick of the light. Anything I say is disregarded as a misfiring of the ol’ eardrum. And so I have leeway as long as I don’t exceed the threshold by drawing undue attention to myself. That means no flirting, no picking fights, no interpretive dancing.

But enough about all that. The nuts and bolts of my existence within the societal paradigm are unimportant. I need to focus on the job at hand: reinstating Theo’s spunk.

I know what you’re thinking: He’s only twelve, he doesn’t need to be thinking about girls and their various intriguing parts, and my obsession with his lack of obsession regarding the subject will only serve to rob him of what’s left of his childhood, his innocence, right? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m not instigating anything here. Theo was already thinking about girls when I came onto the scene. He was already thinking about girls when, during a morning shower back in June, he discovered a handful of wispy secondary sex characteristics sprouting at the base of his kickstand. That’s why—consciously or subconsciously—he personified me: as an outlet, a means of self-expression, an exploratory aide. He’s nipple-high in his own adolescence, and he needs to learn how to swim before the current pulls him under, before he goes and gets himself caught up in something worse than New Eyes.

Take a look at the nerdy college kid sitting across from me. As careful as he’s been to make it look like he’s engrossed in a copy of Megatokyo, Vol. 6, he’s not really reading at all. Nor is there any sound coming from his earbuds. No, see his eyes? See how he keeps looking over at that leggy blond in the tight-fitting T-shirt? He’s reading her, listening to her—he’s hanging on her every word as she jabbers cheerfully on her cell phone. Not in any kind of creepy stalker/rapist way. Rapists smile and stare you down with that twisted, fucked up look that says, Oh, yeah. I’m going to rape you. Nerd Boy here just wants the privilege of being in the same room as T-shirt Girl for any length of time, maybe share a table at Starbucks and talk Big Bang Theory or C++ programming with her as a more realistic alternative to dropping to his knees and begging for permission to spend a couple of days buried alive between her fabulous thighs. He wants her more than anything in the world—but he’ll never have her, because he doesn’t have the spunk to speak up. He probably rides the bus with her to and from the university every day; he can probably tell you what her favorite Coldplay song is, what classes she’s taking, what she likes to put on her frozen yogurt. And yet he probably doesn’t even know her name.

How do I know this? I’ve seen the same look on Theo’s face a thousand times since the start of the school year. To illustrate, why don’t I replace Nerd Boy with a six-years-from-now version of Theo—

Pop! Nerd Boy disappears, replaced by an older, taller, ganglier version of Theo.

—and a six-years-from-now version of Eva.

Pop! T-shirt Girl gets swapped out with an older, bustier, leggier, less bug-eyed version of Eva.

Now do you see what kind of trouble Theo’s in? Look at him: eighteen, thick-framed glasses (for effect, as I’m well aware he doesn’t need them anymore), oversized “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe” T-shirt, unintentionally baggy jeans, bare feet in flip-flops. Shudder.

Eva, on the other hand, has blossomed, grown some gentle curves, lost her boyish, compact, flat-chested wrestler’s build. She’s become teh hotness.

The two of them sit shoulder to shoulder. Theo’s pretending to be occupied with Megatokyo and his iPod, flipping pages and scrolling through his playlist with ADD-like intensity; Eva simply stares straight ahead, looking bored, waiting it out.

After a while, her cell phone rings.

Answering it: “Hi, Summer. Yeah, I just got out of class. Heading home. Weekend plans? Hm…studying, laundry, church. How about you? Uh-huh. Tonight? Let me see…” She nudges Theo in the ribs. “Hey. Summer’s having a clothing-optional slumber party tonight. It’s girls-only, but she says you can come if you bring your Wii.”

Theo’s eyes very literally bulge out of their sockets, and he drops his iPod. It slides across the floor, disappearing under one of the seats toward the rear of the bus.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, swallowing, wiping a sudden sheen of sweat from his brow. “I’ve got homework, and a couple of Web sites to work on—”

“If you don’t want to go, just say so.”

“No, really, I’m all about getting naked and playing Wii Fit with you and the girls all night…but, well, duty calls. You know?”

Eva looks disappointed and starts talking to Summer again as Theo leaves his seat, gets down on all fours, and crawls down the aisle, searching for his iPod and muttering an embarrassed “excuse me” whenever he bumps into someone’s feet. By the time he finds it and returns to his seat, Eva’s gotten off at her stop.

Theo stuffs his earbuds back into his ears, and is once again jogging blissfully through his playlist when a middle-aged guy sitting a few seats over very casually moves into the seat beside him, leans over, and slaps him across the forehead.

“Ow!” Theo exclaims, his iPod tumbling out of his hands and down the aisle again. “What was that for?”

“Come on!” the middle-aged guy exclaims. “Friday night? Naked slumber party with your sexy girlfriend? And you want to stay home doing homework?”

“Girlfriend?” Theo blinks, clueless—then he smiles, laughs nervously. “Oh, you mean the girl who was sitting next to me? Naw, we’re just friends.”

Narrowing his eyes, the older dude slaps Theo again. “I can see why.”

“Ouch! What was that for?”

“The ‘Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe’ T-shirt. That and the fact that you’ve blown it again.”

Theo massages his forehead and looks genuinely confused. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not fooling anybody!”

“I don’t understand—”

“Junior, you’ve been riding this line for two years, morning and night—so have I—and the way you stare at that girl you’d think she was the proverbial Siren.”

Theo blushes.

“Most guys look at a girl like that for long enough and they figure out a way to get her. You, why, you just pretend you’re her sister.”

“I don’t pretend I’m her…just because we aren’t…what’s wrong with just being friends?”

“It’s not healthy.”

“Who says that just because she’s a girl and I’m a guy that she has to be my girlfriend and I her boyfriend?”

“Who says you don’t?”

Theo sighs. “We’re really good friends. I wouldn’t want to spoil it.”

“It may spoil things, it may not. That’s not the point. The point is that you won’t even try.”

“Again, who says I have to?”

“You do! Everything you say, everything you do revolves around that girl. Look, if you were gay, or truly disinterested it wouldn’t be an issue. But you want to be more than just friends.”

Theo gathers his things, stands up. “Okay, um, thanks for the advice, but I’m going to stand for the rest of the trip.”

The middle-aged dude shakes his head. “No one ever fixed a problem by running away from it. Remember that when you’re home alone waiting for your Netflix to cue up.”

Theo ignores him. On his way to the front of the bus, his cell phone rings. He answers it. “Hi, Mom. No, I’m not doing anything tonight. Bingo? Sure, I’ll swing by the Dollar Tree on the way in and pick up some magic markers…”

Pop!

Fuck that temporal nightmare. It’s made me sick to my stomach. But it doesn’t have to happen.

I won’t let it happen.

Regarding Theo’s Spunk

@beta

Huh. Look at that. There’s some kind of miniature, motorized Theo doll running around the bedroom, yipping and tossing cartwheels across the floor as he knocks over furniture and strews dirty laundry all over the place.

“You know,” I say, “the little dude’s a neat freak. He’s not going to like what you’re doing to his room.”

“It’s his own damned fault!” the doll screams, yanking the power cord of Theo’s Wii from the wall. “He’s kept me locked up all this time, he’s tried to keep me from expressing myself—but I will find expression!”

Excellent audio reproduction. It sounds just like Theo, but smaller, and without the subtle huskiness that’s sneaked into the little dude’s voice more recently.

The doll continues on his rampage until every inch of Zen has been buried beneath a layer of rumpled clothes, ruffled manga, and opened CD jewel cases. I’m hesitant to intervene, not only because I’m trying to give Theo his space after the whole New Eyes thing, but because it’s actually kind of mesmerizing to watch. That is, until the doll lunges for my laptop and hard drives—at which point I grab him by the scruff of the neck and toss him aside. He hits the floor with a soft thud.

“Hey!” he grunts, recovering, jumping to his feet and dusting himself off. “What gives?”

I fold my arms, step protectively in front of my gear. “Whatever you’ve got going on between you and Theo, that’s your business. But don’t you go messing with my stuff. Got that?”

The Theo doll blinks, scowls at me, runs over to where he’s dropped a pillow, and rips the tag off. Then he collapses onto the floor, arms and legs splayed. He looks both annoyed and satisfied at the same time.

I sit cross-legged beside him and survey the carnage. “Sorry for roughing you up, but that laptop is my only home. You fuck it and you end up fucking me.”

The Theo doll grunts. “You don’t seem all that surprised to see me.”

“I’m a disembodied programmer living entirely in cyberspace as a means of escaping the rigors of multiple sclerosis. I make it a point to keep an open mind.”

The doll grunts again.

“So, are you some kind of mechanized puppet?”

Puppet? Ha! I’m a physical manifestation of Theo’s subconscious, his ego, his competitive edge, his jism.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize he, er, had any of that.”

“Of course he does. All guys get their spunk once they hit twelve or thirteen. Theo may be trying his darnedest to hide his beneath the oversized T-shirts and unassuming, nerd-boy demeanor, but he’s got it, which means he secretly craves the same thing every other pubescent boy craves.”

“Which is?”

“To command and conquer! To kill something with his bare hands! To plow the living daylights out of some poor unsuspecting high school cheerleader until there’s nothing left but a shredded miniskirt and a pair of pompoms laying crumpled in a steaming, putrid pile!”

“TMI, dude.”

“It’s the truth. Tell me I’m wrong.”

I think for a moment. “Well, maybe you’re not wrong. But you’re kind of exaggerating.”

“Am I?” The Theo doll sits up, gives me a grave look. “You know what happens when you suppress your spunk?”

I shrug. “Bad headache?”

“You end up like Peter fucking Pan, wearing green tights and living in a fantasy land where you play with wooden swords all day because you’re too clueless to realize that Tinkerbell wants to fuck your brains out. Or Michael Jackson! Poor guy had an umbrella fetish and thought he was a kid till he was fifty years old, God rest! Theo’s halfway there. He sits in front of the computer all day, he does Yoga with his mom, he drinks green tea, he listens to Asia—he’s trying to act like some super-intelligent, super-spiritual guru! Meanwhile, his jism goes untapped, turning rancid in his pants. Well, I won’t stand idly by and watch that happen. I’ve got to do something about the situation. Somehow I’ve got to get the gang back together before it’s too late.”

Stupid question, but… “Theo’s in a gang?”

The Theo doll rolls his eyes. “Not a gang-gang. I’m talking about his new friends. Ernie, Eva, Jan.” He snorts. “At first I thought Ernie would be the one to pull Theo’s head out of his ass, what with his gas giant ability to draw others into orbit around him. I assumed he’d be the driving force that kept everyone together, but now that’s changed. Everyone’s on restriction—Theo’s the only one who can still upload or download. He may be the crux of the whole thing and he doesn’t even know it.”

“Dude,” I say, shaking my head. “Just what are we talking about here?”

“The certain specific chain of events that will ultimately lead to the ripening of Theo’s spunk!”

“Again, TMI—”

“Ugh! If all you’re going to do is ask idiotic questions and spout clichéd abbreviations…” The Theo doll waves his hand dismissively at me, gets up and toddles toward the bedroom door. “Give me bus fare.”

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“For a ride.”

In the Closet

@mini-theo

It’s been a month since Theo banished me to the closet. That may not seem like a long time to you; your limited perceptive state has probably convinced you that I’m just a talking plush doll with nothing but plastic beans where his heart and soul should be. But let me tell you, plush doll or not, it’s cruel and unusual punishment to be kept locked away in a dark compartment where the only way to pass the time is to imagine new and exciting methods of implementing CSS floats.

In case you just tuned in, here’s what’s going on: Theo’s pretending I don’t exist. He’s pretending he doesn’t need me—me, his competitive drive, his social dexterity, his eight-inch-tall sexual warrior! How ridiculous is that? He might as well cut off an arm or leg. Without me, his adolescence will be mere formality, an obligatory bridge between childhood and adulthood. Bland and boring.

Try telling him that, though.

I can hear footsteps approaching. I crouch, peering through the crack underneath the closet door. Theo walks into the bedroom, sets his backpack and gym bag on the floor, goes over to his desk and wakes his computer so that he can check his e-mail like a good little geek.

I start banging my mitts against the door. “Theo! Theo!

He flinches, pauses for a moment, then resumes working the mouse, carefully concealing the fact that he’s become aware of me.

I bang some more. “I know you know I’m in here! I know you can hear me! This has gone on long enough! Let me out!”

A click of the mouse, the tapping of a few keys, continued ignorance.

“I’m no good to you stuck in here! Have you ever heard of ‘use it or lose it?’ If you keep this up, you’re definitely going to lose it!”

Still nothing.

“You’re only proving my point by sitting there slumped in front of that stupid PC, just like you’ve done every day for the last month, burning time, wasting your youth, passing up a golden opportunity! I mean, you could be grounded right now. Any other parents would have gone nuclear if they found out their kid had gotten New Eyes from someone they met online. What do your parents do? They give you a New Age scolding: free reign, renewed trust, undying love. And what do you do with the privilege? You hole yourself up in this…this Zen monastery and code Web sites all afternoon. You do homework, you read manga, you listen to Asia—oh, wait, that’s right, you get out. Yeah, you go to that gym everyday after school with your mom, sweat yourself silly on some smelly, sticky weight machine or treadmill, or whatever it is you do to get those fabulous guns you insist on hiding under all those oversized shirts.”

Theo sighs, leaves his desk, goes over to his dresser for a change of clothes.

“Keep it up,” I say, exchanging reverse psychology for sarcasm. “Keep ignoring me like you ignore Ernie, Eva, and Jan. We’re only holding you back!”

Theo leaves the room without saying anything.

What a dick.

I straighten, sitting with my back against the door, clenching and unclenching my tiny fists (no easy task, mind you, considering that I don’t have proper joints). I’m tense, my mind feels clogged—and it’s only going to get worse if Theo keeps this self-deprivation stuff up. He’s weaned himself off his friends, he’s replaced playtime with work; he won’t even jack off because some pompous, misguided yogi somewhere along the line mentioned that too much masturbation drains Chi. That’s too much, not too little. Too little and…well, you have to clear the dust out of your vacuum bag every so often, right? Otherwise it’s just going to burst at the seams, spewing foul-smelling particulates all over the place. And I swear to God Theo is about to burst.

We’ll talk more about his ball sack later. Right now we need to focus on the overall. We need to stop being so passive and start being more assertive. I’ve heard that boy on his cell phone with the dickhead who “manages” Asia Afrodesia: “Change this on her Web site. Add that. No, put that back the way it was. Now do this—wait, no, do that. Yes, I’ll send your check out at the end of the month. Along with last month’s check, yes, yes.” You get the point. Theo needs to tell this manager fellow to STFU, to remind him, “I’m the webmaster. Let me handle the Web design duties while you handle Asia’s various drug deals and court settlements.” He needs to step up (just not to me).

After a few minutes, he comes back into the room, fully dressed, his hair still wet from the shower. He closes the door quickly, but not before I get an earful of the voices wafting up from the dining room.

“Who’s over?” I ask, crouching beside the closet crack once again. “Is it Mr. Nakayoshi?” Even upstairs, down the hall, and through two closed doors, I can hear his loud, obnoxious laughter bouncing off the walls. “It’s Mr. Nakayoshi, isn’t it?”

Theo stands in front of the dresser, applies deodorant, checks his reflection in the mirror (needlessly) for facial blemishes, runs a brush through his hair. “Yeah,” he says, unenthusiastically.

“Dude, you don’t have to go through this alone. Let me out and we can tag team him together. I’m here for you.”

Theo snorts. “The last time you were ‘here for me’ I lost my eyesight. And before that I made Eva cry by intentionally giving Jan bad advice.”

“Come on. She would’ve cried anyway once she realized Jan really, really doesn’t like her in a kissy-feely way. But that’s a matter for another discussion. Right now we’re talking about you.”

“What about me?”

“You’re incomplete.”

“How’s that?”

“Remember that episode of Star Trek where a transporter accident split Captain Kirk’s psyche into two physical bodies?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re lame Kirk. I’m party Kirk.”

“Party Kirk,” Theo points out, “almost raped Yeoman Rand. And he wore women’s makeup.”

“Only because Yeoman Rand fucked up his face.”

“The point is, party Kirk was dangerous. He wasn’t meant to exist—”

“On his own he wasn’t—”

“Just like you’re not meant to exist.”

“Of course I’m meant to exist! Why else would your pubertal brain have spawned me—”

“I don’t like the things I do when you’re around. I don’t like the, ah…urges I get. I don’t like losing my temper. I don’t like betraying my friends. And I hate not being able to concentrate on my schoolwork because I’m too busy thinking about—”

“Breasts?”

Theo swallows hard. I can’t quite see his face from this angle, but I’m sure it’s bright red.

“No,” he says.

I laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“You’re such a lousy liar.”

“I’m not lying—”

“Just now, at the mere mention of boobs, your wang reared its head and went, ‘Huh?’”

“Shut up.”

I start to point out that the hint of an erection is the first sign of life he’s shown all month, but at that moment Beta appears in the room, totally spoiling the mood even though he’s dressed like Slash, and is holding a guitar.

“What’s this I hear about boobs?” he asks.

Theo sighs. “Not now, Beta.”

“Maybe we can reach a compromise,” I say, silently cursing Beta for his timing. “We’ll start tonight, after dinner. A photo of Eva, some hand lotion—”

“For crying out loud!” Theo swears under his breath, and starts out of the room.

“Hey, where are you going, little dude?” Beta asks.

“What do you care?”

“I care!” I yell. “I care, Theo!”

The bedroom door opens, then slams shut.

I hammer my fists against the closet door some more (as if it’ll do any good at this point). “That’s right! Don’t mind us stuffed dolls and disembodied SuperMegaNet users! You just get on downstairs and stuff your face before the rice noodles get cold! I’m sure you’ll have a blast watching Nakayoshi hit on your mom while your dad kisses his ass!”

Out in the hall, I can hear Theo descending the staircase.

Beta walks over to the closet and opens the door. He looks down at me with an expression that’s only half dumbfounded as I jump to my feet and dart out into the bedroom shouting, “Free at last! Free at last!

“Um, not to pry or anything,” Beta asks after I’ve finished doing an impromptu victory dance, “but what exactly is going on here?”

“It’s our first pon farr,” I reply, “and geek boy’s being a total dick about it.” I toddle over to Beta and hug one of his ankles. “But thanks to your daring rescue, that’s all about to change!”

SuperMegaApp

@eva

Being the only girl on the wrestling team has never really bothered me. Friends and family like to make a big deal over girls playing boys’ sports, as if it’s inappropriate, or dangerous, or “just not done!”—but let me tell you, I can handle any boy who steps in my way just fine. I may not have height, weight, or bulging adolescent muscles, but I do have technique. I’m fine; it’s the audiences who can’t handle it. I hear them in the stands during competitions, cheering or politely jeering when a boy goes down, sucking in their breath or moaning critically when it’s my turn to eat mat. There’s always that clueless spectator who shouts, “Ease up! She’s just a girl for Christ’s sake!”

(Yeah, I’m just a girl and I’m younger than everyone else. Thanks for rubbing it in, jerk!)

I suppose that’s why I’m the only one on the team who actually likes Coach Coffee. Well, as much as anyone can like a ranting, raving lunatic who refers to his boys as “ladies” on a good day, “maggots” when things are going kind of bad. He treats me with the same disrespect as everyone else during practice—he doesn’t baby me. He gives me three minutes to duck into the girls’ locker room and change out of my street clothes. Then he makes me and the boys jog around the inside of the gym until we feel like puking. Then he makes us hit the weight room for conditioning. Then he marches us back out into the gym and has us pair off to work on our drills for the rest of the evening.

Tonight, Mrs. Thrailkill stands near the exit and puffs coolly on a cigarette as she witnesses the proceedings. We’re sharing the gym with the volleyball team, so I can’t tell if she’s ogling the girls’ bottoms or the boys’ crotches.

My usual practice partner is this wispy freshman with the longest arms and the largest Adam’s Apple I’ve ever seen. Everyone calls him Gangles. I have no clue what his real name is, or if he even has one. I kind of resent him, one, because he looks at me like I’m a small child, frail and vulnerable, two, because Coffee thinks the only suitable partner for me is an anorexic, and three, because he likes to shoot his mouth off.

Usually I can take it in stride, but today I’m just not in the mood for restraint, what with my mom deciding I’m too helpless and too fragile to use my own computer. As soon as Coffee blows his whistle, I tackle the fuck out of Gangles.

(Yes, I’m a girl, I’m on the wrestling team, and I just said the f word.)

His headgear pops off his ears and topples across the mat.

The other boys stop what they’re doing and look in my direction as I get up, rearrange my singlet, and walk off the mat for a drink of water.

“What’s with her?” one of them asks.

“Must be on her period,” replies another.

“Dumbass, she doesn’t even have tits. How could she be on her period?”

I throw my water bottle onto the floor. The spray from the impact douses my face, soaks my hair. I whirl around in place, fire blazing from my eyes and causing the moisture above my eyebrows to sizzle. “Who said that?

Someone stifles a giggle; several pairs of musclebound shoulders slouch guiltily.

Coach Coffee smiles at me, pleased. “Save it for next week’s match, Taylor.”

We work on our moves until six-thirty, at which point Coffee tells us that we stink and to hit the showers. The volleyball team is still practicing, so I get the girls’ locker room all to myself, which is kind of nice.

At six forty-five, Mom calls to tell me she’s going to be late in picking me up. To pass the time, I sit at the top of the bleachers, using my backpack and my gym bag as a makeshift pillow, and watch the volleyball girls do their thing.

Once, when he’d first realized that I was an honors student, Gangles had sat with me so that I could help him with his math homework. It had been kind of flattering having someone actually pay attention to me for a change. Inevitably, though, his had friends reminded him that hanging with the little flat-chested, bug-eyed girl was incredibly lame. He hasn’t asked me to help him with his homework since.

I wait a few minutes, toy with my phone, watch as Rigo, one of the cuter wrestlers, exits the boys’ locker room, approaches the bleachers, starts climbing in my direction.

“Hey, Eva,” he says when he reaches where I’m sitting.

“Hey,” I say back, carefully hiding my delight at his acknowledging my existence.

“Waiting for your mom to pick you up?”

“Yeah. She’s a little late tonight.”

Rigo nods, smiles, fumbles with something in his pocket. “Mine, too. I’ve got some time to kill, so…do you think you can do me a favor?”

“Uh…what kind of favor?”

He pulls out his iPhone. “I need you to hold my phone for a few minutes.”

Oh. “Sure, I guess so.”

“Cool. I’m going to, uh…have you ever heard of SuperMegaNet?”

“Of course.”

“Then you know how it works.” Rigo looks relieved. “Isn’t it the shit?”

“It’s pretty neat,” I agree.

“It fucking rocks—though we’re not allowed to use it on campus. A couple of idiot sophomores got caught downloading someone’s pit bull into the school library.”

I seem to remember hearing something about that during the morning announcements. “Is that why they roped off the stacks?”

“Mm-hm. Principal Sandalwood sent in an animal control officer after several freshmen didn’t return from a book report, but he—the animal control guy, that is—was never heard from again. The freshmen are presumed dead.”

Wow. Who knew a school library could be so…morbid?

“But anyway, here.” Rigo hands me his phone. “Go ahead and upload me, and just keep an eye out for Coffee, or Sandalwood, or anyone else who smells of faculty, you know?”

“Fine.”

Rigo smiles again—and pats me on the head as he would an obedient pup. “Thanks, Eva. You’re the greatest.”

I smile politely and send him off to wherever it is he’d rather spend his time waiting for his mother to pick him up (a booth in some burger joint, judging by the video feed). Then I set his phone down beside me, on the bench. I used to think I had a crush on him—but not anymore. Now I know better. He’s sixteen and gorgeous; I’m twelve and prepubescent. Of course I have zero chance of him considering me as anything more than a convenient holster for his dumb iPhone.

FML.

I glance around the gym. Coffee’s over by the exit, and is bumming a smoke off of Thrill-Kill; the volleyball coach is busy trying to get one of her girls to serve correctly. Assured that no one’s paying me any mind, I pull out my iPhone and bring up the App Store. Sure enough, there’s a SuperMegaNet app available.

I know what you’re thinking. I swore off SuperMegaNet, so why should it matter that there’s a SuperMegaNet iPhone app? Well, it doesn’t. I don’t care about SMN. But I do care about getting back at my mom for grounding me.

I tap the “free app” button. Momentarily, when SMN commandeers the screen, I log on, scroll through my buddy list. Out of habit, I peek at Ernie’s video feed, which is black and flecked with the swirling, translucent ghosts of morbid-looking honey bun boxes. Theo’s feed shows an empty bedroom; Jan’s shows his parents and several of their friends sitting together at a rickety card table and playing poker.

It would seem they’re doing a better job of keeping off SMN than I am.

I scroll down some more. Summer’s feed pops into view.

“Hey, babe,” she says, smiling and waving when she sees that I’m online. “What’s up?”

“Waiting to be picked up from practice,” I say. “How about you?”

Summer rolls her eyes, tilts her webcam to show that she’s lying sprawled out on the floor of her gym. “I’m doing after-practice cleanup at the club. Today was Open Gym Day. Greg and Donna are in their office right now trying to sucker some parents into signing up their daughter for weekend classes. Having an elite such as myself hanging around adds a touch of legitimacy to the joint. But I could stand to disappear for a few. Mind if I drop in?”

“Misery loves company,” I say.

Summer—in her usual gym shorts, spaghetti tank, and flip-flops combo—shimmers into existence beside me, starts to reach over for a hug, but stops suddenly, making a face.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She frowns, pulls Rigo’s iPhone out from underneath her bottom. “Who’s is this?”

Woops. Forgot about that. “His name’s Rigo. I’m, er, holding it for him.”

“Correction: my butt was holding it for him.” She swipes her finger across the touchscreen, starts poking through Rigo’s files. “Is he cute?”

I grab the phone from her. “Oh, my God, that’s so rude!”

“Whatever.” She leans back, looks around the gym, fixes the volleyball players with a disapproving stare. “So, this is your new school, huh?”

I shrug. “For better or for worse.”

“Ugh. Bun huggers. If you ask me, spandex should be outlawed for anyone except superheroes or gymnasts.”

“Or fat guys riding unicycles.”

“Naturally.” Summer giggles, pays my backpack and gym bag an inquisitive glance. “Wait—no laptop? How’d you download me?”

I hold up my phone.

Her eyes widen. “You mean there’s an SMN app? Cool!”

“Rigo told me about it. And it’s a good thing, too, because my mom grounded me off my computer last night.”

“Ouch. Why’d she do that?”

“She found out I was using SuperMegaNet behind her back.”

“Really? She doesn’t like you using SMN?”

“My mom’s not as liberal as yours.”

“You must be pretty fed up with her.”

I sigh. “I’m fed up with myself, actually.”

“Oh?”

“I shouldn’t even care about SuperMegaNet anymore. I swore off it last week, and I’ve never looked back. But now that I’m not allowed to upload to my friends’ houses, suddenly they’re all I can think about.”

Summer narrows her eyes. “Now, when you say ‘friends,’ who exactly are you talking about?”

“Theo and Ernie…and Jan, I guess.”

“Babe, you didn’t need to swear off SMN, you just needed to swear off them.”

“This is serious,” I say. “I think…I think I actually miss them, and I don’t even know why.”

“It’s the new school,” Summer says assuredly, “and the fact that everybody here is older than you. They’ve all got cars, jobs, boyfriends or girlfriends, and no time for you. So, of course you’re going to feel more comfortable hanging around people your own age—even if they are Theo, Ernie, and Jan. But that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to hang out with.”

I watch one of the more homely girls struggle to make a serve. Her thighs wobble like Jell-O in her bun huggers. “I know, I know. You tell me that every time we talk. But I can’t help it. I don’t want to be around them anymore, and yet I can’t stand not being around them.”

“Okay, then,” Summer says. “You wanted Jan, right?”

“Yeah. Past tense.”

“You wanted Jan, and so you made friends with his friends as an in, an excuse to be around him. You never really liked Theo or Ernie. And when Jan made that whole big deal over not liking you, it suddenly didn’t matter anymore whether or not you were getting along with the others because they no longer served your purpose.”

“That’s so shallow, Summer.”

That’s the truth. It’s how these things work. You’re new at this, so you’re having a little trouble putting things into perspective, that’s all. The realist inside you knows it, and wants to move on, but the sweet little girl in you can’t stand the possibility of hurt feelings along the way.”

I want to tell her that she’s wrong, but instead I just clam up, pretending to watch Jell-O Thighs Girl again. I wonder: If Jan hadn’t been sitting there alongside Theo and Ernie the day we met inside Thrill-Kill’s office…would I have talked to either of them a moment longer than was necessary to complete that stupid socializing assignment? Other than Ernie’s fatness and Theo’s incessant worrying, I don’t have anything against either of them. I just can’t think of a reason we should be friends. I can’t think of a reason I should think of a reason we should be friends, either.

“It’s not like that at all,” I tell Summer, ignoring a pang of guilt.

She sighs, wraps her arm around my shoulders. “Babe, I can hear it in your voice. You’re beating yourself up over not caring for people you’ll probably never see again, people you were never meant to meet in the first place.”

“That’s silly. You either meet someone or you don’t. Destiny has nothing to do with it.”

“Let me put it another way…”

Uh-oh. She’s going to mention the national team again, I can just tell—

“…as a member of the national team, I have visibility. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen me on TV or read about me in Inside Gymnastics or online. I get e-mails all the time from hapless boys and creepy old men who say they saw me at such-and-such meet where I supposedly signed their T-shirt or poster or whatever. They friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter. They post on my Wall or reply to my tweets as if they’re my friends, but I can never truly know these people. They’re fans, not friends, Eva.”

“This is different.”

“Whether it’s me handling my fans or you handling a bunch of oddball boys who think they’re on your level, the concept is the same. You have to be the affirmative one. You have to make the choices. Otherwise you’re just going to be lead along by their shenanigans. You’ll tolerate them simply because you’re afraid of going the next four years without making any real friends.”

I think about that for a moment. Down below, Jell-O Thighs Girl is huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with her teammates. I wonder if she’s squeezed herself into those bun huggers simply because she’s afraid of graduating high school without having been on any teams.

“You’re only a year older than I am,” I say. “How can you be so sure about all this relationship stuff—and how can you be so sure that Theo, Ernie, and Jan are wrong for me?”

Summer squeezes my shoulder. “Babe, I just want to make sure that you’re sure. Look, I don’t think they’re right for you. But if you do, if you’re friends with them because you want to be and not because you think you need to be, then, well, I can’t stop you. Now, enough of the deep stuff. You never told me whether this Rigo character is hot or not.”

I sort of nod and shake my head at the same time. “He’s totally hot.”

“Big muscles?”

“Huge.”

“There’s nothing better than a muscley guy.”

“Before you get your hopes up, you should know we’re not friends or anything. I’m just holding his phone.”

Summer looks disappointed…and a little annoyed. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Hmf. Give me that thing.”

“Why?”

“I want to help you set things right.”

Whipping off her flip-flops, Summer snatches Rigo’s iPhone and descends the bleachers with expert dexterity, darts across the floor, past the volleyball players and into the girls’ locker room. She emerges a moment later—without the phone—and, throwing in several cartwheels and handsprings along the way for good measure, bounds back up to where I am.

“Why’d you do that?” I demand as she sits beside me once again.

She shrugs. “Who am I to look the other way when an opportunity presents itself?”

I glare at her. “But I promised I’d hold it for him. Now I’m going to look like a bitch—”

“Babe, if I’d let you hold onto his iPhone all polite and proper you’d be holding his phone for him every day. Let him learn the hard way that you’re not going to be his footstool.”

Down below, the volleyball coach blows her whistle and tells her girls to hit the showers. I still think it’s messed up, sabotaging Rigo’s phone as such, but the timing is impeccable, and I have to admit the look on his face when he comes stumbling out of the girl’s locker room trailing a flurry of high-pitched screams behind him is priceless.

Summer and I bow our heads together and cackle fiendishly.

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.