Sneaky Lip Maneuver

@ernie

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yeah!”

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

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

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

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

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

Becky looks hopeful. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You clearly have an eating problem, Ernie!”

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

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

“What photograph?” I ask.

“Look.”

I glance over my shoulder.

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

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

After a while she breaks it off and steps back.

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

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

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

She is trying to seduce me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ernie! Don’t you dare!” Becky warns—

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

She vanishes.

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

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

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The Taqueria of Lost Souls

Ernie’s Note: Before we go any further, I’d like to post a little disclaimer clarifying what I said in “Pizza Box Reconciliation” about not having any friends. I’ve got friends—213 friends. I’ve got a girlfriend. The Beckster. She’s a little shy, and a little fat. Okay, she’s a lot fat. She needs to go on a diet even more than Gabriel Iglesias does, but that’s another discussion. I just told Theo what I told him because I wanted to make him feel better. Besides, I think we’ve all had enough of his “woe is me, I’m blind but can see!” phase. He’s got one of those shiny ABC Family families. If they can afford that big-ass house of theirs, they can afford to buy him new eyes—or whatever it is rich people buy when they go blind. Let him fuck off for a while if he thinks it’s good for him. It’s no honey off my bun.

* * *

@ernie

Sexless Gamer, Twitterpated, Stood-Up Download Dater, Facebooked, and Self-Published Author are sitting beside me at the taco window. As their nicknames suggest (I really don’t care to ask anyone’s real name at the moment), they’re all total losers, and their lives have all been delivered into sucktitude by the Internet and/or SuperMegaNet. This much I’ve learned while waiting for my nacho platter to be ready.

“The Internet has shrouded society behind a veil of superficiality, #truth,” Twitterpated says to no one in particular. (Apparently his thing is that he’s overused Twitter, and so can now only think, speak, or write in 140-character blocks that include interesting links or trendy hashtags. Plus, I think he’s a little tipsy.) “@DownloadDater is living proof that online dating is not a victimless crime. http://on.msnbc.com/gTdnMi

Ugh. I don’t know how the fuck I’ve come to be part of this motley crew—oh, wait. That’s not true. I do know: Theo and Eva have sworn off SuperMegaNet; Jan, he’s too poor to do anything but check his e-mail using his parents’ shitty Internet connection. The rest is God rubbing it in, arranging all the stars and planets or whatever so that my fat, lonely self just happened to download to the same taqueria as the other rejects.

“I don’t understand,” Download Dater says to Sexless Gamer while the rest of us listen in. “Everything was going so well. We went for three months without missing a chat. We talked about everything under the Sun. I told her things I could never tell anyone else. She said the same about me. We just seemed to click, you know?”

Behind the counter, Tacoman—this hairy, thickly-mustached Mexican dude who always looks like he just shit his pants—nods empathically as he works a can of black olives into my nacho platter.

“When I heard about SuperMegaNet,” Dater continues, “I suggested we both install it so that we could finally meet in person. We picked a place and time; she seemed really enthusiastic over the whole thing. I downloaded—and she wasn’t there. I waited ten minutes, twenty minutes, but she never showed up. So, I went back home thinking she needed help with her webcam or something. I checked her video feed, and her room was empty. I ended up waiting around all afternoon thinking something terrible had happened. Finally, she got back. She had someone with her. Turns out she’d downloaded into some other chat room, met a guy, and decided she liked parts of him better.” Dater scowls. “Now I have to watch the two of them make out because SuperMegaNet won’t let me remove her from my buddy list.”

Sexless Gamer shakes his head ruefully, causing the fat beneath his chin to jiggle. “Fucking bitches. They say men are jerks, but they’re the ones who’re always the coldest.”

Twitterpated, Facebooked, and Self-Published Author grumble in agreement.

I don’t say anything one way or the other. One, because no one ever wants to listen to the fat kid. Two, because I know that no one likes to hear the truth. Which, by the way, goes a little something like this: Dickhead. No one goes online to meet people. To keep in touch with friends and family they already know, maybe; to collaborate with coworkers, sure; to lace their hard drive with gigabytes of free Internet porn, hell yeah—but never to meet someone whose name, age, and sex can only be confirmed via a user profile. You totally should’ve seen this coming. Dumbass.

I glance over at the far end of the counter, where Facebooked and Self-Published Author have started talking about how they’d like to create their own Utopian social network complete with a criticism-free comment system. Listening to their naivety is depressing…and yet it’s inspiring, too. I mean, I may be having friend problems right now, but at least I know what’s going on and am working to fix it. These guys are just deluded. Bitterness and moderate HTML skills can’t create a better Facebook—and everyone knows self-publishing, just like traditional publishing, only works for writers who’ve already established themselves.

Where the hell are my nachos? They’re taking forever today. The more time I have to kill, the more I keep getting these flashes of insight. Like right now. There’s a comic page floating in my mind’s eye. In the first panel, a manga version of Theo is sitting cross-legged and straight-backed on the floor of his bedroom, which has become an exaggerated Zen monastery meditation chamber. He’s staring mindlessly at the TV as he plays Wii. In the second panel, Beta’s downloading into the room; in the third, he’s sitting beside Theo and picking up the second Wii controller.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Theo echoes.

(Frame four: Both of them are sitting and staring mindlessly at the TV.)

“How are the eyes?”

“Still New.”

“Huh.”

Poof! The most boring comic in the world vanishes from my head. It leaves a lingering afterimage behind—because I know what I saw is most likely what’s actually going on in Theo’s bedroom this very moment. He’d rather be lame than be friends. Fucking Biclops.

At long last Tacoman slides in front of me a cardboard tray smothering under six layers of cheese and chips.

“Here is heart attack, Gordito,” he says, matter-of-factly.

(“Gordito” is Mexican for “good friend,” by the way. I’m not a total noob.)

I grab the nacho platter with both hands and, careful not to drip grease on my shirt, head over to where Tacoman has his laptop and webcam set up. As is his custom, he hits the “Send Home” button without even saying goodbye. That’s fine by me. All I want right now is to be alone with my food, my misery.

The world pixelates, smooths out again. I’m back in my bedroom—

—and so is Becky.

She’s got “WTF?” written on her forehead in bright red ink.

Pizza Box Reconciliation

@theo

No one says anything during the drive home. Dad’s pretending he’s focused on the road; Mom’s quietly fuming in the passenger seat; I’m slumped in the back and wishing for things that can never be. Like time travel. But what’s done is done. No sense crying over spilled milk—or spilled eye drops, as the case may be. The secret’s out. My parents know about SuperMegaNet. They’ll probably rush into my room first thing when we get home; Mom will start dismantling my computer while Dad hauls all my furniture out into the hallway. Next will be my music, manga, and video games—everything but a blanket and pillow. The blinds will be nailed shut, the light bulbs removed from their fixtures; I’ll be instructed to remain in my room until Monday morning, at which time I’ll be allowed a shower and two slices of burned toast before I’m driven off to school in my parents’ shiny new paddy wagon.

Dad turns onto Poinsettia. Admittedly, the pine and cypress canopy at the end of the cul-de-sac looks magnificent through my new lenses. We pull into our driveway, and Dad shuts off the car engine without saying a word.

Okay. I see. The silent treatment. Fair enough.

I start to get out of the car, but stumble as I miscalculate the distance between my sneaker and the concrete. Not because of the eyesight thing, mind you, but because I’m dead tired. It makes no difference to Mom, though. She does this Xena battle-cry thing and very nearly jumps through the passenger window so that she can steady me.

“Honey, careful!” she cries. “Let me help you.”

“I’m fine, Mom,” I insist, and shrug her off. I head up the walk, taking off my shoes and setting them aside before entering the house and sitting on the guest sofa. I await my fate.

Mom and Dad come in after a while. Mom sits beside me while Dad slowly paces back and forth with his hands in his pockets. Both of them look bewildered.

“What a jerk that Dr. Kim turned out to be,” Mom says. “I can’t believe we’ve been going to him all these years.”

“Well, to be honest,” Dad says, “we haven’t been going to him. We’ve only used him to sign doctors’ forms and to keep Theo’s vaccination records up-to-date.”

“He’s a glorified stamp of approval. A checker of temperatures, a signer of forms—”

“He’s also bound by certain laws, certain rules and regulations.”

“Nuts to rules and regulations! This is my little Theo we’re talking about!”

(I hate it when Mom refers to me like that!)

Dad clears his throat uncomfortably. “I’m hungry. You guys hungry? I’m going to fix us lunch.” He goes into the kitchen.

“Are you going to ground me?” I ask quietly.

A moment passes in which Mom looks to be on the verge of tears. “Your father and I, we trust you. We know that you made a mistake, but there’s nothing that can be gained from hindsight except a lesson learned. Punishment won’t get you your sight back, nor will sitting in a corner and thinking about what you’ve done. But thinking about what you will do from this day forward, that’s worthwhile. I’m guessing you’ll be much more careful from now on?”

I give my mom a hardcore deadpan look. I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Can you believe it? She’s being so New Age right now. In fact, she’s very nearly condoning my actions! That, or she’s indeed so rattled about her little boy having lost his eyesight that she can’t bear to make him more miserable than he already is. Any other mom would’ve ripped me a new one by now. But not Mom. She feels I’ve suffered enough—I hate her for it. I hate her for not stopping me from destroying myself. I want her to yell at me, to punish me, to beat the fear of the Internet into me so that I’ll no longer want anything to do with SuperMegaNet.

Instead, she hugs me and presses me into her arms and weeps for a few minutes. In the end, I’m the one doing the consoling, the coaxing, the coddling.

“Don’t worry,” I say, smoothing her hair, trying to calm her down enough so that I can extricate myself from this totally awkward moment. “We’ll get through this. We will.”

She continues crying for a while longer before finally letting go of me, leaning back, and patting at her cheeks with the backs of her hands. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be freaking out like this, now should I?”

Yes! Please, freak out! Use your anger! It makes you stronger! “It’s okay.”

“You poor thing. You look so tired. Why don’t you go upstairs and take a nap?”

I nod, getting to my feet.

Mom stands, too, and grips my shoulders. “In the meantime, I’m canceling all my appointments and parking myself in front of the computer for the rest of the afternoon. If Dr. Kim won’t fix you, I’m sure I can use Google to find someone who will. Don’t you worry.”

I let her kiss my forehead; I let her smooth my hair; I let her drift down the hall on high hopes. I should be at least marginally happy that I’ve not been reprimanded, but I’m not. In fact, I feel all the heavier as I climb the stairs and shuffle toward my room.

Inside, I close and lock the door behind me. I want to snuggle up in my bed, but am too tired to clear off Beta’s junk, so I head for my sleeping bag on the floor—and stop two steps in, sensing that something’s not right. Someone’s been here recently, someone beside Beta. There are chocolate smudges on my desktop, there’s a residue of fat in the air—Ernie’s sitting cross-legged beside my dresser. He’s got a large pizza box in his lap and the most pathetic expression on his face.

“Hey,” he says, smiling wanly.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

“I came to bury the ratchet.”

I stare at him.

He stares back.

He really does look pathetic.

I sit beside him with my legs drawn up, my chin resting on my knees. “I think you mean, ‘bury the hatchet.’” Pause. Then, quietly: “Fat-ass.”

Ernie slides the pizza box in front of me. “I got you a little present. I know you’re a vegetarian and all, so I ordered half with sausage and pepperoni, half with bell peppers, olives, and onions.”

I lift the cover, peek inside. Two remaining slices are swimming in a pool of grease. “Ernie, you’ve practically eaten the whole thing.” (Not that I’d care to clog my colon anyhow.)

“I know. I ate my half…and some of yours. I didn’t know how long it would be before you got home.”

“Well, I’m here. What did you want?”

Ernie pouts at me. “Don’t tell your parents.”

“I already did.”

“Fuck.” Ernie splays his legs, stares sullenly at his feet. “So…I guess you got your eyes fixed?”

I shake my head. “My doctor won’t look at me. I have to wear these special contacts if I want to see.”

“I heard they have X-ray contacts that let you see through a girl’s clothes. Do yours do that?”

“No.”

“Can you watch 3D movies on them?”

“No.”

Ernie looks disappointed. “Oh, well. I guess they’re still kind of cool anyway.”

“I guess.”

A moment of silence.

“So, I bet you’re grounded, huh?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I think my parents are using some kind of guilt thing against me. My mom says she trusts me. My dad’s making me lunch.”

“Fucking rich people. Afraid to get your hands dirty with a good old-fashioned ass-spanking, so you turn everything into psychological timeout.”

“I’m not rich.”

“You’re well-to-fucking-do, then.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’ve seen your house, and I’ve seen Eva’s, and Jan’s. Me and Eva are middle-class. Jan’s mud-hut poor. You, you’re a fucking rich white boy.”

“Dude,” I say, “I’m half Asian.”

“Okay, so you’re a rich, white, Asian.”

I shake my head. “Ernie, is there a point to this conversation?”

Ernie shrugs. “Not really. I just wanted to get in some quality time.”

“Okay, well, it’s been a blast. Now, can you go away and let me take a nap?”

Ernie starts to get up, stops, plops himself back down and blurts out, “I don’t want to go.”

Oh, geez. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t know if I’ll ever come back.”

“We live in the same town, you know,” I remind him. “We don’t need SuperMegaNet to hang out.”

“But we don’t. Hang out, I mean. You’re always at your mom’s gym, or at that shrink of yours. Eva’s always at practice. Jan…well, he’s always home—but his Internet connection is so shitty I may as well not know him at all.”

“Maybe that’s the point.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe SuperMegaNet started something that wasn’t meant to be.”

“That’s dumb,” Ernie says. “You’re over-analyzing.”

“I’m just saying that the Internet makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do. We treat each other like screen names instead of like actual people. The Internet makes us weird.”

“Dude, we’re already weird.”

A look of denial accidentally crosses my face for a second.

Ernie catches it, jabs his finger at me. “You especially, Biclops! I mean, a Russian-Chinese half-breed who listens to Asia, a band that has no Asian members and whose music has nothing to do with the actual continent besides the fact that they once played in Japan in 1983? Come on!”

“We need to make non-Internet friends,” I say, choosing to ignore the Asia comment. “Real friends.”

“I see what’s happening here,” Ernie says. “You want to force-feed Eva your meat, she’ll have none of it, and so now you’re going to take your epic fail and fuck off for a while.”

“For good—”

“Meanwhile, me and Janny Boy are collateral damage. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career after he made Collateral Damage.”

“I don’t understand why it matters so much to you. You’ve got your 213 SuperMegaNet friends, right?”

Ernie sighs, long and low, causing the air around him to smell like Skittles. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t have any friends. Those 213 losers on my buddy list…they’re just screen names, people I added to make my list look cool. I don’t know any of them.”

“Big deal,” I say. “I already knew that.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t know anyone else, either.”

“What about offline friends? From your neighborhood, your old school?”

“Dude, no one wants to hang with a loud-mouthed fat-ass who, until I was assigned to you guys, spends all his time gaming and eating and doing homework just so he can keep his grades barely above the threshold that allows him to keep his ‘special’ status.”

“But…what about…?” I trail off. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, well, now you do. That’s why SuperMegaNet is so important to me. You guys are all I have.”

I narrow my eyes. “You’re lying—this is just some scheme to trick me into changing my mind.”

“I’d never lie about being this pathetic.”

“That’s probably true,” I say, considering.

Not waiting for me to work it out in my head, Ernie play-hugs me, pretends to kiss me. “Come on. Let’s stay friends, ’kay?”

I push him away—but not before I hear Jan’s voice through my computer speakers:

“Hey, what are you guys doing?”

“Trying to have make-up sex!” Ernie screams. “Fuck off, Czech!”

“Ew, no!” I gasp, and jump to my feet, brush myself off (because that’s what you do when your fat, same-sex friend tries to make out with you).

Ernie laughs. “Dude, I was kidding. I don’t even like Asians. Especially not half-breeds—”

Mom knocks on the bedroom door. “Theo?”

Ernie wobbles to his feet, makes as if to hide.

“No,” I tell him. “It doesn’t matter. She knows.” I go over to the door, unlocking and opening it.

Mom steps inside.

Ernie’s red in the face…though I can tell by the way he’s sneaking glances at Mom’s legs that he’s not entirely averse to her presence.

“Hello, Mrs. Smole,” he says.

Mom nods at him. “Ernie, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s my good pal Theo here I’m worried about.” He puts his arm around my shoulders and squeezes. “I hear he’s going through some dark times.”

I glare at him. “Time to go home.”

He nods sheepishly, goes over to my computer, clicks the “Send Home” button—and starts shrieking horribly as he begins to upload.

Mom cups her hand over her mouth—

—and just as suddenly as he started screaming, Ernie starts giggling as the last of him fades away. “Just kidding! Later, Mrs. S!”

I glance over at my mom.

“My goodness,” she says after a moment. “What computers can do these days.”

The Allopathic Idiot

@theo

Despite Mom’s being a certified homeopath, my family does have a standard, run-of-the-mill GP we go to for all things mundane. His name’s Doctor Kim, apparently, and I have to read his name tag because I only ever visit his office for my yearly school checkup. Even then, Kim’s staff handles the proceedings.

To that end, he looks surprised to see me—though he smiles and shakes my hand as he enters the examination room.

“Ah, my friends the vegetarians,” he says. “Good afternoon.”

My parents take turns shaking Kim’s hand before sitting off to the side.

I pray to God I don’t have to undress for some reason.

Mom clears her throat uncomfortably. She’d been crying a lot in the car on the way over. “Thanks for seeing us on such short notice, Doctor Kim.”

“Not a problem.” Kim steps in front of me, glances down at his clipboard. His thinning hair is slicked back over a smooth, shiny pate. “So, Theo, you’re having a little, er, eye trouble?”

“I’m blind,” I reply, my voice catching in my throat.

“Blind?” Kim looks at me, peers at my eyes. “What can you see? Anything? Colors? Shapes?”

“Well, right now I can see, but only because I have my contacts in.”

Kim looks confused. He looks like he thinks I look confused.

I glance over at my parents.

Dad nods. “Go on. Show him.”

I hate this. I feel like the dog-faced boy being asked to turn a trick. But it’s necessary if I’m to be fixed up and sent on my merry way. I pop out the left lens, then the right. I blink in darkness afterward. I can’t see Kim, of course, but I imagine he’s doing the same thing I imagined my parents doing when I first showed them my hamster eyes: staring with his mouth wide open.

It’s a good, long moment before I hear him clear his throat. He must be shining a pen light into my eyes, because I can see blurry halos dancing in the darkness. “How did this happen?”

“I used some Old Eyes drops,” I say, slowly, reluctantly. “Well, not at first. I used New Eyes, then Old Eyes a few days later because I wanted to get rid of the New Eyes—”

“No, no, no, no…” Kim says, cutting me off. I hear him getting up, quickly walking over to the door, which he closes and locks. He goes to the other side of the room; it sounds like he’s fiddling with the window. “I’m sure it’s something completely different. Irritation, conjunctivitis, maybe a little glaucoma…”

I pop my contacts back in. The darkness lingers. For a moment I think I’ve been too rough with the lenses—but then I realize that Kim has closed the shades, turned off the lights.

He motions for me and my parents to join him in a huddle near the sink. Holding his pen light above our heads, he whispers, “Look, before we go any further, you need to understand that this practice does not condone the use of nanotech…”

Dad starts to say something—

—Kim continues uninterrupted, locked into pre-programmed disclaimer mode. “…nor do we provide information on where said tech can be obtained—”

Doctor Kim,” Mom says, sternly, insistently. She grabs his head between her hands. “You’re babbling.”

Kim relaxes—a little. “I apologize for being so…blunt, but we can’t be talking about this here. All of us could get into a lot of trouble.”

“I don’t understand,” Dad says.

“Nanotech is very touchy business. Right up there with stem cells. I mean, that doping business at the Olympics, those politicians caught placing fabricated DNA at crime scenes…need I go on?”

“My son is not doping up, nor is he seeding any crime scenes with DNA or whatever. He’s had an adverse reaction to some eye drops, and he needs your help.”

Kim starts squirming. “I want to help. Really. But for liability reasons, I don’t deal with nano, period. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

“But you haven’t even looked at him yet!” Mom exclaims.

“It’s not a question of diagnosis. I simply can’t treat him.”

Mom narrows her eyes. “Can’t or won’t?”

“Both,” Kim says. “If we’re talking complications from the use of New Eyes drops, then Theo’s condition has likely been caused by a caliber of technology that’s only available on the black market. What do you want me to do, dress in a trench coat and hat and go prowling around the seediest alleys in Chinatown?”

“If need be!” Mom growls, shifting her hands to Kim’s neck—

Dad stops her. “Easy now, hon. Let’s keep cool about this.”

“And just how do you expect me to do that with our son blinded and this allopathic idiot refusing to lift a finger because he’s more concerned over bureaucracy and red tape than he is with treating his patients?”

“Mrs. Smole—Anya, if I lose my practice I can’t treat anyone at all. Surely you’d agree that an ‘allopathic,’ as you call it, practice is better than no practice at all?”

My mom starts in again, something about having a backbone. I step back from the group, watching Kim quiver in his white coat, watching Mom seethe quietly while Dad holds her back. This isn’t at all how I imagined things would turn out. Asian doctors are supposed to be smart, intuitive; they’re supposed to have an herb or salve that can cure anything—they’re supposed to know kung fu! (Don’t even harp on me for being racist—I’m half Chinese, remember?) Here I thought Doctor Kim would be the answer to all my problems, my medicine man, my guiding light. Instead he’s just a flake, a cardboard cutout representative of Western medicine’s fucked up attitude towards nanotechnology.

“So, who am I supposed to turn to?” I ask. “Symantec? McAfee?”

Mom, Dad, and Kim stop arguing. They look at me. Kim uses the interruption as an out, wrestles free from Mom’s grip, goes over to the window and opens the blinds. Then he heads for the door, opens it, flicks on the light.

Standing in the threshold, he says, “I wouldn’t know, Theo. This is business for hackers, not an ‘allopathic idiot,’ as I’ve so thoughtfully been branded. Good day.”

He turns and leaves.

How to Ruin Your Mom’s Morning

Interesting tidbit: The first draft of this episode had a typo at the end, resulting in Theo’s heart-wrenching confession: “I’m blond, Mom.”

* * *

@theo

I’m surprisingly calm as I make my way downstairs. No rivulets of sweat trickling down my face, no heart hammering in my chest, no clammy palms tingling in anticipation. Just the sounds of the morning, the smell of incense wafting from Mom’s studio. It must be the lack of sleep—I’m simply too deprived of the energy needed to worry myself into a fit. Or maybe it’s the silent mantra I started repeating as soon as I left my room, the words of wisdom inspired by that dude in the secure proxy: My dick’s in my pants and not on the floor…my dick’s in my pants and not on the floor… It actually makes me feel better. (You should try it to see what I mean—well, if you’re a guy, that is.)

I pause at the entrance to my mom’s studio, peering inside. She’s doing acupuncture work on a pair of middle-aged men. When she sees me, she smiles and holds up her hand, gives me a done-in-five-minutes gesture.

I sit on the narrow guest sofa in the hall and wait, listening to her work. Every so often I hear a sizzling noise followed by a surprised gasp—followed by Mom’s patient reminder to “keep relaxed.”

Homeopathy is such a funny thing. People hate their doctors sticking needles in them, but they’ll pay good money for Mom to do the same thing—with flaming needles. It seems to work, though. Clients come from all over, sometimes scheduling appointments months in advance. Part of me (the dumb part, no doubt) wonders if maybe there’s some organic treatment, some special balm or tea that Mom can give me that’ll flush the nanobots right out of my eyes. You never know.

The five minutes pass quickly enough, at which point Mom steps out into the hall. She sits beside me, wraps me in her arms. She kisses the top of my head. “Good morning, hon.”

I clear my throat. “Good morning, Mom.”

“Sleep well?”

She always asks me that, and I always tell her the same thing, even though it’s never true. “Yeah, I slept just fine.” For that lone hour or two. “How come you didn’t wake me at eight, like usual?”

“You’re twelve now. And a freshman in high school. You don’t need me hounding after you anymore.” She smiles. “Besides, it’s Saturday.”

I nod, staring at the floor and fidgeting.

“What’s wrong, hon?” she asks after a moment.

I say, “I got this, um, chat program for school. It was supposed to be for an assignment. I had to learn five things about my classmates, and they had to learn five things about me. But the program isn’t just for chatting. It lets you upload and download to and from other people’s homes.”

Mom nods as if she understands—but she doesn’t. I can tell. She thinks I’m talking about uploading and downloading files.

“I…I met someone,” I continue, still fidgeting, still staring at the floor. “His name’s Beta. He’s living on a laptop in my bedroom because his real body got deleted during a server crash. He gave me New Eyes to impress this girl, but I didn’t want to keep them because I knew I’d get in trouble, so I asked him for Old Eyes to restore my original sight, but the Old Eyes didn’t work right. Instead of getting rid of the nanobots from the New Eyes, they just clogged up my vitreous, and…” I trail off, realizing I’m probably not making any sense.

Mom’s still smiling, still mostly oblivious, though it looks like she might be starting to understand that something’s wrong. “Theo…I don’t understand. What are you telling me?”

I barely get the words out before the first tears start trickling down my cheek: “I’m blind, Mom.”

We Interrupt This Blog for a Special Announcement from Theo Smole

@jan

“Jan! Katka! Come into the bathroom and look at this!”

That’s Dad shouting as if he’s on the second floor of a two-bedroom apartment. I pause the Annie Rivieccio YouTube video I’m watching and glance tentatively toward the hallway. The first thought to cross my mind: He’s spotted another gray hair, and he wants us to help him find any others so that he can pluck them out.

Mom leaves the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel, and crosses the living room. She gives me a silent “let’s get this over with” expression. I follow her into the bathroom—and gasp when I see that there’s a tree growing out of our toilet. Its branches are fanned out over the sink; the tallest ones graze the ceiling.

“Můj bože!” Mom exclaims, and slaps my shoulder. “Jan! I told you to use bleach when you clean the toilet!”

“No, no,” says Dad. “This has to be from the seeds I found under the tank this morning.”

I scrunch up my nose. “Seeds?”

“Yeah. Little round, black things. I thought they might be, er, droppings of some kind, so I flushed them.”

Mom looks concerned, glances along the floor. “To think we might have a rodent problem!”

Dad rolls his eyes. “Well, obviously it’s not rodents.”

Unless watering rat shit happens to be an undocumented method of growing trees in toilet bowls. Maybe it’s the combination of human and rat feces that causes a chain reaction…

“What are those things there?” I ask, stepping toward the bowl and scrutinizing the tree, thinking I can’t be seeing what I think I’m seeing. “The buds, they look like—”

“The answer to all our problems!” Dad shouts. He plucks a bud, pries it open, holds it out for me and Mom to see.

It’s a hundred dollar bill.

Which means that this thing growing out of our toilet bowl is a money tree.

Mom whoops, puts one arm around me, the other around Dad, and holds us in a celebratory huddle. I’m ecstatic as I start to come up with a grandiose shopping list for when the tree is in full bloom—

“Jan. Hey, Jan. It’s me, Theo. Wake up.”

I blink—the bathroom vanishes as I come awake in my bed.

Of course.

“G’waytheo,” I mumble, grasping my pillow and trying to wrap it around my head.

“Ernie,” comes Theo’s voice again, crystal-clear over his SuperMegaNet connection. “Wake up. Jan—”

“Blech…shit,” Ernie answers, groggily. “Blagh…cunt. Whathafuck?”

“Come on, guys. Wake up.”

I groan, rolling out of bed and sitting hunched at my desk. Through the wall I can hear Mom and Dad’s snoring. It rattles the family portrait, which is now hanging lopsided on the wall. Lucky them: They don’t have friends who use SuperMegaNet.

I turn my computer monitor on, arrange Theo and Ernie’s SMN windows around my Annie Rivieccio background. Theo looks terrible, what with his hair all disheveled, and those huge bags under his eyes—but Ernie looks worse. He looks trashed, like someone took a baseball bat to his face. It looks like he has a black eye. No wonder he wears sunglasses during his morning classes.

“I’m awake,” I yawn. “What do you want, Theo?”

“Yeah,” adds Ernie. “What’s the deal, Biclops? I see your eyes have cleared up. I told you they would.” He pauses, looks off-screen. “Shit! I wet my bed—oh, wait, never mind. It’s just soda.”

Theo glares (at Ernie, I hope). “I’m getting off SuperMegaNet. For good.”

“You’re leaving SMN?” I ask.

“Yeah. I think Eva was headed in the right direction when she decided to quit. I’m not going to use it anymore, either.”

Ernie looks hurt. “So what, it’s down to me and the filthy Czech now? No offense, Czech.”

“None taken, leviathan,” I reply.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about, Ernie,” Theo says. “You’ve got 213 friends. I’m sure at least a few of them wouldn’t mind hanging with you in the Little Debbie chat room.”

“Funny,” Ernie grunts dejectedly. “Another fat kid joke. Fucking hilarious.”

Theo sighs. “Sorry. I’m irritable because I haven’t gotten any sleep, because I’m freaking out over the whole eyes thing—because I’m sick of SuperMegaNet and what it’s done to me. Well, no more. I’m going to tell my parents what’s happened so that they can ground me off this darned thing for a good long while.”

“Wait,” Ernie says, at last looking interested in the conversation. “What exactly are you going to tell your parents?”

“Everything.”

“You’re not thinking of mentioning SuperMegaNet, are you?”

“I am.”

“What? No! You can’t tell your parents!”

“Why not? What do you have to worry about? They’re not your parents.”

Ernie turns livid. “My parents are dead! Wal-Mart stampede! Or did the eye-rot affect your memory, too?”

I start to ask what he means by “eye rot,” but he cuts me off.

“We had a pact!” he screams, slamming his fist against his desktop. “We had a pact, and you’re just going to shit all over it?”

“I have to, Ernie! You saw what happened to me!”

“Guys, what’s going on? What happened—”

“That doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for the rest of us! Tell your parents about your fuck-up, but leave SuperMegaNet out of it!”

“I won’t mention any of you,” Theo promises.

“Doesn’t matter!” Ernie shouts. “You know how parents are. Once one of them gets wind of something, they go blabbing to all the others the first chance they get. The supermarket, the salon, the Laundromat—breeding grounds for viral parenting! Before you know it all the adults will be checking their kids’ computers. ‘If it happened to smart little Theo it can happen to my shitty kid, too!’ And they won’t stop there. They’ll use SuperMegaNet as an excuse to take away our cell phones, our PlayStations, our porn collections! They’ll take away every last freedom we have!”

“You’re overreacting—”

“Am I?” Ernie leans forward, gives himself an extreme close-up. “My grandparents put a lock on our fridge—a lock!”

Theo shakes his head, reaches beside his computer monitor. “Ernie, I’m just going to go. This is getting out of hand.”

Close-up to extreme close-up on Ernie: “Don’t you dare tell your parents! I’ll never speak to you again if you do! Don’t you dare turn me off! Theo! Are you listening to me? If you turn me off I’ll never forgive you! Never again! Theo—”

An abrupt click sounds through my speakers.

Theo’s muted his audio. After a moment he gets up from his desk and leaves his room.

“That’s it!” Ernie screams. “I’m coming over there right now! Theo! Goddamnit, answer me!”

“Ernie!” I wave at my webcam, lean over and enunciate into the microphone. “What’s going on? What happened to Theo? Why’s he leaving?

Ernie’s response: “Not now, closet jock!”

The Fucked Up Twinkie Episode

Note: Jesse writes about himself in the third person in this episode. What a dick.

* * *

@summer

I’m getting ready for Saturday morning practice when Lily messages me on AIM:

gracefulklutz: Are you watching this?
summer_girl: Watching what?
gracefulklutz: The SuperMegaNet preempting thing!
summer_girl: What SuperMegaNet preempting thing?
gracefulklutz: Go look at your buddy list!
summer_girl: I’m kind of in the middle of doing my hair.
gracefulklutz: Go. Now.

I sigh and set down my hairbrush. I’ve been friends with Lily long enough to know that when she wants me to do something I’ve just got to do it. No buts.

I bring up my SMN window. Instead of my usual buddy list, though, I’ve got a column of identical thumbnail feeds displaying the inside of a gym. Ernie and Jan are there—and some random guy. Ernie’s stuffed himself into a ridiculous-looking track suit; Jan’s in a tank and sweats; the random guy—short, glasses, major five o’clock shadow, unkempt hair, vaguely familiar—has on a blue-green sweatshirt that’s missing the hood string.

The sweatshirt-glasses guy hands Ernie a box of Twinkies. He points at a nearby weight bench.

Ernie cringes.

Jan sighs.

They approach the camera, the boys in front, the sweatshirt-glasses guy standing behind them and fiddling with a camcorder.

Ernie mutters something under his breath. It sounds like, “I can’t believe you’re making us do this, Gordon.”

(Gordon—Jesse Gordon. So that’s who the sweatshirt-glasses guy is.)

“It’s no big deal,” Jesse says.

“Don’t you dare use the ‘b’ word around me!” Ernie screams. He clutches his belly, massages a hefty handful of fat through his track suit. “Of course it’s a big deal! You disappear for over a month, no explanation. Then your site disappears. Again, no explanation. None of us knows if you’ve been hit by a car or if you were arrested because of a dressing room mishap or what. We sure as hell have no clue where to show up for work in the morning. And it’s not like there’s an unemployment office for out-of-work fiction characters. Theo had no choice but to become a comment moderator at a geek blog. Jan here’s been whoring himself out at all the sex story repositories. Eva…I don’t know what the fuck she’s doing. Probably setting up fake MySpace accounts to sucker horny guys into joining adult webcam sites.”

Sex story repositories? Fake MySpace accounts? Oh, my God! How sad!

Jan blinks at Ernie, goes wide-eyed. “I’m not doing sex stories. Who told you I was doing sex stories?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Ernie flails his arms above his head. “What matters is that Mr. ‘Jesse Gordon—the geek, that is’ left us high and dry! He left me to starvation, you with possible genital warts, Eva with a severe case of the Add Me’s!”

“Ernie, I have not been doing sex stories!”

Jesse waves his hand in the air. “Guys, calm down. I didn’t leave you. I took a break.”

“A break?” Ernie snorts. “From what? You blog once or twice a month and write a novel every two or three years!”

“Um, I also do a lot of other things, thank you very much.”

Ernie wags the Twinkies box at Jesse. “You’ve never had a real job in your life!”

“Ernie—” Jan says, trying to cut in.

“Keep pulling cheap blog stunts like this and I’ll be seeing you on the streets!”

Jan tugs at his sleeve, looks like he’s trying to calm him down before he says something really stupid—but it’s too late.

Jesse’s pissed.

Giving Ernie an imperial look, he says, “Do the Twinkie stunt or you’re off the series.”

Ernie narrows his eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Jesse narrows his eyes. “Oh, yeah, I would.”

Slowly, quietly, Jan steps into the background.

“Go,” Jesse continues. “Find another blog if you think you can do better. But remember this: There are a lot of bloggers out there. And more than a few of them would be perfectly happy using you for, say, a blogfic involving an underage sex scene in a sleazy motel room.”

Ernie blinks, swallows.

“Ever seen Vulgar? Replace Brian O’Halloran’s character with you. That’s how bad it can get, Ernie—”

“Fine, I’ll do it,” Ernie says, cutting Jesse off in a carefully nonchalant manner. “But only because it’ll shut you up.” He starts towards the weight bench (the camera follows). Under his breath: “Lucky for us you’re not popular enough that anyone’s actually reading this shit anyway.”

“What was that?” asks Jesse.

“Oh, nothing,” Ernie replies, turning and smiling innocently. “I was just saying that this should definitely improve your readership.”

Jan clears his throat. In perfect (yet very nearly unintelligible) English, he addresses the camera. “Um, excuse us, everyone. Sorry for the interruption, but due to certain stipulations in our contract, we’re going to preempt your feeds for a few minutes—”

We’re not doing anything!” Ernie shouts, pushing Jan out of the way and framing himself somewhat-center. “This Jesse Gordon character—” He juts his thumb over his shoulder. “—is being a royal asshole and making us pull this ridiculous stunt just because he went and created some lame ol’ SuperMegaNet Facebook group that he can’t get anyone interested in! So, he’s going to exploit the fat kid in the hopes that it’ll attract members! Because everyone knows fat kids love Twinkies. How original!”

Jan shoves Ernie aside. “Mr. Gordon would like to commemorate the Facebook group’s achieving fifteen non-family memberships with an impromptu stunt performed by Ernest Goodale and myself. Without further ado, I present to you the Twinkie bench press.”

Jesse hits the record button on his camcorder. Jan lays on the bench. Ernie climbs above. There’s a moment of hemming and hawing before Jan, cringing, braces his arms in the air. Ernie sits on Jan’s hands. He has to lean sideways somewhat, but it works well enough that Jan can hold him suspended above his chest. He performs his first rep.

“Good,” Jesse murmurs, chuckling. “Open the box, Ernie.”

Ernie opens the Twinkies box.

“Now, eat.”

I’m aghast. And yet I can’t turn away. It’s just one of those things, you know? Ernie sniffles, unwraps a Twinkie, takes it in as Jan trembles below, red-faced. In the background, Jesse’s got his camcorder aimed squarely at the boys. He’s giggling like a little schoolgirl, he’s acting like he can’t help himself—but he can. He’s the writer, he’s created this sadistic scene, and he’s spurring it on for his own personal enjoyment.

Jan does another rep, this one not as certain as the first. Ernie wobbles, over-compensates, and gets a chunk of Twinkie stuck in his eye.

gracefulklutz: This is so sad.
summer_girl: Totally.
gracefulklutz: Have you heard anything about this SuperMegaNet Facebook group, or whatever it is?
summer_girl: Nope. You?
gracefulklutz: Nope.
summer_girl: Sad.
gracefulklutz: Yeah.

Perceptive Flux from a Plush Doll’s Perspective

@theo

It’s less than an hour until dawn by the time I get home. I’m tired—I’m beyond tired. I’m in that fuzzy place where the mind refuses to shut off even though the brain is already out cold. I should probably go straight to bed, get a few hours’ sleep before facing down my parents.

“Well, well, look at you! No more big ol’ glasses!”

I look down. Mini-Theo is toddling over to where I’m standing. I give him a good, hard look. There’s got to be some trick to his consciousness, some magic to his motion.

“And that bedroom hair!” he continues, stopping, smiling, wrapping his arms around himself and pretending he’s making out with an invisible partner. “Your look is almost complete! All we need is a fish net tank top for you and the mass deflowering of Boca Linda’s eligible junior and senior girls can begin in earnest!”

“Never mind,” I say, frowning, “that I’ve lost my natural eyesight—”

“While gaining at least a pound of pimpness!”

“—and that I have to wear special contacts until I can get my parents to take me to the doctor.”

“You’re too negative! With your new lenses you can see 20/20—without the need for eyeglasses. Say what you will, but that’s way cool.”

I shake my head. “Who are you?”

Mini-Theo stops making out with himself. He blinks up at me. “I’m you, dork. Part of you, anyway.”

“Yeah, but are you real or imaginary?”

“I’m as real as you need me to be.”

That’s not an answer. “Meaning?”

Mini-Theo snorts, rolls his eyes. “Most people develop a voice in their head during adolescence. It’s part of the cognitive development process. You developed a plush doll version of yourself instead. Big deal. You’re not the first. It’s called personification. The application of human-like attributes to an inanimate object.”

“So, I am imagining you?”

“No, not at all. I totally exist. Now, whether I’m a walking, talking miniature or just a dirty sock you’ve personified is up for debate.”

Also up for debate: whether I’ve gone insane or am just majorly sleep-deprived.

Mini-Theo raises his arms; a translucent layer of celestial imagery—galaxies, stars, planets—is superimposed against the backdrop of my bedroom; Dom F. Scab’s “Fear to Void” starts playing. “See, I exist in a state of perceptive flux. Someone else might walk into the room and see you talking to a dirty sock because that’s what they expect to see, that’s what their brain is wired to think is possible. To that person I can only exist as a dirty sock. To you it’s entirely possible that I’m a walking, talking, super-sexy mini-me. Either of you would be correct in his assumption of my existence in a particular state. You’re both seeing the same thing. You’re just perceiving it differently.”

“Then…I’m the only one who can see you as a doll?”

“I prefer the term figure. And to answer your question, it depends on who’s looking and what their perceptive state is like.”

I shake my head, dodge a brilliant sun as it whizzes past. “Real or not, why do I need a plush doll version of myself?”

Mini-Theo darts forward, kicks me ineffectively in the shin. The whirling pyrotechnics go poof! in time with the impact. “Stop thinking of me as a separate entity! I’m your ego, your libido, your competitive edge—I’m you. Us. I help get things done. I prioritize when to be a dick and when not to be. I help us decide who to step on and who not to. When we’re older, I’ll make sure we get laid on our prom night.”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I think I can handle myself just fine without the likes of you.”

Mini-Theo laughs so hard he splits a seam along his neck.

“What’s so funny?”

“Before I came along, all you did was go to school and come home. It was all homework or PHP coding with you. You go to your mom’s gym everyday, but you’ve never been in a fight or arm-wrestled anyone or even walked around the house with your shirt off. You’ve never lived.”

Ignoring the fact that Mini-Theo’s gone back to using the first-person, I sigh and say, “Before you came along I had eyes that worked, I had safety, security, stability—”

Boring.”

“It’s my life, to live how I want—”

“Fail! That’s why your subconscious created me: because it was bored out of its ever-loving mind.”

“—and anyway, there’s something not right about believing in a little doll version of myself. People would think I’m nuts if they knew!”

“You shouldn’t care what people think,” Mini-Theo says. “Not if you sprout a plump, red zit on your nose, and not if you carry around your ego in plush figure form.”

This is ridiculous. It’s almost sunrise and I’m having an argument with a doll. I need to be in my bed right now. I crouch, grabbing Mini-Theo.

“Hey! What are you doing?” he squeals, flailing his little arms and legs like crazy.

“I’m putting you away,” I tell him, and head for the closet. “Then I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours.”

“Oh, I see how it is! Police state! Ignorance is bliss! Sweep the problem under the carpet! Silence the little guy!”

I’m not listening as I toss him inside the closet. I slam the door, back up a step, bump into the TV. It turns on. That old The Twilight Zone episode, “The Passersby,” is on. It’s the scene where they show the wounded soldier’s face. Out of reflex, I reach up to take off my glasses, like I usually do when there’s something on that I don’t like. Of course, I have no glasses. Just my fancy contacts, my crystal-clear, 20/20 vision that allows me to see the poor soldier’s face in all its glory.

I hate this episode.

The Smallest Cameras in the World

@theo

“I’m going to raid your fridge,” Beta says.

“You’re not actual,” doctor_cracker says. “You can’t eat.”

“I can eat. I just can’t digest.”

“You should talk to my sister-in-law, then. She’d kill for a deal like that.”

Beta laughs and, assuring me that he’ll be right back, skedaddles away. I listen to him go. I want dearly for him to stay with me, but, more than that, I want to look like I’m taking this whole thing like a man—even though I don’t understand why he and the good doctor are joking like it’s Super Bowl Sunday. Maybe they’re doing it for my benefit, maybe they’re just as scared as I am and this is their way of keeping cool. Or maybe they see corrective eye drop mishaps like this all the time and there’s really nothing to worry about. I hope.

I can hear doctor_cracker working beside me, tinkering. I let him be for a few minutes before I clear my throat and ask, “So, how is it you’re qualified to be working on eyes?”

“Because,” doctor_cracker replies, slowly and between bursts of concentration, “back in the day, I used to work with your good friend Beta over at Taurus Labs. They’re the company behind the lovely little bit of SuperMegaNet technology which brought you here this morning.”

I knew that.

“Beta was the shit back then, had his grubby little paws in a dozen different projects, one of which involved restoring sight to the blind. I was part of the ophthalmology team.”

“Sounds kind of fancy for just a video chat program.”

“Kiddo, SuperMegaNet is much more than video chat.” doctor_cracker chuckles. “The chat client is one of many nanotech-based features developed off our various government contracts. You think your average store-bought PC can teleport whole people on just a Core 2 Duo and a gig or two of RAM?”

Now that he mentions it…no. “I figured the software had really good compression.” Or something along those lines.

“Yeah, but how do you turn physical matter into light patterns that an ordinary three-megapixel webcam can scan and transmit over the Internet? How do you tell a computer where human DNA ends and background particulates—dust, pollen, dander—begin?”

Huh. “I guess you have a point.”

“Computers are dumb. They’re drones for processing input and output. When it comes to SMN, we need something that thinks, something that intuitively manages its resources in faster-than-real-time.” doctor_cracker shifts beside me, lifts my chin with his hand. “But I don’t need to tell you more. You’re in enough trouble already.”

I want to ask him what he means by that, but I get the feeling I’d be treading into delicate territory. So I shrug, trying not to flinch as he shines the light in my eyes again. It doesn’t hurt, it just feels weird keeping my eyes wide open while someone shines a bright light inside.

“I take it,” doctor_cracker says, “since you came here unsupervised you’re keeping your parents out of the loop?”

“I’d rather not worry them if I don’t have to,” I say.

“You get along with them?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why the secrecy?”

“They…they wouldn’t understand.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do,” I say. Which is a lie. I really don’t know exactly how my parents would react if I told them what’s happened. Mom and Dad are the most trusting people in the world. They’re not grossly naïve or anything; they simply trust me implicitly. They trust me to turn in my homework on time, they trust me to take a shower every day, to stick to my diet, to always tell the truth. They trust me to say no to drugs, to save my virginity for my wedding night. They truly believe I’m worthy and capable of minding my own affairs. But am I? Look at how I’ve handled this whole SuperMegaNet thing so far. I’ve kept secrets, told lies—I’ve eroded my own self-control. I had total reign over my thoughts and actions until SuperMegaNet—until Eva. She makes me want to do wild, strange things. She makes me have R-rated dreams in which I’m either running around and hacking her prospective boyfriends to bits, or I’m deflowering her in all the worst ways. She’s pitched me head-first into puberty. And she doesn’t even like me.

“Seems to me,” doctor_cracker says, “you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

“I don’t think I am,” I tell him. I go on to quote myself: “Everything in the world works because of constant pressure between forces that balance themselves out. My world exists because I’m careful about everything I do. I plan ahead, I follow through on promises—”

doctor_cracker snorts, cutting me off. “Kids these days. You all over-analyze entirely too much. Look at the ceiling.”

I look up. doctor_cracker pulls open the eyelids of my right eye and drops in the first contact lens, tells me to blink. He repeats the process for my left eye. I’ve never worn contacts before, so I don’t know if these are bigger or smaller than the norm. They feel big.

“You really should be seen by a doctor,” he says, and pulls my head forward slightly, slips what feels like a necklace over my head.

“I know,” I murmur.

A sigh. “Okay, I’m switching the lenses on.”

There’s a sudden flash of light—it catches me off guard, causes me to flinch. However, the discomfort is only momentary as the room around me solidifies. I realize I’m in a basement. There’s a row of shelves to my right, a work bench with a laptop on it; to my left, stacks of boxes beside a doorway, beyond which a flight of stairs leads upward. Above me, haloed by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, is doctor_cracker. He’s got thinning brown hair, wild and unkempt, a shaggy beard, and there are circles under his eyes, as if he doesn’t sleep much.

He nods at me, steps back and gestures at the far end of the room, where he’s got an eye chart hanging on the wall. “Read me the letters from the smallest line you can see clearly.”

I squint. My vision’s a little blurry. “P…E…G…F…D.”

He has me cover my left eye. He turns to his laptop, punches a few keys. My right eye now focuses more clearly. “Better or worse?”

“Better,” I say.

He hits a few more keys. “Better or worse?”

“Better.”

And so we proceed, on down the line until both of my eyes are seeing crystal-clear. It’s not unlike a visit to the optometrist.

We’re just about wrapped up when Beta, Pringles can in hand, steps back into the room. I hadn’t been able to see him before—I’d had no idea he’s been sporting a ridiculous-looking Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts combo all this time.

“So, what’s the deal, Doc?” he asks. “Amputation? Castration? Lobotomy?”

doctor_cracker ignores him and fingers my new necklace (it’s nothing special, just a piece of what looks like silver shaped into, appropriately, a tiny pair of eyeglasses). “This is your power source, l33t. Wireless. It’s got a limited range, a few feet, give or take. It’s the same kind of tech a person gets when they have, say, a modern pacemaker installed. Some people prefer bracelets, earrings, or novelty pins, but this is all I have on hand at the moment. Now, it takes an ordinary button cell. You should get about a week of juice before you have to change the battery, longer if you take the necklace off at night when you sleep. Keep an extra battery or two on you, just to be safe. Your lenses have a power-off memory of about five minutes, meaning you won’t lose your settings if you replace the battery within that time. If you fuck it up, you’ll have to have a tune-up to give you your 20/20 back. I may or may not be available for another 2:00 AM appointment.” He glares at Beta for a moment before looking back at me. “Clear? Good to go?”

I nod.

“All right, then.” doctor_cracker ruffles his hair, rubs his face, start
s out of the room. As he brushes past Beta, he reclaims the Pringles can and says, “I’ll expect those Steely Dan files in my inbox by lunchtime.”

“I’ll get them to you by breakfast,” Beta promises.

“Goodnight, bro.”

“Don’t you mean ‘good morning?’”

“Whatever.”

Beta waits until the doc is up the stairs before winking at me. “Like I said, he gets grumpy without his beauty sleep.”

“He didn’t seem that bad,” I say, standing, blinking, rolling my eyes slightly. I have to consciously resist the urge to push my nonexistent glasses up the bridge of my nose.

I follow Beta up into doctor_cracker’s cluttered living room. It’s all rickety-looking dinner trays, empty pizza boxes, kids’ schoolbooks and backpacks. We go over by the darkened window, where a battered PC sits on a patchwork desk—the family computer, I’m guessing. SuperMegaNet is up and ready to go. I step beside Beta and he uploads us back to the proxy, which is nothing like the plain, white waiting room I’d imagined. There are two-dozen tall, circular tables—no chairs—set throughout. On each table is a webcam and a simple keypad. Everything’s sparse, minimalist, functional. The walls are made of glass; beyond is a panoramic angel’s eye view of a bed of clouds. (In the back of my mind I’m wondering if it’s an actual floating lobby or just a virtual chat room on a server.)

Beta gestures for me to follow him over to one of the webcams. “You know your IP address?”

“I do,” I say.

“Cool. Punch it in here and press Enter when you’re ready. That’s it.”

“You’re not coming back with me?”

“Naw. I’ve got some errands to run.”

I nod. “Okay, then. See you when I see you, I guess.”

Beta shrugs, looks away for a moment. “I’m really sorry things turned out the way they did, little dude.”

“It’s not your fault,” I say. “You didn’t know I was in the five percent.”

“Still…I feel like I should’ve known better. I’ll understand if you want me to leave.”

There’s my in, my chance to finally kick him out. I consider running with it. Summer would be pleased—but now that I think about it, I’ve grown accustomed to having a roommate. True, if it wasn’t for Beta I’d never have tried New Eyes (or Old Eyes). But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten my sight back, either.

“Do you want to leave?” I ask him, pretending to be interested in a long-haired, guitar-carrying, troubadour-looking guy who’s just appeared one table over.

Beta shrugs. “I don’t know. I mean, you’ve got a great Internet connection. And it’s nice playing Super Smash Bros. with someone who knows his special moves.”

That’s code for, “I want to stay friends with you.” (See, guys can’t really admit that they like each other in a friendly kind of way—but they can admit that there’s no reason not to. If that’s the case. And I think it is.)

“See you later, then,” I say, and I step back, watch Beta key in his IP. He winks at me and hits Enter, uploads (or downloads, depending on whether we’re virtual or actual at the moment) away.

I linger in the proxy for a few minutes. People come and go quietly, minding their own business. I watch them, trying to discern the differences between contact lenses and ordinary glasses. I wonder if I might go for the rest of my life with doctor_cracker’s quick fix providing visuals—but no, that’s not an option. It can’t be. I’d be doing it for the wrong reason. I have to face my fears.

I have to tell my parents.

doctor_cracker

@theo

There are voices surrounding me. I can’t see a thing, but it sounds like I’m in a moderately-sized room full of people. A lobby or parlor, maybe. Beta’s got his hands on my shoulders and is guiding me into a chair.

“Where are we?” I ask, feeling for the arm rests, easing myself in. “Some kind of free clinic?”

“It’s a secure proxy,” Beta answers. “doctor_cracker is a little OCD with his privacy.”

doctor_cracker? “We’re going to see someone named doctor_cracker?”

“Chill. That’s just his screen name. Speaking of which, you should know it’s screen names only while we’re here. Okay, l33t_master?”

“Okay.”

“All right. Wait here. I’m going to get us in the queue.”

As if I’m in any position to be wandering around by myself.

I lean back in my chair, cross my fingers and pray that Beta remembers to come back. It doesn’t occur to me that someone might notice my condition and ask questions until I hear a soft, low whistle coming from beside me.

“You a Wes Borland fan?” asks a male voice.

I don’t know who that is. “Why do you say that?”

“The contacts. You look like Wes Borland from Limp Bizkit.”

“They’re not contacts,” I reply, immediately regretting my honesty, but unable to wrangle my tongue before the words are out. “I…I had a little accident. New Eyes.”

“Oh.” The guy beside me goes quiet for a moment. “Shit. Well, look on the bright side. It could be worse.”

“How’s that?” How could it possibly be worse?

“I had a friend who tried Big Dick. Got himself up to eight inches, went to try it out on his girlfriend and the damned thing fell off, left him with the nastiest pussy you ever saw. Turns out that particular batch of Big Dick had been infected with a computer virus.”

Wow. That’s truly horrific. And yet it does make me feel better to know my penis is tucked safely between my legs and not laying on the floor, covered in voracious nanobots. I’ll have to remember that the next time I run into trouble.

Momentarily, Beta returns.

“Yo, l33t. I got the doc out of bed. Let’s go.”

I stand. Beta leads me several steps in one direction, stops me, does something with his free hand. I hear a mouse click—and off we go, out of the proxy, into doctor_cracker’s domicile. I can’t tell you what the place looks like, but I can tell you what it smells like: pizza boxes. Leftover pizza boxes.

“What’s up, cracker?” Beta says. He pats me on the back. “This is my friend, l33t_master.”

doctor_cracker sighs, snorts grumpily. Without returning Beta’s greeting he asks me, “You’ve been playing with corrective eye drops, haven’t you?”

I nod.

“Yeah. Um, okay. Thanks but no thanks, Beta. You and your friend can show yourselves out—”

“Don’t be like that, Doc,” Beta interrupts. “We’re supposed to be old pals, remember?”

“Friends or not, this is messy business, this nanotech stuff.”

“Which is why l33t needs your help. I mean, he can’t very well waltz over to the ER, can he? Not unless he wants his parents fined, his Internet connection cut.”

“And I could go to jail. You could be deleted. Shit, you especially should know the risks involved in associating with a nano-junkie.”

“He’s not a junkie, he just had a bad reaction. And it’s a free country. I’m not out to hurt anyone or hack any government servers. Fuck living in fear.”

doctor_cracker is starting to get worked up. He whispers loudly, “That’s all fine and dandy for you, you’ve gone virtual. But I—” (I can practically hear him jabbing his finger in the direction of a nearby hallway or staircase.) “—still have a life to live and a family to take care of, thank you very much!”

“Do this for me and I’ll get you the new Steely Dan album.”

doctor_cracker pauses, then says, “You’re bluffing.”

“I’m not.”

“No one’s got that—not even Steely Dan’s got that.”

“I know one of the engineers. He got me the files. FLAC. None of that MP3 bullshit.”

doctor_cracker keeps quiet for a good long while. Then he sighs again, and I can hear him moving away. “All right. Bring him down to my workshop.”

It’s slow and precarious work, but Beta guides me across the room and down a flight of stairs. Here, it smells like spray cleaner and wood chips. I’m seated on a hard chair; I can hear another chair or stool being dragged towards me. Beta lets go. I swallow hard, considering that if he and the doc were to ditch me here, I’d be lost forever.

“Tilt your head back,” doctor_cracker says, and lifts my chin. He flips a switch, and suddenly I can see vague shapes, a bright light—like a street lamp through a very thick fog. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

“Good news,” I tell him.

“Your internal eye structures are intact. The bad news is that your vitreous—the fluid filling your eyes—is all gunked up with dead nanobots. Probably terminated prematurely, before they could do a proper cleanup. Sort of like when you try to uninstall a shitty Windows program from your computer. You’ve got registry keys and discarded files everywhere. In this case, the nanobots left themselves unpacked.”

“Oh.”

“Basically, you’re not getting enough light to the backs of your eyes. Normally I’d give you some drops that would go in and flush out the excess bots, but I’m hesitant to do that since I don’t have a decent medical history on you. I don’t know if this is an allergic reaction kind of thing or if the drops you used were defective or what.”

Beta clicks his tongue. “I’m disappointed, Doc. All this equipment down here and you can’t do anything?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” doctor_cracker says. “Now, l33t, it’s not a permanent solution, as your eyes are still fucked up, and, penalty or no penalty for using illegal eye drops, you should be seen by an actual doctor…but it just so happens I’m a tinkerer. I can give you special contact lenses that’ll beam the necessary light to the backs of your eyes.”

“Bravo!” Beta cheers, clapping lightly. “You see, l33t? This is why I love the doc.”

I want to tell him that no, I don’t see—I’m flippin’ blind! Instead, I smile and try not to hope for the best.