Inadvertent Underwear

@theo

“You’re in your underwear,” I blurt, gawking at Eva’s crotch as if we aren’t always accidentally glimpsing each other’s undies via our SuperMegaNet feeds anyway. But it never gets old seeing your crush in the flesh…in the flesh. If you know what I mean.

“Duh,” Eva says. “I was getting ready for bed—”

“No time for boners!” Ernie yells, and taps the “send” button on Jan’s phone.

Eva uploads again, a dumbfounded expression on her face.

I shake my head, snapping out of some kind of underwear-induced trance. “What did you do?”

“I sent her to Thrill-Kill’s,” Ernie replies matter-of-factly.

What?” Horrified, I grab the phone out of his hands. “Why’d you do that?”

“Scouting mission.”

Scouting mission?

“We need to scope out the place, make sure the coast is clear, right?”

“Ernie—”

“Send a guy in, and he’s up to no good, he’s a thief, he doesn’t belong. But send a girl, and it’s all, ‘Oh, you poor little thing! Are you lost? Let’s help you find your parents.’ Fucking double standard!” Ernie clears his throat. “Meanwhile, we use the distraction to do a little in-person hacking.” He grabs the phone back, addresses Eva: “You there, angel food cake?”

Thrill-Kill’s window is still a gaping black hole, but we can hear Eva shuffling around—and she sounds none too pleased. “Ernie! I’m going to break your face!”

“That’s nice. Is anyone home?”

“How should I know? I can’t see anything! It’s pitch black in here, and it smells like—oh, my God, what was that?”

“What was what?”

“Didn’t you hear that?”

“It was probably Ernie releasing toxic gasses,” Jan offers.

“Dirty Czech!” Ernie shoots back.

Eva continues to stumble in the darkness. “Guys—there’s something moving around in here!”

Chains rattle.

Eva screams. Then…

…dumb silence.

As in Ernie is a total and complete dumbass for having sent her to an early demise.

Oh.

@theo

“It looks like the lights are off,” I say, staring at the ominous black square that is Thrill-Kill’s SMN window. The worry center of my brain entertains the very real possibility that she lives inside a supermassive black hole. Which would explain a lot.

“You’ll need a scout,” Ernie suggests, and leans to one side, props his arms on the floor, and shifts onto all fours, raising one leg, then the other until eventually he’s in a standing position. He holds out his hand. “Give me your phone.”

I flinch away from him. “It’s stuck on Thrill-Kill’s server, thankfully. And besides, I’ve revoked your borrowing privileges.”

“What? How come?”

“You broke my phone—and my laptop.”

“Broke them in, you mean.”

“They were already broken in, thank you very much.”

Ernie rolls his eyes. “Oh, please. They were both total virgins.”

“Were not.”

“Were too.”

“Not.”

“Too.”

Not.

“Dude, everyone knows the only way to take a phone or laptop’s cherry is by downloading porn. Hentai at the very least.” Ernie nods at Beta. “Back me up.”

Beta nods back. “It’s true, little dude.”

“All you had on your sweet, virgin little devices,” Ernie continues, facing me again, “was some progressive rock and ordinary, vanilla manga. That’s like kissing a girl on the wrist. Your shit’s factory fresh, Tommy boy. If it hadn’t been for me, your various cherries would be shriveling into raisins.”

I glance down at the flickering, moaning remains of my laptop. “You’re thinking of grapes, gas giant. And you didn’t just take my laptop’s cherry, you…you raped it.”

“That’s a little violent, don’t you think?” Beta asks, and waves his sword offhandedly, picks a piece of dust from the blade.

“You can rape someone’s laptop without becoming violent,” I explain. “It’s the simple act of forcing a laptop to do what you want it to that’s wrong.”

Ernie blinks at me. “Then…didn’t you violate your laptop by forcing Ubuntu onto it?”

“I installed Ubuntu, if that’s what you mean.”

“And it was consensual? Your laptop accepted it willingly?”

“Well, I had to turn off Secure Boot in the BIOS, and I recompiled the kernel to get basic sound support, but—”

“Rape,” Ernie interrupts, shaking his head.

“I didn’t rape my laptop!” (I can’t believe I just said that out loud.)

“You vicious monster.”

“Go home, Ernie.”

He flicks me off, turns to Jan. “Are you going to be a douche, too, or can I borrow your phone?”

Without looking up, Jan, still seated on the floor, pulls out his phone and tosses it to Ernie. “Here, Leviatan.”

Ernie starts tapping away.

“Who are you texting?” I ask, suspicious.

“Patience, pedo’s delight.”

Momentarily, Eva—in undies and a T-shirt, and wielding a baseball bat—downloads into my room. She’s got an alarmed look on her face. “What? What’s the matter? Is everything okay?”

At that moment, two things happen: one, Ernie rips one. Like, he really rips one. It sounds like a ham and cheese sandwich clapping, smells like days-old pinto beans smeared over a rotting cadaver that’s been fermenting inside a giant block of Limburger cheese. Two, Dad, looking bleary-eyed and disheveled from overtime at Nakayoshi’s office, happens to crack the bedroom door, stick his head inside.

On witnessing the proceedings, he mutters, “Oh.”

Which pretty much sums up the key bullet points of the present scene:

  • Asian warrior dude with sword and shield.
  • Deer-in-headlights underwear girl holding baseball bat.
  • Fat Pikachu caricature giggling proudly and wafting eerie tendrils of inexplicably visible flatum toward random Euro-ghetto kid.
  • Living ghost of Tommy Carlton face-palming himself.

A single spark escapes one of Dad’s ears, and he closes the door without another word.

The NES Classic Conspiracy

@theo

I wave my hands back and forth insistently. “No, no. We’re not hacking into my guidance counselor’s house.”

“Technically,” Beta says, “she’s already been hacked. We’d just be taking advantage of said hack.”

No hacking. There’s got to be a plan B.” I glance at my laptop instinctively, looking in vain for plan B. Instead, there’s just porn. So much porn. I try to kill Opera, but that merely triggers a sound bite of a woman moaning. I start closing tabs manually, one after another after another. The selection of frolicking couples is rich and varied, ranging from college cowgirls to grinding grannies—but it’s the last tab that really catches my attention. It’s got a gaming blog loaded. “The NES Classic Conspiracy?” I ask Ernie, reading the title aloud.

He rolls onto his side, a flurry of cookie crumbs avalanching down his mountainous belly. “Yeah, you know.”

“Know what?”

“That there’s no such thing? That Nintendo only made it up to bolster sales of the Switch?”

“I’ve heard this one,” Beta says, nodding.

Where is this possibly going? “What are you talking about?”

Ernie struggles into a sitting position. “The NES Classic doesn’t and hasn’t ever existed. It was all a viral marketing gimmick started by Nintendo to sell more Switches.”

“Have you seen Breath of the Wild? The only gimmick Nintendo needed to sell more Switches was Zelda, and they totally did so.”

“Because of the NES Classic urban myth,” Beta says.

“Think about it, jungle boy,” Ernie continues. “Have you or anyone you know ever seen an NES Classic in real life? On a store shelf? In someone’s living room?”

“Well, no—”

“Exactly! No one seems to have one, yet all these alleged gamer types are on social media posting pics of the NES Classics they supposedly managed to buy just before it sold out. They manage to hold onto their NES Classic just long enough to take a pic and post it on Twitter. Then they sell their Classic on eBay, immediately erasing all purchasing history and conveniently losing any and all receipts that might prove they’d actually bought a Classic in the first place.” Ernie pretends to wipe his butt with his finger, holds the finger up for me to sniff. “Does it smell like shit to you yet?”

“Nobody has an NES Classic,” I say, “because Nintendo underestimated demand. The fanboys and fangirls all ran out and bought one at launch. Everyone else grabbed the rest to resell on eBay for five times the price. It’s called dickotomy.”

“Don’t you mean dichotomy?”

“Nope. Dickotomy, with a k.”

“You’re not getting it, little dude,” Beta says. “The NES Classic isn’t an actual product that was ever sold in stores or online. It’s a marketing campaign. Nintendo paid off hundreds of its street team members to post photos of a mock-up device. No one actually owns an NES Classic.”

“That’s ridiculous. If my laptop wasn’t swimming in porn, I could totally go on Amazon right now and buy an NES Classic.”

“But will you?”

“Well…no.”

“Why not?”

“Because two-hundred dollars for thirty games, no Contra or Dracula’s Curse, only one Mega Man game, and a three-foot-long controller cable is kind of…stupid.”

“Exactly. No one would ever pay for an overpriced, feature-limited novelty console when they can just as easily do the Virtual Console thing, or throw fceux and some ROMs onto a half-decent laptop with an Xbox controller attached to it—and so no one will ever actually try to buy an NES Classic, nor will they ever find out that it is, in fact, a magic trick. If they do try, guess what? Sold out. Unavailable. On back order. In the meantime, for a hundred bucks more, you can get a Switch, which, in addition to the forthcoming slew of first and third-party titles, also includes the Virtual Console. Anyone in their right mind will go with a Switch, and soon after will forget that the NES Classic ever failed to exist at all. It’s sideways marketing 101.”

“Perfect crime,” Ernie says.

“Well, sure, if you ignore the fact that with all the billions of people on the Internet, someone at some point would eventually notice…” I rub my face with my hands. “Okay, you know what? Let’s just hack Thrillkill’s server and be done with it.”

Ernie nods at Beta. “Reverse psychol—I mean, sideways marketing.”

“Sideways marketing,” Beta agrees.

Circadian Fart

@theo

“Wakie-wakie, little dude.”

I open my eyes. Beta’s standing over me. He’s still got on his Asian porn star skin, but is now dressed like one of the brothers from The Barbarians, and is carrying an oversized sword and leather-bound messenger bag.

I sit up. My bedroom smells suspiciously of farts and pre-packaged junk food. There’s an overturned ice cream carton on my desk. Ernie, in his underwear, is lying beached on the floor, and is doing God-knows-what with my laptop. Over by the TV, Jan, also in his undies, is playing Super Mario Maker.

“A couple of questions,” I ask quietly.

“Shoot,” Beta replies.

“Why do you look like Asian Conan?”

“This is my hacking gear.”

“Okay, not really an answer, but whatever. Why is everyone in their underwear?”

“Because it’s bedtime,” answers Ernie. “Duh.”

“Bedtime? How long was I out?”

“Eight or nine hours.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“Relax,” Beta says. “You’re almost thirteen. It’s about time you started sleeping all day and owling it through the night.”

“My circadian rhythm is going to be so messed up!” I rub my face with my hands, feeling all the wrong shapes in all the wrong places—oh, right. Joseph Martin. “And if anything, I’m now closer to ten than I am to thirteen.”

Beta sets down his sword. “Better to be too young than too old.”

“Is it?”

“Come on, everybody wants to be a kid again.”

“I’m already a kid. Being an even younger kid does nothing for me.”

“Oh, but it does, Tommy boy. As a preteen, you were at the tail end of pretty much the only stage in your life when family and friends will give two shits about you. Now you’re back in the prime.”

“The prime?”

“You know, old enough to feed, dress, and bathe yourself, not yet corroded by the ravages of puberty, still able to be cute to get your way, still able to be darling. As a child, you’re all sweet and innocent and full of promise. But as a teenager, you’ve got to start making good on those promises—and trust me, nothing you do will ever be good enough. Your grades will always be too low, your choice of clothing, hairstyle, girlfriend, car, and college will be wrong. Strangers will hate you simply for being a teenager. You’ll walk into a convenience store to buy a jug of milk, and where once you’d get a friendly hello from the clerk, you’ll now receive a quiet, distrustful stare—”

“Are you going anywhere with this?”

“Something about…childhood lost and…not really, no.”

I swing my legs over the side of the bed. My feet dangle halfway to the floor. “What happens if I’m stuck in this skin? Will I eventually grow up?” I think for a moment. “The real Tommy Carlton died when he was in his late sixties—does that mean I’ll die in my late sixties, too? Or will I grow out of my skin before then, gradually splitting at the seams like some kind of grotesque Hollywood creature effect?”

“That would be so cool!” Ernie exclaims.

“No, it wouldn’t! And what are you even doing in my room?”

“Pirating shit.”

I lunge forward, yanking my laptop away from him and cradling it in my arms. The screen’s all smudged, and there are crumbs all over the keyboard, and oh, geez, he’s got, like, two-dozen browser tabs open, has somehow completely rearranged my Unity desktop so that every window has a PornSmurf search bar attached to the top. Launcher is nowhere to be found; when I hit the Windows key, the Dash pops up showing various porn icons instead of my usual apps. “What…have…you…done?

“Easy there, nipples,” Ernie replies. “Your Windows was all broken. I fixed it.”

“I use Ubuntu, not Windows! Ubuntu!

Ernie blinks. “Is that what that was?”

“Yes, that’s what that was!”

A brief flicker of remorse crosses Ernie’s face—and just as quickly disappears. “Hey, back off, junior. This never would’ve happened if you’d been awake when I got here. In fact, one could argue it’s all your fault.”

My fault?”

“Who leaves their laptop unlocked while taking a nap?”

“Ernie, I didn’t leave my laptop unlocked. I fell asleep on accident.”

“My point exactly! You leave your front door wide open overnight? Then you deserve to be robbed by whatever petty thief happens to drop by.”

“An entire house and a laptop within that house are two very different things—”

“John Wetton’s dead.”

What? “You mean the bass player for Asia?”

“Ex-bass player. Cancer.”

I crumble to my knees, thunderstruck. There may be boobs and wangs everywhere, but Opera is at least working enough for me to check Wikipedia, which confirms that John has indeed become one of the rocking dead. And he’s just the latest on a growing list: Chris Squire, Edgar Froese, Pádraig Duggan, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, two-thirds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer—all gone. The Bee Gees are now the Bee Gee. I don’t know what Phil Collins is. He’s not quite dead yet, but he sure as heck isn’t alive.

What a horrible night for a curse.

Beta pats me on the shoulder. “Maybe a little good news will cheer you up.”

“Please tell me it’s that Chris Squire faked his own death as a publicity stunt, and that he’s been secretly working with Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and Alan White on a new Yes album.”

“Close. I couldn’t hack Thrailkill’s server remotely, but I did manage to find out that she’s running a personal server out of her home right here in town.”

I lift my head. “How’d you figure that out?”

“The Boca Linda directory, Google Maps, various public records, the almighty IP address—you know, all the things fanboys use to stalk their favorite celebrities. Anyway, I hacked her home computer and installed SuperMegaNet. We leave whenever you’re ready.”

Narrowing my eyes: “Where, exactly?”

“Thrailkill’s pad,” Beta replies. “To get back your original skin.”

“That’s…breaking and entering.”

“Correction—hacking and entering.”

Code Warrior

@ernie

“How was your walk?” Gramps calls down the hall as I enter the yellowing paperback that is my grandparents’ house.

Lousy!” I call back, dumping my backpack, shoes, and several pocketfuls of candy bar wrappers in the parlor. I peel off my beanie, wipe the sweat from my brow, and generally try to make it look like I am not about to have a heart attack from overexertion—not because I’m self-conscious or anything, but because I refuse to give any points to my grandparents for making me exercise against my will. Our house is allegedly within walking distance of Boca Linda; the idea is for me to walk to and from school every day in the hopes I’ll drop a few pounds, but I’m two steps ahead of the game: I snack heavily both ways.

I pass through the living room. Gramps is sitting in his favorite rocking chair, and is listening to talk radio on his portable CC Radio. A five-foot-tall cardboard cutout depicting a pixel art version of Grams rests crookedly in the chair beside him.

“What’s with Grams?” I ask.

“Oh, she’s napping,” Gramps replies. “She was up all night doing yard work.”

(The two of us pause to share a deadpan that momentarily breaks the fourth wall.)

I shrug and hit the kitchen for an after-school snack. You might think I’m cold for my lack of concern that my grams is now a cardboard cutout of her former self, but I’m just being real about it. I never wanted my parents to die in a Wal-Mart stampede. I never wanted to inconvenience my grandparents by coming to live with them. I was perfectly willing to live and let live, but Grams had to downshift to mom-mode, going from a bestower of birthday presents and ice cream sundaes to a tyrannical slave driver insisting that I do my homework, take daily showers, lose weight—and for all her nitpicking, what are the results? A cardboard cutout. If you ask me, she had it coming.

The lock’s off the fridge. It’s lying on the counter, along with a rusty sledgehammer. Looks like Gramps didn’t care much for it either. I grab vanilla ice cream from the freezer and Oreos from the crisper, along with a bowl and spoon, and lock myself in my bedroom, ready to rock a night of gaming and torrenting…and maybe a little homework, if there’s time.

Except that Shitorrents.com has been taken offline.

You’ve got to be jerking me off! Another torrent site killed in the line of duty! Worse, it’s the last one in my bookmarks, which means I’m going to have to waste precious minutes and/or hours finding new torrent sites. Typical government overregulation! Like I’m really going to start buying all my movies, music, and games just because I can’t torrent them online! I’ll just find a bigger, better torrent site! I’ll exploit a motherlode of public server indexes! I’ll learn IRC! I’ll…I’ll—I’ll go to Theo’s! He’s a geek; he’s got to have some kind of super-secret, unbreakable dark Web action going on.

Taking a mouthful of French vanilla for the road, I cradle my ice cream and cookies and bring up my SMN buddy list, scroll down to Theo, and click “visit.” A second later I’m in Theo’s modern Zen monastery.

“What’s up, dick-farts?” I blurt, dumping my shit on Theo’s desk and noticing that he’s (amazingly) passed out, sprawled face-down on his bed. He’s snoring loudly, a plume of ragged z’s rising above his head. Jan’s sitting on the floor with his back propped against the bed, and is looking like an incredibly bored bodyguard as he works his way through Super Mario 3D World on Theo’s Wii U.

“Hey,” he says when he sees me.

“Hey,” I say back. “What’s with the pepperoni prince?”

“Pepperoni prince?”

I gesture at Theo’s sleeping form. “You didn’t notice the epic nipples on our little jungle friend over there?”

“Why would I?”

I frown. “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know how it’s done in Brno, but here in America the first thing you do when someone takes off their shirt is check out their nipples.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

“Bite me.” I flick Jan off and glance over at Theo again. He’s got a spiral notebook tucked under his arm. “What’s his deal?”

“I don’t think he got much sleep last night,” Jan replies, “what with him defeating your babička and all.”

I walk over to the bed, finger the notebook. “What’s this?”

“His book of lists. He says he makes them to pass the time whenever he’s bored or can’t sleep. He was making one earlier.”

I pry the notebook from Theo’s arms, half interested in what’s inside, and half trying to get him to “accidentally” wake up so that he can help me with my torrenting problem.

“I don’t think you should be touching his stuff,” Jan says.

“Quiet, Czech,” I say, and start poking through the notebook. It’s just pages of random lists, a few charts—and a pie graph of a human brain labeled, “Ernie’s Brain,” with the two largest chunks marked as “food” and “porn.”

The little fucker thinks he’s a comedian!

I turn the page. There’s a scribbled chart ranking Yes albums from best to worst, each one accompanied by a five-star rating. Close to the Edge and Fragile are at the top; Tormato and Heaven & Earth are at the very bottom. A few more pages and there’s a list by Mini.

“Wow,” I murmur.

“What?” asks Jan.

“Tarzan boy’s got issues. There’s a list in here by Mini. It’s even got different handwriting.”

For the first time since discovering female bodybuilding, Jan seems interested in the outside world. “What’s it say?”

“‘Study Postures: a look at the various postures and positions employed by Theo’s friends during homework or computer use.’” There’s a list for everyone:

  • Arkenstonehenge (Theo)
    A straight-postured stance marked by the consumption of copious amounts of green tea while sitting in a lotus position and listening to David Arkenstone, John Tesh, or Yanni.

Heh—that’s totally Theo.

  • Protein Powder (Jan)
    Designed to burn off mounting rage during extended Windows load times on shitty hardware, and is achieved by the lifting of weights and watching of female bodybuilder videos on YouTube.

Heh—that’s totally Janny Boy.

  • Gas Giant (Ernie)
    Minimal muscle fatigue is achieved through the practice of a hunched, bloated posture in which the body’s excess fat acts as support for underlying bone and muscle structures. Junk food can be placed between the upper belly and lower pectoral folds for easy access.

“Plush bastard!” I shout.

Jan snickers. “I like that one.”

“Shut it!”

  • Rainbow Cupcake (Eva)
    A strictly honorary stance used by darling little girls who think hacking is typing out a diary entry on a pink MacBook (as if!). Performed by lying prone on one’s bed and waving one’s bunny-slippered feet back and forth.

Heh—that’s totally Bug Eyes.

  • Code Warrior (Beta)
    A deceptively laid-back, relaxed posture conducive to long periods of hacking………

“Huh.” I flip the page, looking for the rest of the description. “Where’s the rest of Beta’s?”

Jan shrugs. “Theo must’ve fallen asleep before he could finish it.”

“I don’t blame him. Hacking is the most boring thing in the world.”

Jan nods in agreement.

@beta

Meanwhile…

Atop a mountain of skulls reaching high into an acrid sky clouded over by swarming server daemons, I stand proud, my well-muscled frame glistening, bristling, the screaming wind whipping through my hair.

“Halt!” cries one of the daemons as it swoops down on me. “Who goes there?”

“It is I, Simon Wong—code warrior!” I proclaim, raising my sword. “Your protocols have all been slain! It is time to meet thy demise!”

“Very well.” The daemon bares its sharpened teeth menacingly. “If a fool’s death you seek…”

I smile.

To quote Gurney Halleck paraphrasing the Bible in Dune: behold, as a wild ass in the desert, go I forth to my work.

Fμckability

@theo

Not surprisingly, Mom doesn’t say much during the ride home. She just sneaks various sidelong glimpses at me from the driver’s seat, no doubt wondering if I’m really me or just some punk kid who’s into pranking naive, unsuspecting fitness moms.

It had taken some convincing back at school: Principal Sandalwood had called her to come pick me up, and the moment he’d explained the situation, pointed at me sitting huddled and wrapped in a blanket (hastily provided to me by Mrs. Currant shortly after my loincloth had gone projectile), a miniature mushroom cloud had detonated above Mom’s head. She’d expected a slip in grades, a truancy, maybe even a bloody nose resulting from a schoolyard scuffle, but certainly not a reincarnated child actor claiming to be her son. If she hadn’t already heard about SuperMegaNet via my New Eyes debacle, she probably would’ve left Sandalwood’s office right then and there.

“They’ll figure this out,” she says as we turn onto our street. “I’m sure these things happen all the time. You know how technology is.”

I fight the urge to argue with her that the Boca Linda staff most definitely won’t be figuring anything out anytime soon. Up until my untimely arrival in Sandalwood’s office this afternoon, he wasn’t even aware that SuperMegaNet even existed, let alone the fact that it allows trendy students to go actual in downloaded skins. I’d had to borrow his laptop to show him how the app works. He’d then crossed himself and muttered a prayer asking that God save us from the advent of too many “Internets”—followed by a doubtful promise to work with Boca Linda’s IT department (or lack thereof) to investigate the matter of my misplaced skin. His combover had also come undone.

I sigh inwardly. This is actually the first time I’ve been sent home from school early for disrupting class. And for indecent exposure. Who’d have thunk looking for a friend’s phone in the boys’ restroom could initiate a series of unfortunate events leading to…now? I mean, what happened to my life? A decade and change of good behavior, and in a fraction of a year I’ve managed to kill my eyesight, throw an old woman off the top of an eight-bit girder palace, masturbate in front of my mom, and moon a crowd of students and staff during a dress rehearsal. If that doesn’t count as delinquency, I don’t know what does. Yet Mom’s treating me like a responsible adult. And I feel strangely disconcerted. Like, I don’t want to get in trouble for something that’s clearly all Thrill-Kill’s fault (even though I should’ve gone straight to the principal the moment I’d gone actual in a jungle orphan skin), but it feels oddly wrong not getting in trouble. If that makes any sense.

Mom pulls into the garage, kills the engine, sits gripping the steering wheel for a moment as her disbelief struggles to suspend itself. “Go get cleaned up,” she says quietly. “Finish your homework. I’ll explain to your father what’s happened…somehow.”

Translated: put on some friggin’ clothes and stay in my room for the rest of the day.

I grab my backpack and, taking great care to keep my blanket in place, I go upstairs to my room.

Jan and Beta greet me with dropped jaws, raised eyebrows.

Beta asks, “So…why are you naked and in black and white?”

I set down my backpack, make a beeline for the closet. “Thrill-Kill uploaded me to her Tarzan server.”

“Okay. And that means you’re not you because…?”

“She skinned me as Boy from those old Tarzan movies.” I pull on undies, shorts, a shirt (luckily, Boy wasn’t much smaller than I am, and so my clothes are only slightly more oversized than usual.). “Only when Lex Barker tried to pommel me, I jumped out a window and downloaded into the teacher lounge, and I was still skinned for some reason.”

Ignoring everything after “Boy,” Beta says, “Technically, you’re not Boy. You’re Joseph Martin.”

“Boy was Joey’s nickname.”

“No, Joey was a separate character, as played by Tommy Carlton, and Boy’s replacement in Tarzan’s Savage Fury.” He holds up his phone, hands it to me. “IMDB, little dude.”

Properly clothed, I step out of the closet, take the phone, and glance down at myself. “So, I’m not even good enough to be stuck as the original Boy? I’m a replacement?”

Beta shrugs. “Tommy Carlton was a Shemp.”

“A Shemp?” Jan asks.

“You know, Shemp, from The Three Stooges? He was an iconic Stooge, but he wasn’t Curly. That’s why anyone who replaces someone else in a TV show or movie franchise is referred to as a ‘Shemp.’ Like when Diana Muldaur replaced Gates McFadden on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Shemp. Or when Ted McGinley replaced David Garrison on Married with Children. Total Shemp job there. Likewise, Tommy Carlton was the Shemp of the Tarzan franchise. He was good as Joey, but he wasn’t the original Boy. He wasn’t Johnny Sheffield. He did have the edge, though.”

“How could Tommy possibly have the edge?” I ask, swiping through IMDB. “He only did one Tarzan movie. Johnny did eight.”

“Doing only one movie is what gives Tommy the edge.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s the Watterson Technique,” Beta explains, “named after Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes—which is only beloved because Bill fucked off in 1995 after doing it for ten years. As in, he really, truly fucked off. Not like all those dinosaur bands doing farewell and retirement tours only to come back a few years later with yet another tour or album. A-ha? Phil Collins? Scorpions? All full of shit. They all came back. Everyone knows that you do a thing once, do it reasonably well, and you’re a gem. You do a thing ten times, and even if you’re good, people are going to hate you by the time you get to number ten. It becomes quantity over quality. That’s why Tommy Carlton had the edge, and Johnny Sheffield became just another child actor who got too big for his britches. Johnny was the darling little Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son!, but by the time he did Tarzan and the Huntress, it was like, why the hell would teen Boy spend any time dorking around the jungle with his parents when he was clearly old enough to be hitting up the city on his own? The answer is, he wouldn’t. But it came down to that because he played Boy again and again and again until we were sick of him. Tommy did his time in front of the camera, and then it was back to Wisconsin or Ohio or wherever it was America got its corn-fed starlets back then. In, out, done.”

“None of that makes me feel any better,” I say, handing Beta his phone.

He shrugs. “You could’ve done worse. At least Joey Martin was fμckable.”

Jan looks at me.

I look at Jan.

The two of us look at Beta.

Beta looks back, completely oblivious to the awkward—and to the scrambled egg that’s magically appeared on his shoulder. “What?”

I narrow my eyes. “No offense, but are you into dudes? Specifically, little dudes?”

“No way. What makes you say that?”

“You just referred to Joey Martin as ‘fuckable.’”

“Joey Martin was fμckable.”

I throw my arms into the air. “Are you not hearing yourself?”

“What, the f word?”

“Yeah, the f word!”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“You don’t think it’s inappropriate to calls kids ‘fuckable?’”

Beta couldn’t look less concerned if he tried. “Dude. You’re thinking of ‘fuckable,’ which is totally inappropriate. ‘Fμckable,’ spelled with a μ, doesn’t have anything to do with sex.”

“It doesn’t?” I look instinctively to Jan for confirmation.

“It’s probably not a good idea to ask me,” he says. “You know my English leaves lots to be desirable.”

I start to correct him—

“It’s like when you say someone or something is the shit,” Beta interrupts. “It has nothing to do with actual excrement. It’s just a compliment. ‘Fμckable’ can mean that someone is ripe for the fucking, sure, but it’s mostly used as a harmless acknowledgment of one’s overall comeliness. ‘Matt Damon was fμckable in Good Will Hunting.’ He was good-looking in Good Will Hunting. ‘I want to fμck this burger.’ This burger is delicious, I’m going to scarf the shit out of it. ‘Fμck you.’ I acknowledge your playful insult, and am honored our friendship is such that we can swap self-deprecations amicably. There’s absolutely nothing creepy about using the word ‘fμckable’ in a contextually harmless manner. It’s no different than ‘darling,’ ‘cute,’ or ‘handsome.’”

“Why didn’t you just say ‘darling,’ ‘cute,’ or ‘handsome,’ then?”

Beta rolls his eyes. “Because dudes never refer to other dudes using the aforementioned princess words. Hence the term ‘fμckable’—because you either are, or you aren’t. But whatever. I’m comfortable enough with my own sexuality that I don’t need to prove to you guys that I’d never diddle a tyke.”

“I’m not trying to start anything,” I say. “It’s just that sometimes you say stuff that’s…dubious. Like, sometimes I think you forget you’re a grown man living on a hard drive in a kid’s bedroom.”

Beta frowns, goes over to his duffel bags, rummages in one until he finds a certain specific hard drive, which he brings back to me. Handing it over, he says, “Check it—a solid terabyte of hetero porn involving legal, consenting adults.”

@ernie

Whoa.

I think I just felt a great disturbance in the Force.

@theo

I gawk at Beta’s hard drive. “Your porn collection is a terabyte?”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Just about.”

“Does the word ‘excessive’ mean anything to you?”

Beta scowls and grabs his hard drive, stuffs it back into the duffel. “Let’s all get on with our lives. How are you still skinned after downloading from Thrill-Kill’s server?”

“Shouldn’t you know that?”

“Give me a break. I can’t keep tabs on everything Taurus Labs is doing.” He pokes my shoulder with his finger. “Besides, it was a rhetorical question. It looks like they’ve enabled both virtual and actual skin installation capabilities for the general public. Either that, or some hacker has been spreading SMN code behind their backs. Where’s your phone?”

“It’s still on Thrill-Kill’s server, as far as I know. Along with Jan’s phone, my clothes, my original skin—and Mini. He was in my pocket when I went to see Thrill-Kill.”

Beta frowns. “This could be trouble if people are running SMN servers that install persistent skins without users’ permission. Whose phone did you use to download from the server?”

“That’s the thing. I didn’t use a phone or computer. I jumped through a window and I was actual again.”

“Hm.” Beta looks thoughtful for a moment. “That sounds like some kind of server glitch—or maybe a crash, even.”

“Does that mean I can’t uninstall the Joey skin?” I ask.

“While your original skin is still in a temp file on the server, no, you can’t. Is there any reason you haven’t simply asked Thrill-Kill to upload back to her server, then download properly using her phone instead of a window?”

My mind’s eye flashes back to my haphazard download in the teacher lounge, and that fateful moment in which a noticeably bare, noticeably black-and-white, noticeably clumsy-as-fuck jungle boy leg had sent Thrill-Kill’s phone careening onto the floor with a distinct crack!

“Two reasons,” I mutter.

“Which are?” asks Beta.

“One, she’s insane. Two, I may have broken her phone on the way out.”

“Why’d you do that?” Jan asks.

“It wasn’t on purpose—I was kind of running from an angry Lex Barker at the time.”

“Who?”

“Never mind.” I look at Beta. “Am I screwed?”

“No,” he replies. “We’re just going to have to hack her server, is all. I’ll get my kit.” He heads over to his duffel bags once again.

Jan puts his hand on my shoulder. “Look on the bright side.”

“What bright side?”

“As long as you’re Joey, Fat Stuff can’t call you Made in China anymore.”

There’s that.

Chinese Whispers

@eva

I’m heading toward the gym for wrestling practice when Ernie intercepts me on the breezeway.

“Bug Eyes! Bug Eyes!” he calls out, waving his hands back and forth excitedly as he waddles up alongside me.

“I have a name, you know,” I say.

“Shut up and listen to me!”

What.” (Question intentionally phrased as a statement.)

“Theo got busted by the principal today!”

Stopping and folding my arms, I raise an inquiring eyebrow and ask, “What for?”

Ernie bends over slightly, resting his hands on his knees and inhaling great, gluttonous lungfuls of air. “He went masquerading around school in that jungle boy skin of his, and even auditioned for a part in some theater production. But he freaked out during rehearsals and got naked and jerked it all over the stage, and, like, six girls slipped and fell on his spunk, and three of them ended up getting pregnant, and now Theo’s got to take a paternity test to see which of them are carrying his child and which are just your usual, everyday knocked-up Boca Linda toilet-sex tarts looking for free child support!”

“Toilet-sex tarts?”

“Yeah, you know—all those affluent valley girls who abuse their hall pass privileges to give blowjobs in the boys’ restroom.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, you would if you were a toilet-sex tart, which I guess you’re not. So, there’s that.”

“Ernie,” I sigh, “that’s the single most asinine thing I’ve heard all week.”

“The part about Theo’s penis parade or the toilet-sex tarts?”

“Both.”

“But it’s true!” Ernie insists.

Highly doubtful. “Really?”

“Really!”

“So, you saw Theo masturbating onstage with your own eyes?

“Well, Suki told Leo, who then told Sacha, who then texted Britt, Adolf, and Enrico, whose phone I was spying on during sixth period.”

“In other words, you were playing Chinese whispers.”

Ernie’s face goes blank.

“The telephone game.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“One person whispers a message into another person’s ear,” I explain, “and then that person whispers it into another person’s ear, and on down the line until the last person announces the message out loud to everyone. The idea is that no matter how hard you try, the message will be changed in some way from the first person to the last.”

“I have a question,” Ernie says, raising his hand as if in class.

“What?”

“Do you have to speak in Chinese when you play the game?”

“No, you can speak in whatever language you like.”

“Then why is it called Chinese whispers?”

I shrug. “Because back in the old days, Europeans had a hard time understanding the Chinese.” Or something like that, if I’m remembering my useless trivia facts correctly.

Ernie shakes his head. “That’s totally racist.”

I’m racist?”

“Currently, yes.”

“You’re the one who goes around calling Theo ‘Chinaman,’ ‘Asian Adjacent,’ ‘Made in China,’ ‘Hong Kong,’ and whatever else that trans-fat brain of yours can fart up!”

“Hm. ‘Asian Adjacent.’ I like it. It acknowledges Theo’s halfbreed status politely but accurately. I’ll have to remember that one.”

Ernie.”

He throws his hands up in the air. “Theo wanked in front of Principal Sandalwood today, and all you can talk about is racist telephone games!”

“Not that I want to see Theo playing with himself, but what proof do you have besides ‘so-and-so told so-and-so?’”

“What, my word’s not good enough for you anymore?”

“You word was never good,” I say, “and even if it was, it wouldn’t matter, because Theo didn’t, uh, do what you said he did.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re one of those people who believes we never walked on the moon just because you yourself haven’t.”

“And you believe everything everyone tells you.”

Ernie glares at me. “You’ve got a very distrustful nature, you know that?”

“I’m late for practice.”

“Seriously. Keep it up and you’ll never dupe a man into marrying you.”

I resume walking toward the gym. “Go home, Ernie.”

I Was an Undead Child Actor

@theo

It’s some kind of freak waking nightmare: I’m rushed into the auditorium, hustled onstage, and navigated between various jungle props crafted from Boca Linda’s finest foam and cardboard stock. I squint against the blinding stage lights, trying to make out the details of an impossible darkness beyond, trying to figure out if it’s just Mrs. Currant and a few lackeys observing the dress rehearsal—or half the school.

A flamboyantly-dressed Mexican incarnation of Hollywood Montrose (from the movie Mannequin) thrusts a rumpled script at me and hisses into my ear, “We’re doing the boulder-rescue scene. Just like we rehearsed. Got it?”

I nod and smile and kind of go numb for a second as I skim over my lines, wondering what the hell I’m doing and how the hell I let myself get here in the first place. I’m no actor! I’m not even a real jungle boy! Am I so mortified by the prospect of getting in trouble that I’d rather parade around school as an undead child actor than admit defeat and be done with it?

Lex Barker enters stage-left.

“Holy shit—it’s Lex Barker!” I scream, instinctively ducking behind Hollywood.

“What?” Lex spreads his arms. “Is something wrong with my skin?”

Oh, right. This isn’t the real Lex Barker (or Thrill-Kill’s unreasonable facsimile thereof), it’s some high school kid wearing a Lex Barker skin for rehearsal.

Mrs. Currant’s annoyed voice escapes the darkness: “Are we ready, gentlemen?”

Hollywood steps aside, shoves me center-stage. “Stop messing around, Tyler. We’re behind as it is. Marks, everyone!”

Lex crosses the stage and lies prone beneath a giant foam boulder, gives me a thumbs-up.

I glance at my script again and think to myself that this doesn’t sound so bad. I can do this. Say a few lines, save the day, and then I can be on my merry way. What could possibly go wrong?

Hollywood whispers into my ear, “By the way, Principal Sandalwood’s got the superintendent in the audience, so don’t fuck up.” He yanks the script out of my hands, pats me on the shoulder, and books offstage. “Action!

Ah, crap.

I crouch beside the boulder.

An expectant silence presses in on me.

A million worst-case scenarios play out in my head while my entire body bastes in retro sweat: What if I fart? What if my voice cracks? What if I sneeze? Vomit? Succumb to uncontrollable hiccups? To name a few.

They took the diamonds!” Lex hisses at me from over his shoulder.

“What diamonds?” I hiss back.

“That’s your line, dumbass!”

Oh. “They took the diamonds!” I proclaim with absolutely zero charisma. The sweat is now coursing down my forehead, cascading off my shoulders and chest, pooling beneath my legs.

Lex glares at me. “Use your knife to cut me free!” He wiggles his ankle for emphasis.

“They took the diamonds!” I shout again.

“You already said that!”

I dab at my face with the back of my arm and grasp for my knife, unsheathing it haphazardly—and not realizing until it’s too late that the handle has somehow caught on my loincloth.

Which parts from my thighs without delay.

And goes flying across the stage in epic slow motion.

Resulting in a very naked and very embarrassed Joey Martin now face-palming himself in shame before a hushed audience.

Dear God,

If you’re listening, please make my death a quick and painless one—

My prayer is interrupted by the sound of someone padding barefoot onto the stage. I look up and spot a second Joey coming toward me and Lex.

“Hey, everyone. Sorry I’m…” The other Joey trails off, pays my bare ass a look of shock and disbelief. “…late.”

Shut up, Tyler. You’re ruining the moment.

Your Friends Are No Help

@theo

The warning bell rings.

Eva sends Lily home, then stands and puts on her backpack.

Ernie does the same.

“Wait,” I say. “Where are you guys going?”

“To class, brainiac,” Ernie replies, and sighs wistfully. “In France they have two-hour lunch breaks, and only go to school three days a week.”

“You made that up,” Eva says.

“Google it!”

“Okay, I will—”

“Goddamnit, Bug Eyes—fine. I made it up. But my point remains valid.”

“Guys.”

“What point?”

“That the state of school lunch in America is shit—”

Guys!

Ernie and Eva look at me.

“Can we please focus on…” I glance down at my black-and-white self. “…the bod?”

Eva shrugs. “Cute. Now uninstall it before you get sent to the principal’s office for violating dress code.”

“Aren’t you curious how I got this way?”

Eva starts to say something, but Ernie immediately steps beside her, covers her mouth with his hand, gives me an authoritative look. “Dude. Warning bell.”

Mmf!” Eva groans, shoving him aside and wiping her mouth. “You’ve got dried pudding all over your hands!”

Ernie frowns and examines his palms, first sniffing, and then licking them.

Grossed out, Eva turns and leaves without saying goodbye.

“What’s crawled up her coin slot?” Ernie asks, continuing to lick his hands as he watches her file out of the cafeteria along with the other students.

I fold my arms. “I think she’s trying to come to terms with the notion that you’d eat yourself to death if covered with a sufficient amount of pudding.”

“I wouldn’t eat myself,” Ernie says. “Not all of myself, anyway. Definitely not my dick and balls. Bug Eyes is right, though. You should probably uninstall that skin before you get sent to the office or propositioned by one of Robbie the Friendly Pedophile’s talent scouts.”

“I can’t uninstall the skin—my phone was in my pocket when I uploaded to Thrill-Kill’s server.”

“I thought you were toilet-dunking for Janny Boy’s phone.”

“I was, but Thrill-Kill’s perv-cam caught me crawling around the boys’ room floor, and she called me into her office because she thinks I’m gay. Except her office is online now, and instead of uploading to it, she accidentally sent us to some Tarzan wonderland where Lex Barker wanted to bash my head in for playing footsie with his woman. But I wasn’t playing footsie with her, she was playing footsie with me. So, I jumped out the window, thinking I’d download back into my original skin, only it didn’t work. I’m actual again—I think—but my clothes, phone, and original skin are stuck on the Tarzan server, which is God knows where—”

Ernie cuts me off with a wave of his hands. “Wait—there are cameras in the boys’ restroom?”

“Really, fat shit?” I glare at him. “I’m stuck in black and white, and your biggest concern is the cameras in the bathroom?”

“Thanks to your potty-mouth attitude, my biggest concern now is the tardy bell. Good day to you, jail bait.” Ernie flicks me off and walks away.

Fine. Let him go. What I really need right now is a phone or laptop, and he has neither. I grab my backpack and glance around the cafeteria, which is quickly becoming empty—and the more students leave, the more obvious I become. I scurry into one particular stream of student bodies, using them as herd clothing, and try to pick out Eva from all the rest. But it’s too late. She’s long-gone—

“Tyler! There you are!”

Some tall, gangly dude in flannel, jeans, and carpenter boots runs up to me and, not letting me get a word in edgewise, guides me out of the cafeteria, across the breezeway, and toward the student parking lot.

“Mrs. Currant is spitting blood,” he says along the way. “She wants everyone onstage and in character ten minutes ago. Now, I know you and Foghorn Leghorn have been butting heads since day one, but like it or not, RKO Pictures in the Park is happening, you’re stuck playing Joey in the Tarzan sketch, and that’s that. Deal with it and help me get these props back to the auditorium.”

He pops the trunk of his weatherbeaten Toyota compact.

He hands me an enormous box overflowing with props, costumes, and a bunch of other theater stuff, the purpose for which escapes me at the moment. This is totally where I should tell him that I’m not Tyler.

But I don’t.

One, because my brain is currently stuck in an infinite loop trying to calculate the likelihood of accidentally installing a Joey Martin skin on the same day and in the same place as rehearsals for an impending high school production of RKO Pictures in the Park.

Two, because as Tyler, who just so happens to be playing the part of the exact same character I’m skinned as, my present wardrobe is actually appropriate on-campus attire. Meaning I won’t get in trouble for wearing a loincloth and carrying a hunting knife.

Until, of course, the real Tyler turns up.

Touch Bar

@theo

“Hey, back off, gas giant! Asia is an amazing band, and if you’d ever taken the time to really listen to the awesomeness that is ‘Free,’ you’d…” I trail off, suddenly becoming aware of the abundance of Apple products that seems to have proliferated throughout the cafeteria during my brief absence. Specifically, everyone’s got the new MacBook Pro.

Even fat Ernie.

“So…why do you look like Mowgli?” Lily asks.

“Joey Martin, actually,” I reply, my attention split in two.

“Joey who?”

“He was the boy character in those old Tarzan movies.”

Ernie looks suspicious. “There are old Tarzan movies?”

“There were, like, dozens of them. Don’t you keep up with the classics?”

“If it’s not Pixar, I don’t care,” Summer says.

“Oldies give me gas,” Ernie adds.

I frown. “Everything gives you gas.”

“You still haven’t explained why you’re some Tarzan boy from a hundred years ago.”

“First things first,” I say, “how and why does everyone suddenly have the new MacBook Pro?”

“Because we’re cool. Am I right, ladies?” Ernie tries to high-five Eva, but she ignores him completely.

“No, what I mean is—”

“What he means,” Ernie interrupts, “is that he’s a Mac-hating Windows fanboy who can’t stand living in a world where tech can be stylish.”

“I use Ubuntu, dumbass. You know that.”

Eva gives me a questioning look. “You’re a Mac-hater?”

“I don’t hate Macs,” I say. “I’m just not into overpriced novelty computers with limited usefulness.”

“What’s more useful than having style?” Ernie asks.

I start counting off on my fingers: “An SD card slot. Being able to write to NTFS-formatted drives. foobar2000. The ability to access an Android device’s storage without a third-party driver. Maximizing windows without having to go full-screen. Being able to connect devices and drives without having to bring several different dongles wherever I go. Not needing to reduce my productivity by glancing down at my keyboard at regular intervals in order to use the Touch Bar. For starters.”

“You only need to look at the Touch Bar once, bro.”

“Really?” I fold my arms. “Show me how you can touch-type effectively using the Touch Bar without having to look at it.”

Ernie stands, unzips his pants, takes out his wang, and, awkwardly maneuvering his hips into position, presses it along the length of the Touch Bar.

The amazing thing: no one seems to give a shit.

Dumbfounded, I ask, “What are you doing?”

“Duh. Using the Touch Bar to unlock my new MacBook Pro.”

“With your dick?”

Ernie blinks. “How else am I supposed to unlock it?”

“I don’t know—a password, maybe? A thumbprint? Anything but your dick?”

“Passwords are so 2015.”

The girls nod in agreement.

“It’s true,” Lily says. “2015.”

Why—what—why? “So, that’s it, then? Ernie just unlocked his MacBook Pro by fucking it, and you’re okay with that?”

Ernie puts on a haughty air as he tucks his junk back into his pants. “It’s not fucking your MacBook Pro, it’s applying the length of your wang against the Touch Bar so as to register your cock metrics. This is the wave of the future. You’re making a big deal over nothing.”

“I don’t care how many fancy words you use, you just fucked your MacBook Pro.”

“Fucking would mean a hard-on and eventual ejaculation. My shit’s dry.” He holds up his MacBook Pro for me to examine. “See for yourself.”

I wave him away and look to the girls for some semblance of sanity. But they seem only mildly offended that Ernie just genitally authenticated—and then only because he did so in front of them, not because Apple is now expecting its users to replace their passwords with their wangs. “This…this doesn’t make any sense. No one’s going to question needing to take out your dick every time you want to unlock your MacBook Pro?”

“Genital authentication!” Ernie barks. “More secure than fingerprinting or iris scans! Wave of the future!”

“What if you’re a girl? How do you unlock your MacBook Pro, then?”

Summer rolls her eyes. “There’s a dongle for that, genius.” She gets up, cradling her MacBook Pro. “Speaking of which, I need to check my Facebook. Where’s the girls’ restroom?”