I’m a fucking elephant.
I’m a fucking elephant.
Wow. My Joey Martin skin’s got some crazy acrobatics installed. I mean, Mom brings me to her gym several times a week, but that’s all straightforward cardio and weights. As far as I know, I can’t perform a cartwheel, handspring, or wall-jump to save my life—but that’s exactly what I’m doing as I gymnastic away from the crazed ex-husband chasing me. I dodge between stalagmites, hop over gears, scramble effortlessly onto the lip of that darkened tunnel at the back of the dungeon. Turning around, I brandish my dagger, legs planted firmly, hair and loincloth whipping in an unexplained wind. With a conviction of mind and body that would’ve made the ape man himself proud, I shout, “Ungawa!”
Surprisingly, the dude chasing me has stopped below, his mouth open, his eyes wide. He starts backing off.
Huh. This Tarzan stuff really works.
In fact, it’s not just my dude who’s suddenly looking thunderstruck. Everyone’s stopped in their tracks, faces frozen into various configurations of awe and terror—
Something ominous shifts from inside the tunnel.
—oh, wait. It’s not me they’re looking at.
It’s what’s behind me.
I glance over my shoulder. Emerging from the shadows is a twenty-foot-tall, two-headed reptilian monster with tentacles for arms and a body made of…smelly gorgonzola cheese?
“Theo, look out!” Eva cries.
I want to freeze. I want to cast aside my stupid toy knife and curl up on the ground with my hands over my ears, my eyes scrunched shut. These are the evolutionary survival instincts passed down from my parents and encoded in my DNA (go figure)—but a split second before enacting them, Rush’s “Face Up” starts playing in my head, and a calm detachment floods over me. I’m not sure how or why. Maybe it’s a feature of my skin, or maybe it’s my CBT training kicking in during a moment of need. All I know is that suddenly I’m animated once again, darting out of the way of the demogorgonzola’s tentacles as it tries to swipe at me. I leap from the tunnel lip and run over to where Eva’s tied up, am somehow able to cut through her bonds with my dagger. Freed, she falls awkwardly into my arms, gives me the biggest hug I’ve ever gotten from a girl who’s not Mom—and before I can overthink it, I pull back just enough to plant a big, fat one right on her lips. Then, letting her go, I hoist my dagger above my head in triumph as Alex Lifeson’s frenetic guitar solo kicks in. I feel just like Link from The Legend of Zelda whenever he’s just found a piece of the Triforce.
I’ve paused the friggin’ dungeon.
During this momentary reprieve, Ernie looks up from where he’s been blubbering on the floor and locks his eyes with my crotch. “Dude.”
“Huh?” I ask.
“Your loincloth just flew off.”
I glance down at myself.
I really, really need a better special move.
The demogorgonzola resumes its path toward us, busting through both rock and wood as if either were no more substantial than cardboard. The husbands are now fleeing for their lives. Well, all but the youngest, who makes a half-hearted attempt at grabbing Eva. She’s ready for him, though, and uses his momentum to perform this ridiculously effective over-the-shoulder throw, depositing him right into the tentacles of the demogorgonzola. His screams are bloodcurdling and brief, quickly replaced by the sound of bones crunching, sinew snapping.
Eva’s eyes threaten to pop out of their sockets. “Oh, my Gawd, I didn’t mean for that to—”
“Come on!” I shout, and grab her by the hand, hustle her over to where Jan’s helping Ernie up.
“How did you do that?” he asks Eva, looking impressed.
“I am a wrestler,” she replies.
Vertical again, Ernie immediately starts huffing toward the stairwell entrance.
The remaining husbands have beaten him to it, however, and are now working together to lower some kind of wrought iron gate.
“Don’t you dare!” Ernie screams at them.
The rest of us also run for the stairwell—but it’s too late. By the time we reach the entrance, the gate has been completely lowered, the husbands watching intently from the other side.
Ernie claws uselessly at the metal bars. “Bastards! Crypto-cocks! Let me out! I’m fat and unhealthy! I’ll give your cheese-pet indigestion! Take the others! They’re all lean meat, especially the Czech!”
Eva punches him in the shoulder. “Seriously, Ernie?”
I turn and face the interior of the dungeon, my back and butt pressing against the cold metal of the gate. Beyond a vague self-consciousness about my nakedness, I can honestly say I don’t give a shit that I lost my loincloth, because the demogorgonzola is just about finished eating the youngest husband, and it’s got its eyes set on dessert.
“I don’t want to die!” Ernie crumples to his knees and starts bawling.
Eva looks me in the eye, takes my hand, squeezes. “We’re not going to die…are we?”
I want to tell her something reassuring, something meaningful— “I love you.”
She lets go of my hand. “What?”
Just then Jan’s phone rings. He takes it out, checks the caller ID. “It’s Beta.”
“Help us, Beta!!” Ernie wails.
Jan puts the phone to his ear. “Yeah? Uh-huh.” To me: “He says he’s got access to Thrill-Kill’s server, but he’s not sure if shutting it down will end the program, or you and the program.”
I swallow. “End me?”
“He says he wants you to re-enter the server, then exit gracefully.”
“What, like with a fucking pirouette?” Ernie asks, wobbling to his feet. He tries to grab the phone. “Get us out of here, Beastmaster!”
“Basically, not by accident,” Jan clarifies.
The demogorgonzola is closing in.
“Okay, fine, let’s do it!” I blurt. “Upload us now!”
“He says to upload us now,” Jan explains to Beta.
“Yes—now! Right now!”
“Beta wants to know if you’re absolutely sure—”
“Yes! I’m sure! Now, now!”
I grab onto the others.
They grab onto me.
Jan holds up his phone.
Lowers his head and bites his lip as the demogorgonzola, now within tentacle’s reach, lunges at us—
The dungeon winks out of existence.
Is replaced by the black-and-white jungle set of RKO lore.
I let go of the others, several things becoming immediately apparent: I’m still Joey Martin (my loincloth has reset itself, thankfully), Eva’s still in her undies—but Jan and Beta have been skinned as Rokov and Cheeta, respectively. Ernie…he’s MIA.
“What happened to His Fatness?” Jan asks after a beat.
That’s when the enormous elephant standing behind us stamps its foot and swears under its breath.
I think it’s fair to say my knights in shining armor, as it were, have left a lot to be desired. For that brief instant they first appear in the stairwell entrance, I’m thanking God they’ve come to my rescue—then Ernie screams and pushes Theo forward as he tries to run away, instead bumping into Jan, who, caught off guard, loses his footing. Theo grabs onto both Ernie and Jan for support; the momentum of Ernie’s fat causes a snowball effect, which results in a tangled cluster of boys tumbling out of the stairwell and into the dungeon proper. If that’s what you call it.
A lot to be desired.
The cave dudes, who’d been talking to each other in hushed tones, now stop and gawk in the direction of the stairwell entrance.
“Who are you?” one of them asks.
Theo, the obligatory little Cub Scout he is, lifts his head and immediately answers, “I’m Theo. This is—”
“No real names!” Ernie exclaims from the bottom of the boy-pile.
The cave dude narrows his eyes. “Why are you in black and white?”
“I believe monochrome is the correct nomenclature,” another cave dude says.
The first caver shakes his head. “Don’t start.”
Theo untangles himself from Ernie and Jan. “Who are you guys?”
“We are…the damned,” says another of the cavers. “The forgotten. The discarded—”
The first caver rolls his eyes. “He’s being overly-dramatic. We’re cryptokeepers.”
“Crypto miners. Now who’s being dramatic?”
Standing, the boys exchange confused glances.
Ernie clears his throat. “Did y’all used to bang Thrill-Kill?”
“Is that what Rebbecca’s calling herself these days?” asks the second caver.
“That’s what I call her,” Ernie replies proudly.
“Charming. To answer your question, yeah, we all did our time with Rebbecca.”
Jan nods knowingly. “You’re her five husbands.”
Theo glances around the dungeon. “What did you do to end up down here?”
The cavers—or husbands, I should say—take turns answering:
“Botched dinner plans.”
“Cheated on her.”
“Didn’t make enough money.”
“Refractory period was too long.”
I rattle my chains. “Um, could we reminisce some other time? Damsel in distress here!”
Ernie waves his hand dismissively. “In a sec, Bug Eyes.” Facing the husbands again: “So, she just keeps you locked up as her prisoners?”
“Women hold grudges, bro,” says the youngest husband.
The first smiles stoically. “It’s not an altogether unbearable existence. It may not be ideal, but maintaining Rebbecca’s SuperMegaNet server and helping to power her Bloodcoin mining rig, there’s at least satisfaction in knowing we’re part of something greater.”
“Bloodcoin?” the boys ask in unison.
“Really?” I call out, rattling my chains again. “These creeps live in a dungeon and are totally cool chaining little girls to old furniture, and it’s the Bloodcoin part that interests you most?”
Like I’m not even here, the second husband explains, “It’s a cryptocurrency based on a human suffrage algorithm.”
Another husband spreads his filthy arms. “We’re the algorithm.”
“Kámo,” Jan says, “that’s got to be the weirdest altcoin I’ve ever heard of.”
“It’s not that weird. I mean, when you buy Bitcoin, all you’re getting is a tally of electricity used. Bloodcoin being based on human suffrage is no more outrageous than Blowcoin being based on blowjobs, or Schmidtcoin being based on how many webcomic followers Hubert Schmidt has on Smack Jeeves.”
Ernie blinks, a small puff of smoke rising above his head. “There’s a cryptocurrency based on blowjobs?”
“If it exists, there’s a cryptocurrency based on it.”
While Ernie and Jan ponder the implications of this, Theo pays me a worried glance.
I glare at him, nod beckoningly, try with all my might to scream telepathically, Save me already!
He steps forward awkwardly. “Well, it was nice meeting you and all, but it’s late, and we should be going. Um…can we have our friend back?”
The first husband sighs, shakes his head apologetically. “If it were up to me, sure. If it were up to me.”
By now, three of the husbands have sneaked up behind the boys, and at the first husband’s command, they pounce. Ernie goes down like a bag of wet garbage. Jan wrestles valiantly with his would-be captor, neither of them managing to get a firm grasp on one other. Theo, however, manages to sprint out of the way, giving chase with surprising agility.
“Wait a minute!” Ernie exclaims. “I thought we were cool! All in this together—part of something greater!”
“Oh, we’re cool with you,” the second husband replies, “but the demogorgonzola…”
“The demo what?” I exclaim.
“Our suffrage is a byproduct of our maintenance efforts. Real suffrage comes from sacrifice—in this case, the four of you to the demogorgonzola. So much Bloodcoin.”
“I’m a sacrifice?” Chains rattling, limbs thrashing, and so forth. “Have you all gone nuts? Who in this day and age performs human sacrifice?”
Something rustles ominously from inside an adjoining tunnel—
“Behold!” the first husband proclaims. “The demogorgonzola!”
—and oh, my God, there’s an enormous, vaguely-reptilian-shaped chunk of smelly gorgonzola cheese thwumping its way into our chamber, bringing its putrid stench along with it.
Ernie’s eyes go wide. “That’s stupid. How would you know what’s down there?”
“We’ll find out in a sec, won’t we?” Theo replies.
Ernie’s eyes go wider. “You’re going down there?”
“If that’s where Eva is, then yeah, we’re going down there.”
“So we can get bound and gagged, too? No thanks, jungle butt!”
“Dumbass, how could she scream if she were gagged?”
“That could’ve been a moan!”
“It was clearly a scream.”
“You know what I mean!” Ernie faces Beta and throws his hands in the air. “You’re the adult here! Shouldn’t you be the one descending into hell on our behalf?”
“Hey, I’m just the hacker,” Beta responds, and continues messing with Thrill-Kill’s laptop.
“Says the ripped barbarian dude who only moments ago downloaded into Theo’s bedroom holding Sand Dragon!”
“I can hack, or I can slash, but not both simultaneously.” Beta nods at Theo. “It’s your call, little dude.”
I watch Theo. He looks bolder and braver in black and white than I imagine he would in color, but the expression on his face is one-hundred-percent, Somebody please stop me!
Sighing after a moment, he nods and says, “You deal with the server. I’ll go find Eva.”
“Good for you,” Ernie says, patting Theo on the shoulder and backing away from the stairwell entrance. “I’m sure Bug Eyes will appreciate the effort.”
Theo’s new expression: Yeah. Effort. That’s what’s urging my bowels to evacuate themselves.
“I’ll go with you,” I offer, and step forward, taking Ernie’s place. The whole situation kind of concerns me, but, then, I’m part digital now. There’s less of me to have to worry about. That means less fear, I suppose.
Holding out my phone for light, we descend the stairwell.
A quarter of the way down, Ernie comes huffing up behind us. “Hey, wait up, jerks!”
Theo stops, scowls over his shoulder. “What changed your mind, fat-ass?”
“Me and Beta couldn’t agree what song to play while we waited.”
We continue downward. The icky smell lingers. At first I’d assumed it was the poop buckets in the shed, but the deeper we go, the worse the smell gets. Voices echo, chains rattle; the walls have turned from brick to ancient, half-crumbled blocks packed between giant, molding pillars. It’s all very Frazetta. One last twist, and we arrive at an arched doorway that opens into a large cave—like, an actual cave, with stalactites and everything. Between the stalactites are a number of large wooden gear things.
And there’s Eva—tied to an old wardrobe and looking real uncomfortable as five filthy, loinclothed men of varying age and complexion (who can only be the Five Husbands of Boca Linda Lore) stand conversing nearby.
“Buj moze,” I murmur, crouching off to one side along with Theo and Ernie. “These must be Thrill-Kill’s five husbands!”
“No way,” Theo says. “Our high school guidance counselor does not have a dungeon beneath her garden shed.”
Except, of course, we’re looking right at it—a dank, subterranean chamber filled with pure WTF.
“All right, brainiacs,” Ernie says. “What now?”
“They haven’t seen us yet,” I point out. “Maybe we could catch them by surprise—”
Loud and long.
It echoes off the dungeon walls.
Five very concerned-looking ex-husbands turn their heads and look up at us.
I hate Ernie’s bowels.
“Seriously. Hard-boiled is a good look for you.”
I ignore Ernie, yank off my fedora and suit jacket, undo my bow-tie as I stride purposefully toward my laptop. I’m not usually the hacking and entering type—but, then, these aren’t usual times. I’ve been doomed to live out my days in black-and-white; my best (and only) friends are an Asian barbarian-geek, a virtual weight-lifting jock, an undies jockette in distress, and the human equivalent of cake. My subconscious has taken on plush form. My laptop is a moaning, grunting monument to banging.
No, these are not usual times.
Beta hefts his messenger bag and steps beside me, puts his hand on my shoulder. Jan, too. In solidarity we glare at Ernie, watching and waiting as he fusses with an overstuffed backpack I’m assuming he brought from home.
“Ernie, what are you doing?” I ask impatiently.
“Packing!” he barks back.
“Supplies! Munitions!” He makes a face, struggles mightily to fasten the pack to his back, though he just can’t seem to get it to cooperate due to an excess of arm fat, poorly-adjusted straps, and the fact that it’s too crammed with the likes of which only God can fathom. After several failed attempts at putting it on, he simply picks the backpack up with both arms and waddles over to where we’re standing. “Stupid thing’s broken or something.”
I nod, only vaguely agreeing, and, making sure Jan’s got his phone with him (I’d use mine for the return trip, but, well, you know), I hit the send button on my laptop. Looking like the DVD cover of some cheesy eighties sci-fi romp, we upload en masse…
Ernie lurches beside me. “Dude, it’s pitch-black in here—I can’t see anything!”
“That’s exactly what Eva said before she screamed,” Jan points out.
“Dude,” Beta grunts.
“Save the horror movie commentary for after we’ve come and gone.”
“I’m just saying.”
Jan launches the flashlight app on his phone, holds it over his head. It looks like we’re in some kind of garden shed. Everything’s cluttered and cobwebbed: gardening tools, lumber, paint cans, several dead Christmas trees. A procession of large wooden buckets lines one wall. I pray to God they’re not filled with what they smell like they’re filled with.
“Blech!” Ernie chokes, having immediately wandered over to one of the buckets and peered inside. “Check out the poop buckets!”
Yep—that’s what those are. Instinctively I reach to cover my mouth and nose with my shirt—only to find that I’m shirtless. And pants-free. In fact, I’m black and white and back in the default Joey Martin loincloth and dagger combo. Also, there’s ink on my chest. Someone’s written “good at bed” in giant, sloppy letters. “When did this happen?”
Ernie smirks. “When you were being good at bed.” He walks over to me, tries to flick one of my nipples. “Are you going to go full jungle boy every time you upload or download somewhere?”
Shooing him away, I look at Beta expectantly.
“It would appear,” Beta answers, thoughtful, “that in addition to being persistent, your skin is also resetting to defaults for some reason.”
“I’m not sure. It may be a session bug. Or just bad programming.”
I unsheathe my fake dagger, testing the blunt tip with my finger. “Wonderful. Just…wonderful.”
“Hey, there’s a reason SuperMegaNet is still in beta.”
Ernie moves over to another bucket, sniffs, scowls. “Ugh. This one’s even worse.”
“So, where’s Eva?” Jan asks.
“Not sure, but the server’s right there.” Beta points at a crusty-looking ThinkPad propped on an overturned orange crate. It’s got an external hard drive hooked up to it, as well as a power adapter that’s been jury-rigged to get its juice from a car battery sitting adjacent.
“Wow,” Ernie says. “That’s some ElectroBOOM-caliber shit right there.”
Beta kneels in front of the ThinkPad, opens his messenger bag, taking out his own laptop and a USB thumb drive.
I stand beside him, fidgeting over myself, and only partially understanding what he’s doing. PHP is as far as I’ve ever gotten with regard to programming, and even then I’ve never used it to hack into anything. I suppose it’s a little late to ask if this can be traced back to me—or any of us. My parents have been reasonably sane about everything up to this point, but what if hacking my guidance counselor’s SMN server is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? What if they take away my computer, my phone? What if I get grounded? What if they finally start parenting me?
Where the heck is Eva?
“Hey,” Beta whispers.
“Huh?” I whisper back.
“Don’t sweat the skin thing.”
“I’m not.” Which is true enough.
“It could’ve been a Donald Trump skin. Or Aughra from The Dark Crystal.”
“Instead you’re Joey Fucking Martin. Own and operate that shit. You’re a bad-ass orphan whose parents got eaten by lions, but you survived to help Tarzan restore relations with the Wazuri tribe. You’re a superhero, really.”
“Except I don’t have any superpowers.”
“Superpowers are overrated. Batman didn’t have shit but for his vast fortune and fancy toys, and he’s a superhero.”
“Really? You’re going to compare a jungle orphan with nothing but a loincloth and a prop dagger to the Dark Knight?”
Beta sighs. “Joey rescues Tarzan from the lion pit at the end of Tarzan’s Savage Fury, right?”
“There you go.”
Something occurs to me. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because no one ever felt better about themselves by thinking negatively.”
“Are you saying there’s a chance I might not get my original skin back?”
“Anything’s possible,” Beta says, not entirely able to keep the worry out of his voice. “I just think you need to be…optimistic. Own what you’ve got, bloom where you’re planted, and all that.”
OMG. He’s totally trying to tell me, in his own obscure way, that I’m not getting my original skin back! “You realize that’s like me persuading you to go unskinned when you’re actual, but that it’s okay, because your wheelchair would make you kind of like Professor Xavier.”
“You’re a hurtful little fucker sometimes, you know that?” Beta shakes his head. “But because I’m a nice guy, I’m still going to mention that as Joey Martin you no longer need your custom contacts.”
I blink, a ginormous mental tidal wave washing over me with such force that it ruffles my hair. I hadn’t thought about it at all, but apparently Tommy Carlton had 20/20 vision—or, at least, whoever designed his skin made sure it was sporting 20/20. That actually kind of makes up for having to lose three-quarters of my clothes every time I download somewhere. Not that I plan on staying like this any longer than I have to.
“Hey, guys!” Jan whispers loudly from the back of the shed. “Come look at this!”
I carefully pick my way to where Jan’s moved aside a giant plywood panel—revealing an arched doorway opening into a stone spiral stairwell that leads downward.
“What do you think is down there?” I ask.
Jan shrugs. “Where do most stone spiral stairwells lead?”
Before I can entertain my darkest fears, Ernie huffs beside me, tries unsuccessfully to keep one of the outer pockets of his backpack from rupturing—which it does, suddenly and without warning. Projectile supplies go flying all over.
“Cheap JanSport!” he exclaims, and sets down the pack, drops to his knees. “Shine the light down here, Czech!”
“Oh, Ernie.” Squatting, I feel around the floor, helping to pick up his…grenades and duct tape? “You brought grenades and duct tape?”
“Yeah—candy grenades.” Ernie holds one of the grenades up to the light, revealing that it’s filled with M&M’s.
“Oh.” Thank God. “And Fruit Roll-Ups?”
“No, that’s duct tape—just in case we need to bind and gag Thrill-Kill before throwing her off a cliff or something.”
I hand him his quote-unquote supplies. “Okay, someone who packs candy and duct tape as the only items in their survival pack should not be making decisions on whether or not it’s appropriate to throw a human being off a cliff.”
Ernie glares at me. “Shouldn’t you be doing lines of coke while providing sexual release for latently homosexual movie executives, or whatever it is you child actor types do when you’re not dimpling in front of a camera for chump change?”
“Listen, gas giant, if you make one more crack about my skin—”
The distant sound of chains rattling.
A girl screaming.
Both echoing up the stairwell.
“Huh,” I murmur, swallowing hard.
“Huh what?” Ernie asks, having deftly shifted his bulk behind me for protection.
“It just hit me. This isn’t a garden shed.”
Jan raises an eyebrow. “It’s not?”
I shake my head. “It’s the entry to a dungeon.”
It’s a weird thing being twelve. You’re old enough to know that the boogeyman isn’t real, but young enough that he still scares the crap out of you. My parents are my boogeyman and boogeywoman. I know they’re the hands-off types, I know that whatever trouble I’m in, it’s not going to result in anything more serious than an expression of concern regarding my recent activities. But I’m still scared of them. Let me put it this way: you know when you and your friends are out skateboarding, and one of you breaks their leg trying to grind a shopping cart or something, and the bone’s all sticking through the skin, and you know better, but you run away with everyone else instead of keeping your friend company until their parents and/or an ambulance arrives? You’re not being insensitive or a dick or anything. You’re afraid of the figurative boogeyman that the situation has become. You’re not the one who’s actually hurt, you’re not in trouble—you’re afraid of getting in trouble. You’re afraid that if your parents find out you were with your friend when he broke his leg, they’ll somehow blame you for it, or forbid you from skateboarding altogether. Logic therefore dictates that if you’re not present when the authorities show up, you can’t be held responsible for anything to do with the accident, right?
Eva’s become another one of my boogeymen. Boogeygirl. Whatever. The point is, my first instinct should’ve been to jump head-first after her the moment Ernie tapped the “visit” button. Instead, I argued with Ernie about money and honey buns, and am now on my way to have a chat with my parents—because while I’m certainly worried about Eva’s well being, I’m more worried my parents will break from a decade and change of parental minimalism by grounding me. I’m more afraid of getting in trouble.
I take a deep breath and walk into the kitchen.
Mom and Dad are seated at the far end of the dinner table.
One of the few useful things to come out of my sessions with Dr. Freud (erstwhile known as Dr. Chandelier) is fake-facing—avoiding eye contact in stressful social interactions by staring at a point slightly between, above, or below a person’s eyes during conversation. Over time, my brain has gradually upgraded the technique, which is why everything now switches to black and white. Suddenly I’m Tommy Carlton doing that film noir flick he never did. In this case, I’m a kid version of Dick Powell’s character from Johnny O’Clock. Because Johnny was always cool, calm, and collected, right down to his fedora and bow-tie, and if there’s anything I need to be right now, it’s cool, calm, and collected.
My parents don’t seem to notice the change (Dad’s Lee J. Cobb, Mom Ellen Drew).
“Fancy meeting you here,” Dad says.
I stroll up to the table, head tilted forward so that the brim of my hat casts a bad-ass shadow across my face. “You snap your finger and I come running, is that it?”
Mom gestures at one of the chairs. “Sit down, Johnny.”
Wait—did she just call me Johnny?
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” Dad adds.
I sit. “Am I in trouble?”
“You tell me.”
“How about you talk while I listen.”
Dad seems amused by my boldness. “You know, your record’s clean as a preacher’s sheets. There’s nothing on it. A little thing with the eyes when you were a kid. Otherwise spotless.”
“I’m a good boy. I make my bed.”
“So says your record.” Dad waits.
I wait back.
“You know,” he continues, undoing his belt and setting it on the tabletop, “I read somewhere that any information obtained via the third degree is legally inadmissible in a court of law.”
“It’s nice to know you can read.”
Dad considers his belt.
“Here’s the deal, toots,” Mom says, and puts a restraining hand on Dad’s arm. “You keep your nose clean, mind your p’s and q’s, maintain those high test scores, and in exchange we provide a certain leniency with regard to your personal life. We’ve held up our end of the bargain, haven’t we, Johnny?”
I shrug. “I can’t complain.”
“Tell me, then, what’s with the bad business lately?”
“Business is good. Business is great—”
“I’m not talking about the Web racket.”
“Spell it out, then.”
“Johnny, we heard what happened to you at school today.”
All right, then.
“Is there anything you want to say on the matter?”
“Only that I had nothing to do with it,” I reply.
“They say you were prowling around the boys’ bathroom.”
Uh… “Come now. Prowl is such a specific word.”
“But that is what you were doing—”
Dad cuts Mom off with an annoyed wave of his hand. “Enough with the side-stepping. How did you meet the Asian barbarian?”
“How does anyone meet an Asian barbarian?” I look away as nonchalantly as possible.
“Listen real good, Johnny. It’s getting hot up in that pad of yours. Too many unfamiliar faces, too much rattling around.”
I clasp my hands. “I do my chores, take my showers, turn in my homework on time, don’t I?”
“You’re getting a little too cozy for my taste.”
“I play by the book and you know it.”
“Yeah? What’s with the dame in the undies?”
“She’s all right. Just a little out of her element. I’m taking care of it.”
“And the others?”
“Academic collaborators. I’ll get them all ironed out, just like I always have.”
Dad looks at Mom.
“With everything that’s been going on,” Mom says after a moment, “maybe you should lay off the fair-weather friends and fancy apps for a while.”
“First, these—” I take off my hat and ruffle my hair. “—aren’t my wares. That shrink at school slapped them on me unprovoked. Second, do you really want to put the squeeze on me now? Because if you’re worried about me getting into trouble when I didn’t have a reason to rebel, can you imagine the kind of parenting you’re going to have to muster if I do have a reason to rebel?”
Mom and Dad exchange uncomfortable glances. There’s some kind of look in my eye that’s given them reason for pause—or they’re trying to figure out my punishment. Or maybe none of the above. Maybe this is all about pretense, so that ten years from now I can’t blame them for not having tried.
Dad puts his belt back on. “Go on. Get out of here.”
I continue to stare him down for a moment longer before getting to my feet, putting my hat back on. Nodding at Mom, I turn and walk away. As soon as I’m out of the kitchen and out of sight, I bolt up the staircase and back into my bedroom.
Beta and Jan raise their eyebrows.
“Huh,” Ernie says. “You look good in clothes.”
Johnny is not amused.
“Dude, you killed Eva!” I exclaim.
“Don’t be so excitable, little man-feast,” Ernie says. “She probably just broke a fake nail or something.”
Jan looks up. “Eva’s nails are fake?”
“Of course not!” I retrieve Ernie’s clothes from various spots around the room and hand them to him forcefully. “Get dressed.”
“Why?” he asks.
“You’re coming with me to save Eva.”
Genuine confusion. “Why me?”
“Because if I’m breaking and entering—”
“Hacking and entering,” Beta corrects.
“—so are you. And you owe Eva one. And…just get dressed!”
Ernie takes his clothes. “Bug Eyes can look after herself.”
I glare at him. “That’s what she was doing right now—screaming hysterically while looking after herself. Really.”
“She’s a jockette. If anything, that makes her more qualified to download into strange darknesses and unknown insinuations—”
I don’t have time for this. “I’ll pay you fifty bucks if you come with me.”
Ernie puts on a proud air. “Your money doesn’t affect me, rich white boy.”
“I’ll pay you in honey buns, then.”
“Fuck you! Are you being serious or just making fun of my fatness?”
“Whatever. Twenty boxes of honey buns, and you’ve got a deal.”
My jaw drops. “Jesus Christ, Ernie—twenty boxes?”
“Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“Take it or leave it.”
Beta and Jan watch me expectantly.
I fold my arms. “What are you going to do with twenty boxes of honey buns?”
“I think that’s fairly obvious,” Ernie replies.
“I’ll get you a couple of boxes, but an entire bakery’s worth—”
“Now there’s an idea.”
“Ernie, I’m not negotiating with your stomachs.”
He drops his clothes, waves his hand at my torso. “Then live out the remainder of your days as an undead child actor from the blah ages. I can’t wait to see your grandparents’ reaction to that skimpy little loincloth of yours. Oh, and the kids at school are going to love those darling blond locks—”
“Fine. Twenty boxes of honey buns.”
“And fifty bucks.”
“Fifty bucks or twenty boxes of honey buns.”
“Both. Final offer.”
“You know what? Never mind. I’ll go alone.”
Ernie’s smug smile falters, ala Austin Pendleton in My Cousin Vinny during the Mr. Tipton reading glasses revelation scene. “Okay, twenty boxes of honey buns it is, and I work for free.”
Crap—my shoes are still on Thrill-Kill’s server. “Too late, fat shit. The deal’s off.”
“Go home, Ernie.”
“Fifteen boxes. They can even be those shitty Mrs. Freshley’s instead of Little Debbie—”
“I’ll go with you,” Jan offers.
“Dude,” I say, “you’ve already dealt with enough. You don’t have to clean up Ernie’s messes, too.”
“I’ve been cooped up here all day. I want to go.”
“Okay, guys. Ten boxes. Final, final offer—”
The bedroom door opens.
Dad’s back, and he looks to have recovered from his inner-ear fire. Motioning for me to follow him, he says, “Theo, we need to talk.”
And I need to rescue the girl of my dreams from certain doom in the hopes that just maybe she’ll fall madly in love with me. “Okay, but can it wait a few?”
Dad shakes his head. “Now.” He closes the door.
“Ooh,” Ernie coos, putting his hand on my shoulder. “You’re in trouble, junior.”
“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?”
“We need to scope out the place, make sure the coast is clear, right?”
“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!”
Eva screams. Then…
As in Ernie is a total and complete dumbass for having sent her to an early demise.
“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.”
“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:
A single spark escapes one of Dad’s ears, and he closes the door without another word.
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.