“Jan! Katka! Come into the bathroom and look at this!”
That’s Dad shouting as if he’s on the second floor of a two-bedroom apartment. I pause the Annie Rivieccio YouTube video I’m watching and glance tentatively toward the hallway. The first thought to cross my mind: He’s spotted another gray hair, and he wants us to help him find any others so that he can pluck them out.
Mom leaves the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel, and crosses the living room. She gives me a silent “let’s get this over with” expression. I follow her into the bathroom—and gasp when I see that there’s a tree growing out of our toilet. Its branches are fanned out over the sink; the tallest ones graze the ceiling.
“Můj bože!” Mom exclaims, and slaps my shoulder. “Jan! I told you to use bleach when you clean the toilet!”
“No, no,” says Dad. “This has to be from the seeds I found under the tank this morning.”
I scrunch up my nose. “Seeds?”
“Yeah. Little round, black things. I thought they might be, er, droppings of some kind, so I flushed them.”
Mom looks concerned, glances along the floor. “To think we might have a rodent problem!”
Dad rolls his eyes. “Well, obviously it’s not rodents.”
Unless watering rat shit happens to be an undocumented method of growing trees in toilet bowls. Maybe it’s the combination of human and rat feces that causes a chain reaction…
“What are those things there?” I ask, stepping toward the bowl and scrutinizing the tree, thinking I can’t be seeing what I think I’m seeing. “The buds, they look like—”
“The answer to all our problems!” Dad shouts. He plucks a bud, pries it open, holds it out for me and Mom to see.
It’s a hundred dollar bill.
Which means that this thing growing out of our toilet bowl is a money tree.
Mom whoops, puts one arm around me, the other around Dad, and holds us in a celebratory huddle. I’m ecstatic as I start to come up with a grandiose shopping list for when the tree is in full bloom—
“Jan. Hey, Jan. It’s me, Theo. Wake up.”
I blink—the bathroom vanishes as I come awake in my bed.
“G’waytheo,” I mumble, grasping my pillow and trying to wrap it around my head.
“Ernie,” comes Theo’s voice again, crystal-clear over his SuperMegaNet connection. “Wake up. Jan—”
“Blech…shit,” Ernie answers, groggily. “Blagh…cunt. Whathafuck?”
“Come on, guys. Wake up.”
I groan, rolling out of bed and sitting hunched at my desk. Through the wall I can hear Mom and Dad’s snoring. It rattles the family portrait, which is now hanging lopsided on the wall. Lucky them: They don’t have friends who use SuperMegaNet.
I turn my computer monitor on, arrange Theo and Ernie’s SMN windows around my Annie Rivieccio background. Theo looks terrible, what with his hair all disheveled, and those huge bags under his eyes—but Ernie looks worse. He looks trashed, like someone took a baseball bat to his face. It looks like he has a black eye. No wonder he wears sunglasses during his morning classes.
“I’m awake,” I yawn. “What do you want, Theo?”
“Yeah,” adds Ernie. “What’s the deal, Biclops? I see your eyes have cleared up. I told you they would.” He pauses, looks off-screen. “Shit! I wet my bed—oh, wait, never mind. It’s just soda.”
Theo glares (at Ernie, I hope). “I’m getting off SuperMegaNet. For good.”
“You’re leaving SMN?” I ask.
“Yeah. I think Eva was headed in the right direction when she decided to quit. I’m not going to use it anymore, either.”
Ernie looks hurt. “So what, it’s down to me and the filthy Czech now? No offense, Czech.”
“None taken, leviathan,” I reply.
“I don’t know what you’re worried about, Ernie,” Theo says. “You’ve got 213 friends. I’m sure at least a few of them wouldn’t mind hanging with you in the Little Debbie chat room.”
“Funny,” Ernie grunts dejectedly. “Another fat kid joke. Fucking hilarious.”
Theo sighs. “Sorry. I’m irritable because I haven’t gotten any sleep, because I’m freaking out over the whole eyes thing—because I’m sick of SuperMegaNet and what it’s done to me. Well, no more. I’m going to tell my parents what’s happened so that they can ground me off this darned thing for a good long while.”
“Wait,” Ernie says, at last looking interested in the conversation. “What exactly are you going to tell your parents?”
“You’re not thinking of mentioning SuperMegaNet, are you?”
“What? No! You can’t tell your parents!”
“Why not? What do you have to worry about? They’re not your parents.”
Ernie turns livid. “My parents are dead! Wal-Mart stampede! Or did the eye-rot affect your memory, too?”
I start to ask what he means by “eye rot,” but he cuts me off.
“We had a pact!” he screams, slamming his fist against his desktop. “We had a pact, and you’re just going to shit all over it?”
“I have to, Ernie! You saw what happened to me!”
“Guys, what’s going on? What happened—”
“That doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for the rest of us! Tell your parents about your fuck-up, but leave SuperMegaNet out of it!”
“I won’t mention any of you,” Theo promises.
“Doesn’t matter!” Ernie shouts. “You know how parents are. Once one of them gets wind of something, they go blabbing to all the others the first chance they get. The supermarket, the salon, the Laundromat—breeding grounds for viral parenting! Before you know it all the adults will be checking their kids’ computers. ‘If it happened to smart little Theo it can happen to my shitty kid, too!’ And they won’t stop there. They’ll use SuperMegaNet as an excuse to take away our cell phones, our PlayStations, our porn collections! They’ll take away every last freedom we have!”
“Am I?” Ernie leans forward, gives himself an extreme close-up. “My grandparents put a lock on our fridge—a lock!”
Theo shakes his head, reaches beside his computer monitor. “Ernie, I’m just going to go. This is getting out of hand.”
Close-up to extreme close-up on Ernie: “Don’t you dare tell your parents! I’ll never speak to you again if you do! Don’t you dare turn me off! Theo! Are you listening to me? If you turn me off I’ll never forgive you! Never again! Theo—”
An abrupt click sounds through my speakers.
Theo’s muted his audio. After a moment he gets up from his desk and leaves his room.
“That’s it!” Ernie screams. “I’m coming over there right now! Theo! Goddamnit, answer me!”
“Ernie!” I wave at my webcam, lean over and enunciate into the microphone. “What’s going on? What happened to Theo? Why’s he leaving?”
Ernie’s response: “Not now, closet jock!”
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