“Your nephew’s dying,” Doctor Pain says as Theo and I take a seat in his office.
Theo tries to look concerned, though I can tell he’s trying even harder not to make it obvious that he’s sneaking glances at the nurse’s boobs as she leaves the room—a ridiculous move on his part considering how much of his manga collection is downright hentai. He’s no stranger to oversized racks, luscious bottoms, and epic genitalia; he should be about as desensitized to Nurse Double-D’s chest as your average American teenager is to cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption. Instead, he’s gone all fifth-grader.
“So, what’s the problem?” I ask Pain while nudging Theo in the side.
Pain scratches his non-existent beard, looks over Ernie’s test results on his iPad. “X-rays, blood work, EKG…there’s definitely some very bad stuff going on due to poor diet and a total lack of exercise. In a few years, it’ll be diabetes, morbid obesity, heart disease. But that’s not why Ernest is sick right now…” He trails off, raising his arms and literally grasping in the air as if for an explanation.
“Er, what are you doing?” I ask.
Pain blinks at me. “Stretching exercises. I like to keep limber.” He pushes his iPad aside, clasps his hands, faces me full. “Anyway, as I said, a few years from now, I’ll be able to tell you exactly why Ernest will be sick, but in the meantime, well, it’s as if he’s simply lost the will to live.”
I exchange glances with Theo.
“That’s it?” Theo asks. “That’s what’s wrong with His Puddingness? He just doesn’t feel like living anymore?”
Pain shrugs. “Essentially, yes.”
“So, you’re saying it’s all in his head.”
Theo frowns. “Can we see him?”
“Is it, uh…normal for you to always repeat yourself like that?”
* * *
Cut to me and Theo standing side by side at the foot of Ernie’s bed.
The little dude looks flabbergasted. “What. The. Fuck.”
My sentiments exactly. Ernie’s looking bad. Real bad. Like, Michael Deighton at the end of the “Blood Brothers” episode of The Outer Limits bad. His eyes are sunken; his skin is pale and shriveled; his hair’s fallen out; he’s breathing in shallow gasps. We’ve asked the nurse to give us a moment alone so that we can stare dumbfounded, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
“At least he’s lost some weight,” I say.
“He’s lost all his weight,” Theo clarifies.
“A Kardashian’s wet dream. Agreed.”
More staring. After a while, the door opens behind us. I glance over my shoulder, expecting Doctor Pain or one of his many buxom nurses. Instead, the little dude’s talking puppet, dressed in scrubs, toddles into the room. He’s still scorched underneath, but at least he’s no longer naked.
I nod at Theo, pointing at the floor. “Your mini-me is here.”
Theo turns and glares at Mini. “Why are you wearing scrubs?”
“When in Rome,” Mini replies.
“What about Jan? Shouldn’t you be back home, er, consoling him or something?”
Mini shakes his head. “Dude, when your brah comes down with a severe case of pixelitis, you don’t stay there with him. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
“How is comforting someone in a time of need a bad thing?”
“Jan needs to feel like he’s going to get better,” Mini explains, putting on his best doctorly air. “He needs to feel that there’s something to be done. Speaking from a psychological standpoint, if I just sit there with him, it’s all kinds of awkward because unless I too am pixelated, there’s absolutely nothing I can say or do that will make him feel better. It’s just the two of us recycling the usual clichés. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll get better. We’ll figure this out. I’m sure it isn’t permanent. I’m sure this hasn’t affected your ability to get and maintain an erection.’ But if I politely excuse myself under the guise of figuring out a solution to his problem, well, I’ve given him hope, haven’t I? I’ve taken action. It doesn’t matter if I’m just putting dingleberries in a bowl in the bathroom down the hall—his belief in my efforts will give him something to look forward to.”
“Yeah—a bad smell afterward.”
“No, dork supreme. Motion. Momentum. Action.”
Theo looks suspicious. “What kind of action?”
Mini makes a motion to be picked up. The little dude hoists him onto his shoulder, where he perches, studying Ernie and shaking his head. “Jesus. I’ve seen puddles of puke that look better than him.” He studies Ernie some more. “Okay, I have a theory, but it’s going to take a commitment from you.”
Theo looks even more suspicious, but nods.
Mini goes on: “When did Ernie start getting better?”
“I don’t know.”
After a pause, Theo says, “When he was watching porn, I guess.”
“When did he start getting worse?”
“When he broke my phone.”
“In other words, when he stopped watching porn, right?”
“Remember our little field test at the top of Mrs. Womack’s eight-bit girder palace?”
“What field test?”
“We cued up some porn on your phone—”
“Where are you going with this?”
“If your friend was dying, would you do whatever you could to save his life?”
“I’d fight his grandma on top of an eight-bit girder palace,” Theo says, “if that’s what you mean.”
“Follow me here. Would you spend your life savings?”
“All of my savings?”
“Wil Wheaton say, ‘Don’t be a dick.’”
“Fine. Yes. Whatever.”
“Would you sit bedside 24/7?”
“Would you slurp your friend’s sausage?”
Theo momentarily forgets how to breathe. “Huh?”
“Seriously,” Mini says. “Let’s say he’s really sick. Like, he has inoperable cancer or something, and he only has weeks, maybe days left, and his dying wish is for a blowjob from his best friend. Would you do it?”
“Come on, it’s his dying wish. Are you saying you’d send the poor devil off this mortal coil without ever having known the bliss of his best friend’s lips wrapped lovingly around his—”
Mini shakes his head. “Tsk-tsk.”
“What? If he’s really my best friend, then he wouldn’t want my final memories of him to be of me doing something I’m not into—something he knows I’m not into.”
“It’s no different than donating a kidney.”
“It’s very different!”
“Okay, let him sample your meat instead.”
Theo scowls. “Simply making me gay in your little scenario is not a solution.”
“You don’t have to be gay,” Mini insists.
“I sort of do.”
“Not at all. Allowing him this one opportunity to partake of your scrumptious nether regions could hardly be equated with a revamping of your entire sexuality. You’d simply be doing him a favor. Dying wish.”
“No—no oral sex! No sex of any kind between me and another dude!”
“Okay. Consolation prize. Would you let him watch porn on your phone?”
“I, er…I guess. If that’s what he wanted.” Theo clears his throat. “Again, where are you going with this?”
Mini shrugs. “Oh, nowhere. I just wanted to start with something audacious first so that when I asked you to download porn it would seem tame by comparison.” He holds up Theo’s phone. “Cue up some skin, por favor.”
Theo looks none too pleased as he takes his phone, swipes, starts tapping out his passcode—and does a double-take. “My phone! It’s…in one piece again!”
“Dude, SuperMegaNet,” Mini and I reply, both at once.
“But I thought you said the whole upload a blond, download a brunette thing was still in the works.”
“Cell phones are easy,” I reply. “It’s humans and baby seals that are tricky.”
Mini tugs at Theo’s shirt. “Porn, please.”
“This is Ernie’s dying wish?” Theo exclaims. “For me to download porn for him?”
“To you and me, it’s just porn, but to Ernie, well, somewhere along the Goodale/Womack evolutionary line the libido got crossed with the digestive system. Ernie’s incessant eating is the result of generations of unnatural selection. He eats food to feed his libido, and consumes porn to feed his body.”
Theo pays Ernie another glance. “That actually makes more sense than it should.”
Mini looks pleased. “Of course it does. You and I are pretty sharp when we want to be.” He nods at me. “Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” I reply. “I’m a fly on the wall.”
“It’s nothing personal. It’s just the whole creepy grown man watching porn with kids thing—”
And I’m out the door.
This is dumb. This is not going to work. I know what’s going on here: Ernie’s dying wish isn’t to watch porn on my phone, it’s to embarrass me by making me think he wants to watch porn on my phone, and he’s somehow coerced Mini into going along with it. I try to be helpful, and before you know it there are reaction videos of me watching porn circulating on the Internet. People will laugh at me on the street; prospective employers will do background checks and find nothing but numerous, looping videos of me getting all hot and bothered over random Internet couples having miscellaneous sex—
“What’s the delay?” Mini asks impatiently. “Kickstands or coin slots—it couldn’t be any simpler. Pick something.”
“All right, I’m looking. Don’t rush me!” A bead of manga-styled sweat trickles down my forehead. I don’t want to yield to the joke, but neither do I want to be blamed for Ernie’s death should Mini’s unnatural selection theory pan out. The path of least resistance is to simply browse Ernie’s history, which is all YouPorn URLs, and a few sites with genitalia-rhyming domain names. I tap at random and move beside Ernie’s bed, quickly aiming the phone at him as soon as the video starts playing. A man and woman stumble through an introductory minute or two of unbelievably bad dialog, then they start doing their thing…
…and a change comes over Ernie. It’s like someone’s switched from blue LED murder light to energy-inefficient incandescents. It’s like a window being opened to let a spring breeze into a stuffy classroom. It’s trying Del Taco’s dollar menu for the first time after years of subsisting on Taco Bell’s shoddy equivalent. The color’s returning to Ernie’s face; his breathing has steadied; his eyes, opening a crack and focusing on the phone, are no longer bloodshot.
This can’t be.
And yet it is.
“I’m really proud of you,” Mini says, “and am pleasantly surprised that you uploaded so readily considering Jan’s recent bad luck. You’ve got balls.” He winks at my crotch. “And shaft.”
I swat him away—
—and freeze on hearing Eva’s voice cutting through the carnal mix.
Always (friggin’) on.
Under the circumstances, logic suggests I should keep the phone aimed away from my face so as not to incriminate myself, but what does Idiot Horndog Theo do? He immediately turns the phone around to look at the screen and confirm that Eva has indeed messaged him—in the process framing himself, both literally and figuratively. Yep. There’s Eva all right, all groggy and bedraggled in her little SuperMegaNet window that’s placed strategically over the porn stars’ sweaty, frenetic groins. Understandably, she’s got major WTF all over her face.
“Theo,” she sighs, “are you watching porn again?”
I jab my finger at my phone’s touchscreen, trying to stop the video, suddenly forgetting everything I know about user interfaces, and somehow opening a slew of other SMN windows all at once—and the horror washes over me as I realize that Eva and everyone else on my buddy list is now peeking at their respective phone and wondering why l33t_master is watching therapeutic porn on a school night.
My brain farts audibly, instinct kicks in, and I desperately try to provide context using the only words at my disposal, those same tried-and-untrue words used the world over in situations of underaged drinking, drugs, sex, and overall shenanigans:
“It’s for a friend, I swear! It’s for a friend!”
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