I roll into a sitting position and sit slumped as I try pointlessly to wipe off my tape recorder. “What are we doing? What have we become? Dressed like peasants, no TV, no Internet, not a single roll of toilet paper for a hundred square miles! Did you know I’ve been having to wash my ass in the bathtub after every shit I take? The bathtub!”
Eva raises an eyebrow. “Wait—wouldn’t that mean your rear is actually cleaner than if you’d just used toilet paper?”
“It’s the principle of the thing! I’m squatting in a bathtub after my shits and picking dingleberries from my crack with my bare hands!”
“Do you wash yourself with soap after?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Yeah,” Jan says. “You’re making big fish out of small potatoes.”
I grab a clump of lawn and hurl it in his general direction. “And how are you wiping your ass?”
“I use a…how do you say ‘butt rag’ in English?”
“A shit rag? Really? That’s so European.”
“What’s the big deal? You use it, then you wash it with soap and water right after.”
I think I’m about to hurl. “Remind me never to shake your hand ever again.”
Jan smirks, leans forward, waves his dirty Czech hands at me.
“Ack! Six feet! Social distancing!”
Theo shakes his head. “Ernie, you’re overreacting as usual.”
“You’re one to talk! Want to remind us all how you used your phone’s last waking moments to skin yourself into compliance while we’re left to parade around naked—”
“Nearly naked,” Jan corrects.
“—in our lame-ass default skins?”
“Hey!” Eva whines. “My default skin is not lame!”
“You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it first…” Theo starts to tell me, but trails off, catching sight of something in the air above him.
I follow his gaze.
We all follow his gaze.
Our eyes locking on that single wicked ember.
As the sky goes crimson.
Without further hesitation, Theo grabs his spray bottle and fucking springs, like, ten feet into the air, extinguishing the ember with this unexpectedly ninja-like flourish. He lands in a crouch worthy of Spiderman himself, and with the bluest of steel says, “Plus-ten XP.”
All of us gawk as “+10 XP”, written in a retro video game font, rises above his head, fades after a second.
Steel and crimson then subsiding, Theo replaces himself in his chair, continues the conversation as if nothing happened: “Anyway, does anyone else find it funny that SuperMegaNet’s always-on feature has finally been defeated, and all it took was a pandemic and massive citywide power outage to do it?”
“I mean, in parts of the world where the power’s still on, streaming services are lowering the quality of their videos. Online orders are taking a month to be fulfilled. What’s the point of all this technology and infrastructure if it’s only effective when some of us use it some of the time?” Theo pauses, no longer able to ignore our dropped jaws and bug eyes. “What? It was just an ember.”
I clear my throat, chuckle nervously. “Plus-five XP at best,” I say, and lurch to my feet, move my plastic lawn chair just a little further away.
Eva and Jan do the same.