Ernie coughs, sputters, spits water as he bobs toward the pool steps. “Your friends are evil, Eva! Evil!”
I sigh, running quickly into the clubhouse and returning with a fresh towel. Ernie makes a big deal out of wringing himself dry (the more he works at it, the wetter he seems to stay—it’s kind of funny, actually). Then we resume our scheduled programming, the girls, now back in non-chibi form, finally leaving Theo alone and herding me over to one of the tables where the cake is all lit and ready to go. On the count of three, the mob breaks into an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I blow out candles. I open presents. Summer smears the tip of my nose with frosting. People take pictures. And it’s all kind of…bleh. But I pose and dimple and laugh and thank everyone anyway. That’s what you do, right? I mean, it’s not like in those teen movies where there’s that one drunk girl stumbling through a house party and going, “Woooh! Partaaay!” as she spills her drink everywhere. No way anybody has that much fun ever. Geez. I sound depressed, don’t I? I swear I’m not. I’m just…underwhelmed by the logistics of birthday parties and social gatherings in general.
We play more games, take more photos, eat more food. The festivities eventually wind down. By five o’clock power hour, everyone except Theo, Ernie, and a small handful of parents have said their goodbyes and uploaded back home.
Somehow still thoroughly waterlogged despite having spent the entire afternoon in the sun, Ernie sits himself on a lawn chair at the far end of the pool deck and groans dejectedly. “Well, that was a disaster.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” I say, joining him.
“The only reason I didn’t leave sooner was because it wasn’t power hour.”
“Glad you had a blast.”
Theo wanders over. He looks like he’s been tossed in the dryer. His shorts are twisted and scrunched up in all the wrong places, and his hair is…what’s the word? Windswept? Windblown? There’s a phone number written in lipstick along one of his arms. “Need any help cleaning up?” he asks.
Hm. I look around the deck. “Garbage duty? I’ll clear, you collect?”
“Ernie, do you want to help, too?”
“Leave Ernie be.” He waves me away—but notice how he’s not uploading himself home. He may be playing the misery card, but I don’t think he’s truly miserable.
Fetching some garbage bags, I lead Theo around the pool deck, table to table.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he says after a while.
“I’m just thinking,” I reply, and dump a hefty chunk of uneaten cake into my bag.
“I’m another year older, another year wiser. But what have I really learned, if anything?”
“That Ernie’s stomach is in fact the massive black hole thought to be at the center of the Milky Way,” Theo suggests.
I laugh. “Good one.”
“Seriously, it hit me when everyone was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and tagging me in all their photos and I was just, like, I don’t care about any of this. I don’t care about any of these people, and they don’t care about me. I realized today that I have no friends.”
The trash slumps in Theo’s hands as he shifts from foot to foot, clears his throat. “You have us. You have the Runt Squad.”
“Yeah. I do.” I put down my dirty plates and hug the little dork. Quick, polite, but also genuine.
Lo and behold, he hugs me back.
And I get this…pang of something a tick more upbeat than what I’ve been feeling all day, something to do with warmth and friendship and the unexpected delight of a boy’s bare chest pressed against my own—
—oh, my God, is this some kind of hormonal thing?
Oh, my God, does this mean my first period is around the corner?
We let each other go, and I pick up the plates again, resume garbage duty.
Theo pretends to be just as busy helping out with his trash bag. Note how it’s been a while since I’d given back his Linux shirt, and he still hasn’t put it back on.
Ernie eventually wobbles over to us. “Hurry it up, you two. I need to get back on the prowl.”
“Prowl?” I ask.
“Are you still thinking about that stupid cassette tape?”
“Am I still thinking about the sinister cassette tape stalking SuperMegaNet users, the latest of whom was a friend of a friend who attended your birthday party this very afternoon? Um, yuh!”
“Ernie, I told you, Mia’s just pregnant.”
“Yeah, but how do you know?”
“Because I overheard the parents talking about it earlier,” I explain. “Well, it was more like her mom going on about how ‘my DD made the bad decision to piss away a promising gymnastics career for a night of mediocre, forgettable sex with a boy she hardly knew.’ Actually, Mia made two bad decisions: having premarital sex, and coming to a party with you.”
“Now, are you going to stand around the rest of the day gelatinating, or are you going to help us clean up?” I glare at several overturned plates on the deck. “Most of these are yours, anyway.”
“Fine.” Ernie grabs a trash bag, heads for the snack table. “I’ll start over here.”
Huh. I was expecting more of a fight.
Theo and I resume cleaning, making our way around the pool deck. We’ve filled one bag, and are starting on a second when it occurs to me that Ernie’s being too quiet. He’s been hovering over by the snack table the whole time, not looking at or speaking to anyone—and now I know why: he’s trying to scrape all the leftover snacks and uneaten cake into his trash bag. Not to throw it out, mind you, but to repurpose it as his own.
This at about the same time Mom, having seen the last of the adults off, steps onto the deck to check our progress. “Oh, my goodness!” she gasps when she sees what Ernie’s doing.
He screams, grabs his garbage bag, which sags almost grotesquely in his arms as he waddles over to the guest laptop Mom set up earlier. Without so much as a goodbye nod, he uploads himself home.
Mom looks at me and Theo, thunderstruck. “Did you see that?”
I hold my head in my hands.
“That Ernest boy—he just stole all the food!”