"C-c-c-c’mon, c-c-c-c’mon, go, go,
C-c-c-c’mon, c-c-c-c’mon, go, go!" Jeremy groaned, having a staring contest with his computer screen. He silently cursed the shitty internet provider that his dad had recently switched over to. He had to stop himself from smacking the side of his laptop, instead gnawing on his lower lip, his leg bouncing up and down and making his creaky old bed shake.
I’m waiting for my porno to load
My brain is gonna freaking explode
He yawned, and his half-lidded eyes drifted away from the still-buffering video that took up most of the screen, over to the little clock in the right hand corner. After his fresh from sleep brain finished registering the numbers, Jeremy groaned loudly, slamming his laptop shut as he collapsed into his pillows. He glared up at the glow-in-the-dark plastic stars still on his ceiling from when he and Michael had put them up back in elementary school. Of course his dad's stupid new internet provider was too slow to get anything done, and now a huge fucking wrench was thrown into his routine.
Now of course it’s time to hit the road / Which means I’ll be uncomfortable all day
But that isn’t really such a change / If I'm not feeling weird or super strange / my life would be in utter disarray
Cuz freaking out is my okay
He heaved a sigh, rolling out of bed and muttering a half-hearted "Good morning! Time to start the day!" to the empty room as he stretched. He pulled on a fresh pair of pants from his dresser, and threw on a light blue cardigan that had been lying on the ground. He paused, trying to remember what he had forgotten, before realizing his binder was still lying crumpled at the foot of his bed. Quickly, he changed into it. As he threw his cardigan back on, he tried to remember where he had thrown his backpack the night before. He scanned the room, finally spotting it halfway underneath his bed. Sighing, he reached out and grabbed the thing, immediately straining under the weight. He snatched his laptop off of the bed, placing it inside his bag.
He pushed his bedroom door open, heading down the hallway to the bathroom. He glowered at the Jeremy looking back at him from the mirror as he dropped his bag onto the toilet seat. “I hate you.” He muttered to the mirror Jeremy, as he grabbed his toothbrush. As soon as he pressed the toothbrush to the inside of his mouth, the door busted open, and in bustled his dad. Jeremy choked on his toothbrush, sputtering out, “Jesus! Dad! Haven’t you ever heard of privacy? Also, where the heck are your pants?”
“We’re all men in this house,” His father sighed, and Jeremy turned bright red as his father leaned down to rummage through one of the medicine cabinet drawers. “Pretend we’re in the army or something.” Jeremy stared down at the sink, not wanting to look in the mirror and risk seeing something scarring.
“But…” Jeremy sighed, rinsing off his toothbrush. “You’re driving me to school today?” There was a moment of silence from his dad’s end of the room, before Jeremy heard him deeply sigh.
“Right, uh. You know, kiddo, I’m really not feeling up to it today. You know how it is, right?”
Jeremy glared at the glob of toothpaste that was slowly sliding its way down the bowl of the sink to the drain.
Jeremy dropped his toothbrush in the sink and snatched his backpack off of the toilet. Making sure not to glance back into the bathroom, he made his way downstairs to the kitchen. He was biting his lip again, this time, from thinking too hard, rather than impatience. Another wrench thrown into his plans today.
Should I take a bus or walk instead?
I feel my stomach filling up with dread
He accidentally made eye contact with himself in the toaster, which didn't help the rising feeling of sickness in his stomach. His warped reflection was turning a beet red, and Jeremy tore his eyes away in disgust. He just needed to calm down, and looking at that face wasn't helping.
When I get nervous my whole face goes red
Dude, weigh the options calmly, and be still
The toaster chimed, and out popped his burnt bread. Jeremy stopped gnawing on his lip and groaned, noting that his dad must have turned up the heat when he had made his own breakfast. The toast burnt his hand as he grabbed it, and he narrowly avoided dropping it on the tile as he transferred it over onto the plate. As he ate his, frankly pretty disgusting, breakfast, he started making a mental checklist, weighing the pros and cons.
A junior on the bus is killer weak
But if I walk when I arrive I’m gonna straight-up reek / And my boxers will be bunchy and my pits will leak
He put on deodorant today, right? He sure hoped he did, since he was sliding into a seat near the back of the bus. Across the aisle from him was a girl in a hoodie, curled up and playing on a DS. Probably a freshman. Everyone else on the bus chattered aimlessly, as Jeremy slid down in his seat, staring at the ratty seat in front of him to avoid having to see his reflection in the window. He picked at the seat beside his leg, pulling out some of the weird bus-stuffing and dropping it at his feet.
God, I wish I had the skill / To just be fine and cool and chill!
I don’t wanna be a hero / Just wanna stay in the line
I’ll never be a Rob De Niro / For me Joe Pesci is fine
And so I follow my own rules / And I use them as my tools / To stay alive
I don’t wanna be special, no, no
I just wanna survive
The bustling noise and fluorescent lights were a drastic change from the outside, the ceiling lights glaring down an angry white light as Jeremy squeezed though the thick crowd on his way to his locker, so that he could finally take out some of the stupid weight on his back. He froze in his tracks, his stomach dropping to his knees as he watched the most popular girl in school fold her arms and lean up against his locker.
"So," Emma twirled a strand of black hair around he index finger, talking to two other girls. One of them was Charlotte, the leader of the cheer squad and one of the other most popular girls in school. The third girl, who was small, blonde, and was wearing an oversized yellow cardigan and drinking out of an aluminum can with a paper straw, Jeremy didn't recognize. "Evelyn told me that Madelyn told Logan, 'I'll only have sex with you if you beat me at pool.' And then," Emma raised a finger dramatically, getting weirdly close to the small blonde. "She lost at pool. Deliberately." The small blonde gasped, as if it was a shocking revelation in a period drama, but Charlotte just rolled her eyes.
"That is so awesome!" The cute blonde cheered, clapping the best she could with a LaCroix can in her hand. Emma seemed taken aback by her reaction, and backpedaled to agree with the girl.
"Oh, yeah, totally awesome! Like, y'know, totally not slutty or anything, right?" Emma laughed nervously, before Charlotte nudged the blonde, continuing the story.
"And then, Madeline was all like-"
Emma slammed her fist against Jeremy's locker, causing Jeremy and both of the girls to jump. "I'm telling the story, Charlotte." She snarled, before she seemed to finally spot Jeremy out of the corner of her eye. Her head whipped around to pin him with an icy glare. "What the fuck are you staring at, freak?" She snapped, and Jeremy nearly leapt out of his skin.
“Uh- I was just trying to get to my… locker…” His voice trailed off into a mumble, and Emma rolled her eyes, ushering the other two girls away.
"Don't even waste your attention on creeps like him, Brooke." Emma spat. "He's totally getting off on that." The three girls disappeared into the crowd. So that was her name, Jeremy mused. Brooke. Wait, why did he even care? He shook his head, focusing on his locker. At least he could finally get to it now without incident — nope. Jeremy collided with something — no, some one , who he hadn’t seen below his eyeline.
“Yo, don’t touch me, tallass!” Rich practically screamed at him, shoving him back. Jeremy stumbled, stuttering out a frantic apology.
“S-sorry, I was just trying to get to my—“ And suddenly he was being spun around, his face shoved up against a locker. He heard the sound of a sharpie pen uncapping, and Rich scribbled something on his backpack.
“You wash that off,” Rich shoved him again, “You’re dead.” And then he was gone, off to talk to some of his jock friends on the other side of the hall. Jeremy heaved a sigh, finally putting some of his stuff in his locker. He slammed the metal door shut again, adjusting his backpack before turning around to face the crowd.
I navigate the dangerous hall
Focus on a poster there on the wall
Avoiding any eye contact at all
And trying hard to remain unseen
The poster's closer now, what does it say?
Oh, it's a sign-up for the after school play!
Jeremy perked up. Drama was always an elective he had been interested in, and he had always wanted to have even just a small role in a play. But as two of the students on the basketball team strolled by, laughing and chatting about whatever, it came ruching back to Jeremy why he could never try out.
It's a sign-up sheet for getting called gay
And that's not what I need right now, end scene
He stepped away from the sign-up sheet, turning left down the hall-
And immediately colliding with someone. Jeremy and the girl toppled to the floor, and she immediately snapped at him.
"Watch where you're going, dickwad!" She shouted, shoving her away from him. She glanced over at his bag, before giggling. "Ugh, you're the loser of the school, aren't you?" Jeremy turned a bright red as she grabbed his bag and threw it at him. It hit him in the stomach, knocking the breath out of his lungs. "See you later, boyf!" She laughed, before she spun on her heel to walk down the hall. Jeremy pulled off his backpack to confirm— yep, Rich wrote ‘boyf’ on his backpack. And then Jeremy managed to somehow piss off some random girl.
Oh that was smooth, yeah that was super pimp / My Mack Daddy game couldn’t be more limp
No time to wallow, no, instead / Just clear your brain and move ahead
Except that you’re one of those guys / Who’ll be a virgin ‘till he dies!
He shoved his backpack down underneath his desk as he sat down, leaning back in his chair. Mr. Gretch was droning on at the front of the class, not seeming to notice the fact that not a single person in the classroom was paying attention. Jeremy picked at the corners of his blank notebook page, before finally decided to put his head down.
I don’t wanna be a baller / Just want some skills to count on
If my nuts were any smaller / They would be totally gone
If I continue at this rate / The only thing I’ll ever date / Is my MacBook Pro hard drive
I don’t wanna be Clooney, no, no
I just wanna survive
There was literally only one thing that could break him out of the bad mood that Jeremy carried with him to lunch, and it had just walked in through the cafeteria doors, holding a cherry slurpee, and being followed by a wheelchair-bound twin brother.
“Michael!” Jeremy called out, and he watched his friend’s face light up as he spotted him, a warm smile spreading across his lips. Jeremy waved the two of them over, proud he managed to score them one of the few wheelchair-accessible tables in the cafeteria.
“Jeremy, my buddy, how’s it hanging, lunch is banging, had my sushi, got my slushy and more! The roll was Neki-Maki, and I’m feeling kinda cocky, cuz the girl at sev’ elev’ gave me a generous pour~”
“You’re listening to Bob Marley again, aren’t you?” Jeremy laughed, as Michael animatedly danced around, bobbing his head as he gulped down his slushy.
“ I’m listening to Marley and the groove is hella gnarly and we’re almost at the end of the song!” He bobbed his head a few more times, before sliding off his headphones and clambering into the seat next to Jeremy. “Yeah that was the end, now tell me friend, how was class? You look like ass. What’s wrong?”
Jeremy scooped up his backpack from where it was resting on the floor next to Grover’s wheelchair. He plopped it on the table, gesturing to Rich’s messy handwriting.
“‘Boyf.’ What does that even mean?” Jeremy grumbled. Michael clicked his tongue, and Jeremy watched as he reached over to drop his backpack next to Jeremy’s. Rich had written on his too, and together they read ‘Boyf Riends.’ Jeremy groaned, and Michael and Grover both laughed. Michael said something about “their mothers would be thrilled,” and prompted Grover to take a picture. Jeremy rested his head on his chin, glancing between the two as they yammered away.
From a stranger’s perspective, Michael and Grover were almost identical, the only obvious differences being the fact that Grover usually was in a wheelchair, and had the wispy beginnings of a beard on his chin. But being Michael’s best friend for twelve years, Jeremy had picked up on the subtle differences. Like how Michael held himself without slouching, his shoulders always relaxed, and Grover hunched himself down, similar to Jeremy. Even when Grover was walking, he walked funny, like every step hurt him, and Michael walked like he was dancing, probably because he was almost always listening to music. Not to mention, Grover always wore hats, whereas Michael always managed to get sticks and leaves stuck in his hair, which was kinda weird, because he wasn’t a very active person.
Jeremy’s gaze drifted away from the brothers, and he accidentally caught Rich’s eye, and got a rude gesture thrown at him. He hated this school.
He didn’t realize he had expressed his feelings out loud until Michael was patting him on the back, saying,
“It’s all good! I saw on Discovery that humanity has stopped evolving!”
“Yeah, good for you! Evolution’s survival of the fittest, right? But now, because of technology, you don’t have to be strong to survive! Which means there’s never been a better time in history to be a loser! So own it! Why try to be cool when you can be—”
“I swear to the gods, Michael, if you’re about to say ‘getting stoned in my basement,’ I’m going to hit you with my soda can.” Grover interrupted, lifting his can of Dr. Pepper like it was a deadly weapon. Jeremy finally noticed something.
“Why do you have peanut butter in your hair?” He asked Grover, who shrugged.
“Ask Nancy Bobafitt. She’s a monster!” Then he seemed to realize something, and backtracked. “Well, not literally. I don’t think.” Michael elbowed him.
“She threw a peanut butter sandwich at you?” Jeremy raised an eyebrow.
“She threw a peanut butter sandwich at the new girl. I stopped it. With my head.”
“Wait, there’s a new student? This late in the year?” Michael looked incredulous.
“Yeah, she’s in my math class. I think her name is River or something.”
“You mean Brooke?” Jeremy blurted, and immediately turned red, when the two turned to look at him. “I uh- I saw a girl I didn’t recognize in the hall, Emma called her Brooke, so I-”
“Oh so someone’s a stalker now, huh?”
Jeremy jumped as a manicured hand slammed onto the table in front of him, and shrunk back in his seat as Emma glowered down at him. “God, why can’t freaks like you three just mind their own damn business?” She snapped, glaring around at the three of them. She opened her mouth to spit out something else, but whatever she had to say was drowned out by the bell. She whipped her head around to glare at Jeremy like it was his fault, and pointed a long finger at him. “Everyone hates you, you know that? And stay away from Brooke, creep!” She hissed, before turning her heel and walking out of the cafeteria with the rest of the crowd. Jeremy swallowed, glancing back at Michael, who let out a breath.
“Jeez. Someone needs to take a chill pill.” Michael said, lifting his backpack off of the table. “Anyways, I gotta get to Chem. See you guys after school?”
Jeremy nodded, leaning back in his seat as he watched Michael and Grover leave the cafeteria. He grabbed his backpack, slowly getting out of his chair, and glowering at the Sharpie ink.
I’m never gonna be the cool guy / I’m more the one who’s left out
Of all the characters at school / I am not the one who the story’s about
Why can’t someone just help me out
And teach me how to thrive
Help me to more than survive
He sighed, pulling his backpack on, and following the last of the crowd out the door, before turning in the opposite direction of his next class.
He needed to wash the stupid writing off of his bag.
If this was an apocalypse / I would not need any tips / In how to stay alive
But since the zombie army’s yet to descend / And the period is going to end / I’m just trying my best to pass the test and
He pushed open the door to the boy’s bathroom, making sure it was empty before lifting his bag onto the sink.
“I thought I told you not to wash that off.”
Jeremy jumped, apparently he had been too lost in his thoughts to notice Rich enter the bathroom and start using the urinal. Jeremy quickly shut the sink off, stammering something about looking for his homework.
“I’m talking to you, tallass!” Rich shouted, and Jeremy flinched away, knocking his bag off of the sink.
“Why do you keep calling me that? I’m not even that tall!” He scrambled to pick up all of his scattered papers off the ground and stuff them back into his bag.
“Uh, you could be, if you weren’t all hunched over and scared all the time.” He said, his tone mocking. “The only thing more pathetic is the way you’re sneaking off to a stall to get away from me.” Jeremy stopped, busted in the act. Rich slammed his fist against the wall. “Stalls are for girls, are you a girl, Jeremy?” Jeremy couldn't exactly respond to that, too busy trying to face away from Rich.
“How do you talk to people while you’re… Y’know.”
Jeremy opened his mouth to tell him that he should probably watch the floor, when Rich gasped, twitching like he had just been electrocuted.
“Uh, I just remembered I don’t have to pee after all—”
“ No, don’t move! ”
Jeremy did as he said, freezing in place as Rich zipped up. He turned to look at Jeremy, his face a strange mixture of fear and menace. “You don’t remember me freshman year, do you?”
“You didn’t go here freshman year—”
“Yes I did!” Rich slammed his fist on the wall. Did he always have a lisp? “You just didn’t notice!” His breathing was heavy, and Jeremy didn’t know whether to feel sorry or scared. “Nobody did.” Rich’s voice cracked, and suddenly his hand collided with his skull, but before Jeremy could say anything, Rich kept going,
Didn’t have a girlfriend or a clue / I was a loser just like you / Good times would only
I was gross / As every female would attest
My sexting was a futile quest / My little penis was depressed
He was so lonely / Poor guy”
Rich made a lewd gesture, using his whole arm to imitate his limp dick. Jeremy backed away.
“I was hopeless, hopeless / I was helpless, helpless
Every time I’d walk the hallway I would trip
I was stagnant and idle / I was so suicidal
And then / then, then / then, then / then, then / then, then / then, then
I got a SQUIP.”
Jeremy blinked. “You got quick?”
“Not quick. SQUIP.”
Well that didn’t explain anything. “I’ve just never heard of it before—”
“Yeah, that’s the point. This is some top-secret, can’t-even-look-it-up-on-the-internet shit.”
“It’s from Japan.
It’s a grey, oblong pill— Quantum Nanotechnology CPU.
The quantum computer in the pill will travel through your blood until
it implants in your brain and it tells you what to do.”
“What?” Jeremy scoffed, finally realizing that Rich was probably dicking with him. “That’s not even poss—”
“SHUT UP, TALLASS!” Rich shoved him, but surprisingly, snapped his hand back, shaking it like he had been burned. “Whoo! Sorry, old habits. Listen,” He wrapped his arm around Jeremy’s shoulder, sort of hopping up and down as he talked. “I apologize for treating you like human garbage all the time. I was only doing it ‘cause my SQUIP said I had to, but now,” Rich shrugs, leaning off of Jeremy’s shoulder, which meant that Jeremy had to lean down even further than he already was. “It’s saying you might want a SQUIP of your own?” He let the offer linger in the air for a moment, before shrugging, and letting Jeremy go. “‘Course, if you’re not interested—”
“Woah woah wait!” Jeremy shouted, stopping Rich in his tracks. He fiddled with the strap of his backpack for a moment, before murmuring, “So… It’s like…” He lowered his voice so that it was barely a whisper, “Drugs?”
Rich smirked, reaching up a hand to clap onto his shoulder. “It’s better that drugs, Jeremy.’
“ITS FROMMMM JAAAAPAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!
Rich twitched, and had his eyes always been that bright blue?
“[It’s a grey, oblong pill— Quantum Nanotechnology CPU!
The quantum computer in the pill will travel
through your blood until
it implants in your brain and it tells you what to do!
It tells you what to do!
It’s preprogrammed / It’s amazing / Speaks to you directly
You behave as / It’s appraising / Helps you act correctly
Helps you to be cool / It helps you rule!]”
Rich pulled him close again, practically putting him in a headlock. His eyes were brown again.
“Picture this— Nobody cares if you are late, ‘cause even teachers think you’re great
Your weekend’s just a full-on slate of blowout benders, of teenage rockstar splendors!
Right now you’re helpless, helpless / You are almost hopeless
On the school social map you’re just a blip!
But if you take my advice and if you pay the listed price
Well, then you go from sad to interesting to hip
Yeah, your whole life will flip!
When you buy a SQUIP!”
“I got a hook-up, this guy who works at Payless Shoes at the Menlo Park Mall. It’s four hundred."
“It’s worth it!” Rich reassured him. “Tomorrow’s Saturday, I can meet you there. You’ll see.” He turned around to leave, but Jeremy shouted again, reaching out to grab his shoulder. He couldn’t just go.
“Aren’t you going to wash your hands?”
Rich chuckled. “Aw man, Jeremy, you know what you need?” Rich reached out and grabbed his arms with both hands.
“A SQUIP / A SQUIP / A SQUIP
No longer a drip / When you got in your grip / A SQUIP!”
“So, what do you think?” Jeremy leaned back against the headboard, idly hitting buttons on his controller. Michael took a few moments to respond, still trying to fight the zombie that was trailing behind them in-game.
“He’s scamming you.” He finally said. “He’s scamming you super weirdly.”
“Alright, but what if he’s not? I mean, this could be huge! All I need to do is give… the guy who torments me… Four… Hundred…” He trailed off, finally realizing what he was considering. “Yeah, he’s totally scamming me.” He dropped his controller into his lap, leaning his head against the wall as his avatar was devoured by zombies. “I’m doomed to be a loser ‘til the end of the world. No, probably then, too.”
Michael scoffed, glancing away from the game for a moment. “No way.”
“Dude, you are cooler than a vintage cassette.
It’s just that no one else but me thinks that yet!
You’re just a nothing in this high school scheme
But it’s no big— ‘cuz you and I are a team!”
Michael finally found a revive for Jeremy, getting him back in the game.
“We like out-of-print games / retro skates / got a Pac-Man tattoo.”
He killed another zombie, and immediately shot his hand out for a high-five, arm turned up like he was displaying the aforementioned tattoo, of which Jeremy had a matching one.
“Nobody here appreciates / But soon we’ll be together where they do!
Michael paused the game, turning Jeremy to face him as he rambled on excitedly.
“‘Cause guys like use are cool in college / cool in college / This I know
Guys like us are cool in college / We rule in college / Listen bro.”
He lay back on the bed, arms behind his head next to Jeremy.
“High school is hell / But we navigate it well
‘Cuz what we do / Is we make it a two-player game!”
He unpaused the game, now playing from a more awkward angle. He was doing terribly, but his head was lying in Jeremy’s lap now. Jeremy sighed.
“As losers we have fought together for years
Both Nintendo zombies and our popular peers
Now we’re stuck on a level and I wanna move on.”
Michael paused again, sitting up to look at Jeremy.
“Just wait two years whereupon
You’ll realize guys like us are—”
“Cool in college / Cool in college / won’t be lame!”
“Dude, I know, I get it!” Jeremy laughed.
“Guys like us are cool in college!”
“But we’re not in college.”
“All the same!
High school is wack / But we have each other’s back
It’s me and you!
They both turned back to the screen, hitting play at the same time.
“We’ve made it a two player game!”
They continued playing for a few minutes, before there was a knocking at Jeremy’s bedroom door. He tried to ignore it, but his dad started shouting, and he had to pause. His dad opened the door, and Michael fell off the bed.
“Gah! Dad! Pants!”
“Is that a girl? Are you in here with a girl?” His dad asked, before Michael popped his head back up from behind the bed. “Oh. Hi Michael.”
“Hey, Mr. Heere.”
“I was going to order a pizza. If there’s something you boys want — ”
“Did you get dressed today?” Jeremy interrupted. “Like, at all?”
“Oh…” His dad was quiet for a moment. “They… Didn’t need me at the office. So I worked from home.”
“Most people wear pants at home.” Jeremy grumbled.
“That’s why most people… Aren’t your father.” He was trying to make a joke, diffuse the awkwardness, but Jeremy wasn’t having it, just turning back to his game. His dad stood in the doorway for a few moments, before sighing. “Good talk.” He left, closing the door behind him and leaving Jeremy and Michael alone. Michael looked back at Jeremy, who was curled up like his chest was a black hole.
“How’s he doing?”
“How does it look?” Jeremy scoffed, before pausing the game, tossing his controller into the pillows. “And like, I don’t get it! She’s been gone 16 years, why can’t he just move on? I know she has!”
“I’m sure she cared about you — ”
“You don’t know that!” Jeremy snapped. Then he saw Michael, and softened, stretching out on the bed. “Sorry. It’s just — I don’t want that to be my future.” He started gnawing on his bottom lip again, before sitting up, moving to sit closer to Michael. “Rich says his hook-up’s at the Payless, right? So why don’t you come with me? Just to make sure his story checks out?”
“And if it does? Will you be too cool for m — ” He stopped himself, turning back to the screen and unpausing the game. “Video games?”
“No way.” Jeremy said softly, leaning into him.
“You know that you are my favorite person
That doesn’t mean that I can’t still dream.”
Michael looked back up at him.
“Is it really true?”
Suddenly, he latched onto Jeremy like a monkey, his hands coming up to squish his cheeks.
“I’m your faaavouwite pewsonn?”
“Yes!” Jeremy laughed, shoving him off, but catching him before he could topple off the bed again.
“We’re never not gonna be a team.
High school is shit!
And you gotta help be conquer it
It’s just what we do!”
“We make it a two-player game!”
Jeremy rocked back and forth on his heels, staring up at the entrance to the Payless with a pit in his stomach.
“Don’t worry, man.” Michael said, patting him on the shoulder. “If anything bad happens, we’ve got your back.” Jeremy smiled, but it was more of a placating one, since he had never seen Michael fight anything other than video game zombies, and Grover couldn’t even stand without limping.
“Is that him?” Grover asked, nodding towards a hooded figure who was walking towards them. Sure enough, it was Rich— wearing a hoodie and sunglasses indoors.
“If your friends are looking to get some too, they’ve gotta have their own cash.” Rich said.
“We’re just here to make sure nothing goes pear-shaped.” Michael frowned, glaring at Rich.
“Whatever, man. My guy’s cool. Now c’mon.” He turned heel and walked into the store, leaving Jeremy to take a deep breath and follow suit, Michael and Grover trailing behind. There was only one cashier that they could see in the store, a surly-looking giant of a man with thick, scraggly sideburns.
“Hey, Rack! How’s it going my man?” Rich called out, and the tall man looked up, pinning Jeremy with a hard stare. Jeremy choked under the pressure, and blurted out the first thing that came to his head:
“I like your sideburns. Wolverine, right?”
“Let’s see the money.” He growled. Jeremy squeaked, shoving his hand into his pocket to fish out the four hundred dollars. The man jerked his head towards the back, prompting Jeremy to follow him to a shelf of boxes behind the counter. Slowly, Rack pulled out a shoebox, holding it out to Jeremy like it held a bomb. Jeremy glanced back at Rich, Michael and Grover, confused. Rich looked excited, and Michael looked confused, but for some reason, Grover looked panicked out of his mind. Jeremy shook his head, looking back at the box.
“Ladies’ running shoes?” Jeremy questioned, and Rack slowly opened the box like it was a treasure chest; inside, padded with tissue paper, were half a dozen gray pills. Rack pulled one out of the box, but pulled away just as Jeremy reached out for it.
“Just so we’re clear: this is untested technology. And it’s not exactly legal. Which is why you’re paying for it with cash in the back of a shoe store. I take no responsibility for what you might do with it. Or what it might do with you.”
“What might it—”
“To activate, take with Mountain Dew. I don’t know why!” Rack suddenly shouted, and Jeremy jumped. Rack continued talking, his voice suddenly back to a normal tone. “I just happen to keep some Dew behind the Tevas.” He said, reaching back and pulling out a bottle of clearly flat Mountain Dew. But hey— at least it was sealed. Jeremy cracked open the bottle, popping the pill in his mouth and taking a swig. The pill went down his throat, and he grimaced.
“How does it taste?” Grover asks, and Jeremy turns to look — both he and Michael are leaning forward to watch Jeremy, like he was about to explode or something.
“Minty.” Jeremy replied, running his tongue along his teeth.
“How do you feel?” Michael asked.
“It’s warming up. Doesn’t kick in right away.” Rack replied for Jeremy, setting the box of pills back on the shelf. Well, that was good, otherwise Jeremy would have chewed the guy’s head off for tricking him out of his bar mitzvah money.
“How long did yours take to kick in?” Jeremy turned to Rich.
“Uh, only a few seconds, I think. It was last year, though, so I don’t really remember.” Rich shrugged, and Jeremy mentally debated whether or not he should ask why Rich was still wearing sunglasses it the poorly lit shoe store when pain shot through his head like a barbed arrow. He yelped, clutching his head, and suddenly Michael was by his side, wrapping his arm around him.
“What the hell?” Jeremy shouts, and it feels like everyone is suddenly shouting, Michael yelling at Rack and Rack yelling back and Rich yelling too and everything just hurts —
[Calibration in process. Please excuse some mild discomfort.]
Jeremy wants to shout at the voice, but everyone is yelling and it feels like his heart is being crushed and he’s so dizzy and he’s shaking and oh god he’s going to die —
[Calibration complete. Access procedure initiated.]
The pain stops, but the shouting doesn’t. Jeremy clutches onto Michael for dear life, his heart pounding in his ears.
“Michael!” He gasps out. Eugh, he’s sweating, he notes, and Michael stops shouting at Rack to scoop up Jeremy in both arms. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I just — ”
[Discomfort level may increase.]
Jeremy would have dropped to the floor if Michael hadn’t been holding him up. He clutched onto his hoodie, wordlessly screaming as his body was filled with the worst pain he had ever felt in his life.
[Accessing: neural memory. Accessing: muscle memory. Access Procedure: Complete.]
Oh god, it hurt so fucking much, like nothing he had ever felt, searing his entire body in white hot pain, pure fear, hatred, agony, oh god, he was going to die, he was going to die, he was dying, dying, dying —
Then he wasn’t. He crumpled to the floor, bringing Michael down with him. Michael wrapped his arms around him, and Jeremy couldn’t see, his eyes were filled with water, but then… How was he able to see the man standing behind Michael so perfectly well?
[Welcome to your Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor.]
Jeremy let out a ragged breath, wiping his eyes and untangling himself from Michael. Now that Jeremy could see his surroundings fine again, the strange man in black just looked like…
“You look like Keanu Reeves.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jeremy saw Michael’s face turn to that of pure confusion.
[My default mode. You can also set me for:]
The man — No, the SQUIP opens his arms wide, its face flickering to different appearances as he spoke.
[Sexy Anime Female.]
“Keanu’s fine.” Jeremy turns beet red, ripping his eyes away from the ‘Sexy Anime Female’ appearance. He glanced back, and it was back to looking like Keanu Reeves. “Can… Everyone see you?”
[I exist only in your mind. All they see is you, having an animated conversation with yourself. So don’t do that.]
Well, that explained why Michael and Grover were both staring at him like he had lost his mind.
[Just think at me. Like you’re telepathic.]
[Like in X-Men?]
[I can see this is going to be difficult.]
“Excuse me, is there a reason nobody’s attending to customers in here?” A new voice rang out, and everyone turned to see the blonde girl standing by the register. She looked annoyed, her soft-looking blonde hair bouncing as she taps her foot.
[Huh? What’s strange?]
[That is Brooke, the new girl in your class. You are attracted to her.]
[What? No I’m not!]
[You can’t lie to me Jeremy. I’m inside your brain. What’s strange is that you shouldn’t be.]
[What, into her?]
[Correct. She is radiating a strangely high level of pheromones, not natural in humans. A SQUIP could be manually increasing them, but she does not have one.]
[What? You’re telling me that the girl who literally only moved here yesterday and is already one of the most popular girls in school isn’t getting outside help?]
“Um, are you just going to stare at me, or am I going to be able to check out?” Brooke says, suddenly looking very uncomfortable. Rich nudges Rack, who hasn’t blinked since Brooke entered the store.
“Dude, you’re the one who works here. Aren’t you gonna — ” He doesn’t get to finish his sentence, because suddenly Rack is grabbing his wrist and yanking him off of his feet. Rich yelps, kicking the air, and Brooke drops the box she was holding.
“Hey! Let him go!” She shouts, and Rack starts laughing hysterically.
“Oh, I should have smelled it when you first showed up, Richie!” He laugh-shouted, and Michael yanked Jeremy off of the floor, pulling him away.
“We have to go. Now!”
“You’re not going anywhere!” Rack shouts, and snaps with his free hand. The entrance to the store slams closed. Brooke runs to it, slamming her fist against the metal wall and screaming for help. Rack cackles again. “Man, am I gonna eat good tonight! Three demigods, a Dryad, and a Satyr? It’s like Thanksgiving in here!”
[What the hell is he talking about?]
[The most logical explanation is that he is delusional. However… That doesn’t seem to be the case.]
[What the hell does that mean? This guy’s crazy, right?]
[Tell me, Jeremy, is my data incorrect? Are humans typically approximately eight feet tall?]
[What are you talking about, he isn’t—]
Jeremy looked back at Rack, and it was like a fog had been lifted from his mind. Rack was still holding up Rich, but Rich was so much higher up than he thought. Jeremy wanted to run to the door, pound on it and scream for help like Brooke.
[That won’t do any good. If someone was going to hear, they would have heard Brooke already.]
[Then what do I do? Rich’s drug dealer is going to eat us!]
[What? But I don’t know how—]
[Rich is going to be eaten in approximately ten seconds.]
Apparently, that was all Jeremy needed, because he was suddenly right in front of Rack, and the SQUIP was flooding information into his brain at break-neck speeds.
[Focus on Rack only. Exhale with each strike. Do not hold your breath. Don’t let him out of your sight. Drive your elbow into each punch. Stay on the side that he’s holding Rich. You can’t reach his head, so aim for the vital organs instead.]
[Use the side of your shoe to scrape down his shin.]
Jeremy did as he was told, and stomped on his foot for good measure. Rack the Giant howled in pain, dropping Rich. Rich’s head collided with the counter, shattering his sunglasses, and he crumpled on the floor.
[Now elbow him in the stomach.]
Jeremy slammed his elbow into Rack’s stomach with all of his strength, suddenly thankful he was so bony. Rack doubled over, just in time for Michael to hop onto the counter and knock a shelf onto his head.
[There’s a window in the back of the store. Break it and run to the parking lot.]
Jeremy turned around to look into the back, spotting the window behind Michael. Wait, Michael? Jeremy turned back around to find that it was actually Grover standing on the counter, and he was now trying to wrench his wheelchair out of Rack’s giant fist. Rack yanked it, and Grover went flying, crashing into a shelf near the back of the store.
“I’m okay!” Grover called out, before the shelf toppled over on top of him. Rack shoved the entire wheelchair in his mouth, bits of metal flying everywhere.
“Grover! There’s a window back there!” Jeremy called out, jumping out of the way as Rack swung a big, meaty hand down.
“Yeah, I see it!” There was a crashing sound, and when Jeremy turned to look, the window was broken open. He didn’t get to look for long, though, as he was suddenly being lifted in the air by the back of his neck, like a cat.
[I told you to not look away from your opponent.]
Jeremy couldn’t come up with a witty retort, as he was being drawn closer and closer to Rack’s gaping maw.
[Dude, help me!]
[I am not a physical entity, Jeremy. I am unable to assist, especially if you are incapacitated.]
Suddenly, a shoe hit Rack directly in the eye, and he howled in pain, dropping Jeremy to clutch his eye. He landed on the ground, but he was quickly helped to his feet by Michael, who had Rich slung over his shoulder.
“Come on, dude, we have to go!”
“What about Brooke?” Jeremy looked over to where she was, curled in the fetal position by the door. Rack was still standing between her and them.
[What? Are you crazy?]
[If you try and rescue her, your chance of survival goes down by 72%]
[How about this: Eat my ass.]
With no plan whatsoever, Jeremy ran forward, grabbing some of the shrapnel of Grover’s wheelchair as he ran up to Rack. He jumped up onto the counter and aimed for the vital points, like his SQUIP had said. He swung the piece of metal at Rack’s chest, expecting it to smack him. To his surprise, a metal blade that had not been there a moment ago hit him square in the chest, passing through his body as it was made of smoke. He roared, and exploded into yellow powder, vaporized in an instant, leaving behind only the overwhelming smell of sulfur and cigarette smoke.
No one said anything. The SQUIP raised its eyebrows.
Jeremy looked down at the weapon in his hand. A hatchet, pitch black, as if it was sucking in light. Slowly, he dropped himself off of the counter, making his way over to Brooke, gingerly placing a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, tears staining her face. He gulped. He didn’t know what to say.
“Um, are you okay?” He mumbled, and she nodded.
“What… What was that thing?” She choked out, and luckily Grover saved him with an answer, limping over beside them.
“A Laistrygonian Giant.”
“A what?” Jeremy and Brooke said in unison. Grover looked like he was going to respond, but then Rich groaned. Michael put him down, pulling the sunglasses off of his face. He already had a messy, purple black eye, and he had the yellow beginnings of another bruise on his forehead.
“Jesus Christ. What the fuck just happened?”
“Uh, your drug dealer turned out to be a monster and tried to eat us?” Jeremy offered, only to feel an electric shock travel down his spine. “Ow!”
[Did you just shock me?]
[You just admitted to doing drugs in front of one of the most popular girls at your school. that isn’t going to have positive consequences.]
“Jeremy?” Michael was looking down at Jeremy’s hand, and Jeremy realized he was still holding the weird, pitch-black hatchet. “Where did you get that?” He looked concerned, and Jeremy felt a twinge of guilt, although he didn’t know why.
“I… Don’t know. I just grabbed whatever was on the ground to hit the guy with, and…” He trailed off, not knowing how to finish his sentence.
“Can I just go home now?” Rich groaned, rubbing his head.
“Yeah. Neither of you took the bus home, did you?” Michael asked, looking back and forth between Brooke and Rich. Sheepishly, they both admitted they did. “Alright. I’ll drive you home.” He sighed. The group headed to climb out the window to the parking lot, but Jeremy’s SQUIP stopped him.
[Jeremy. You got lucky just then. Your chance of survival in that moment was severely low.]
[Okay? So I did good?]
[You are not going to do that again.]
It was an order, stern and angry. Jeremy could see the disappointment clearly on its face.
[If this is going to work, you can’t just listen. You have to obey.]
[Now repeat after me:]
[Everything about you is so terrible.]
[Everything about me is just terrible.]
The SQUIP drew closer, resting its hands on Jeremy’s shoulders.
[Everything about you makes me wanna die.]
[Everything about me makes me wanna die.]
[Now you’ve got it.]
The SQUIP smiled, patting Jeremy on the shoulder like it was a father congratulating a son on finally figuring out a difficult math problem. Except it was a supercomputer, congratulating a teenage boy on self-deprecating.
[But Jeremy / Soon you’ll see / That if you listen to me… ]
[Everything about you is going to be wonderful!]
A choir echoed in Jeremy’s mind:
(We love everything about you!)
[Everything about you is going to be so alive!]
(We could never live without you!)
[You won’t be left out or unsure / You won’t be ugly anymore, because—]
[Everything about you is going to be cool! And Powerful! Popular! Incredible!]
[You will be more chill!]